By Fortune Madhuku
Walking along several streets of Harare, one is greeted by a deafening noise from competing vendors who sell second hands clothes, commonly known as ‘bhero.’
“Bhero, bhero, munhu wese. Ne$1 chete wapinda machena!” meaning “Second hand clothes on sale here. Just a dollar and you get a good deal!” scream out the vendors in their efforts to outdo each other.
I amble along Rezende Street, curiously picking the variety of products on display. Every type of clothing you can imagine can be found on the pavements of this street There are shirts, trousers, stockings, shoes, jerseys, dresses, skirts and most surprisingly women’s underwear.
Thanks to poor government policies and deregulation of street vending, the second hand clothes market, which for many years was located at Mupedzanhamo flea market in Mbare, is now virtually everywhere, including the streets of the once glamorous city of Harare. Scores of people can be seen bending over to pick a few clothes from the many vending points located in the city.
A tangible definition of what globalization translates into in realistic terms.
Although some opinion leaders have castigated the sale of secondhand clothes, pointing out that it’s not healthy to wear clothes previously worn by a person with an unknown health, religious and behavior record, it looks like the majority of Zimbabweans have embraced bhero with both hands as it offers a cheaper alternative to the expensive clothes sold in the established shops of the city. With just ten dollars in the hand, one can buy a full set of office attire, ranging from shirt, trousers and shoes, good enough to put onwhen going for a job interview.
Some fashion conscious people, but with small financial muscles, actually prefer the second hand clothes and claim that the advantage of bhero is that you rarely find another person with the same cut and style of clothes. They argue strongly that the problem with the mainline shops is that you can have everyone in town donning the same style of clothes, which can be quite embarrassing particularly to those who want to be exceptional. W
ith bhero you never go wrong as rarely do you find exactly the same cut and style on a friend or colleague. Die hard followers of second hand clothing argue strongly that bhero is the best thing that has ever happened since Adam and Eve put on leaves to cover themselves in the garden of Eden.
For a country where the majority of people earn salaries far below the Poverty Datum Line and struggle to make ends meet, cheap secondhand clothing has helped in maintaining the dignity of people as they can afford at least something decent to put on. The meagre income that people earn from their work is already stretched to the maximum by rentals, food, transport, utilities and school fees, among other pressing demands. But with secondhand clothing selling for very low prices, many people can afford to smile all the way to the wardrobe.
Still on the good that bhero has brought to our beloved country, many jobs have been created as thousands of vendors now have a source of income to feed their families and send children to school. With unemployment hovering above 80% and the once colourful economy now on the brink of collapse, anything that creates jobs for the people is welcome. The profit that one can earn from the sale of second hand clothing is unbelievable. For instance, a bale of t-shirts can be bought at an average of two hundred dollars, but will carry about three hundred tightly packed items. If one t-shirt can be sold for just two dollars, the mathematics makes a lot of sense. Considering that with street vending there are no shop rental costs and taxes to the government, it’s safe to say that vendors of secondhand clothing are making super profits.
However, not everything about second hand clothes is good. While I see no harm in wearing a previously worn shirt, provided it’s washed clean and ironed before putting it on for the first time, I find it very wrong to wear second hand underwear.I have seen lots of bras and panties sold at the second hand market, which I think is not proper.
We may be poor as Africans but our culture and beliefs make it taboo to put on previously owned underwear. Even in our mainline shops, you can exchange anything if it fails to fit well, but with underwear it’s strictly “no returns, no refunds.” I remember Tendai Biti, then Minister of Finance, presenting his budget statement for 2012, putting an embargo on secondhand underwear, but surprisingly the items still find their way into the market. It is also astonishing there are sometimes stampedes as people scramble to buy these items from the vendors. Yes, the low price and the feeling one gets when putting on an international label may be tempting, but I think it is definitely not worth it.
Smuggling and underhand dealings are rife in the bhero business. This is because dealers always want to evade paying import duty for the clothes, which has been set at prohibitive levels to prevent local clothing manufacturing companies from collapse. Many traders who bring the clothes from outside the country end up getting arrested and losing their wares to border patrol officers who are always trying to thwart the illegal importation of second hand bales into the country. The dealers have not had their spirits dampened though, as they are intensely encouraged by the huge demand back home and the prospect of making super normal profits.
Away from the down side of second hand clothing, bhero offers relief to many people of Zimbabwe who want nice things but cannot afford to pay much. It’s now rare to find a person walking along the streets with tattered clothes, unless they are mentally challenged. This is because there is always on offer “bhero, bhero, munhu wese” from as little as one dollar. Now, that is a good deal!