opinionBy Mary Kashumba
A crowd of women wrestle over piles of lingerie as the sun blazes, its burning waves hitting the ground at the popular Mupedzanhamo Flea Market in Mbare on a Saturday morning. The women,
some sweating from the sweltering heat, seem not to care as they chatter and tussle with each other as they dip their hands in a huge pile of ladies' second-hand underwear making it impossible for the next to get the best pick.
It is survival of the fittest.
After picking the best, the women make a beeline to pay for their newly acquired clothing, tucking it into their handbags.
Getting second-hand clothes in the thriving flea markets of Mupedzanhamo in Harare has become customary for low-income earners, giving women the chance to wear designer clothes.
But their shopping spree does not end with clothes as they now even buy underwear that includes bras and panties.
While the poor make up most of the customers here, the rich also trickle in here and there as they search for lingerie brands that include Victoria's Secret.
This terrible ill has caught up with the locals and has become an addiction for some as the clothes are cheap.
Despite the low prices, the women who seek the designer second-hand undergarment just seem not to care about their health.
Mary Maphosa, a housemaid in Rugare and a regular underwear shopper, said she was impressed by the quality when she bought second-hand underwear for the first time.
"The bras are just so comfortable and I make it a point to come here once every month to buy them.
"Of course, I do worry that maybe the person who wore it before me had a communicable disease, but I put everything in God's hands.
"Sometimes I also buy petticoats and always get the best quality," she boasted.
A vendor at Harare Central Police Station flea market who declined to be named said a bale of undergarment sells faster compared to other types of clothing, making it a thriving business.
"Compared to the other vendors who sell bales of clothes and shoes we move volumes much faster and, to be honest, we can't complain.
"Our major clients range from the unemployed to the working class women who come for various reasons which include adding to their collections or come as an impulsive shoppers", she said.
In local shops the price of underwear garments ranges from US$6 to US$10 depending with the quality and location of the shops while some small dealers also offer them at prices ranging from US$1 to US$3.
Those at Mupedzanhamo only go for US$1 each and sometimes the price hits a low of US$0,50.
Whether new or stained, it is the individual's choice that matters at the end of the day.
Shoppers who spoke to The Herald said it was better to buy from the flea markets as one might be lucky and get new ones which are 10 times less the price of brand new garments at proper lingerie shops.
Although some are making a living from selling second-hand undergarments medical health experts view the development as a health time bomb.
Immunologist and allergies specialist Dr Elopy Sibanda said there is high risk of viral and bacterial infection which could be contracted if one gets into contact with used undergarments.
"It's a risk that women expose themselves to, considering that viruses and bacteria can still be contained in these garments when they are imported, for example, if one had candida (a fungal infection which is sometimes called thrush).
"STIs and bacteria like gonorrhea and syphilis do not last for more than five hours. However, hepatitis B virus which is a blood borne disease, can be found on the garment even after six months and this should worry those who buy second-hand undergarments," he said.
He also said that women should know the kind of material which is good for them as some react to nylon and many other kinds of material causing irritations and as a result expose one to more infections.
"Fungal virus can be transported as a mould and immediately if they get in contact with moisture there is risk of yeast to grow and develop into something bad," he also said.
While some women are brave enough to wear underwear of strangers whose medical history they do not know, it is viewed as taboo in many cultures, the Shona included.
"In the Shona culture after a loved one's death it's customary to pass on the deceased belongings and their clothes to relatives and loved ones. It is taboo to take underwear as souvenirs," said social commentator Mai Rebecca Chisamba.
She added: "It's absurd and sad at the same time that women have lost all dignity in such respects, it is a taboo in our culture to wear other women's undergarments some of which might have been soiled with menstrual blood. It's disgusting, to say the least.
"This may cause different kinds of diseases and it's not hygienic in anyway. What strikes me is that people who buy these clothes are the same who may refuse to take up souvenirs from their deceased relatives. How can such people be comfortable with clothes that were worn by people they never knew?"
Even Finance Minister Tendai Biti is on record as scoffing at husbands who buy second-hand underwear for their wives saying they would have failed and with this he came into a barrage of criticism by flea market owners, and a ban was imposed.
According to Statutory Instrument 150 of 2011, second-hand undergarments, donated or otherwise, are, with effect from December 30, outlawed.
The law reads in part: "Articles of second-hand undergarments of any type form or description, whether purchased, donated or procured in any other manner are banned."
The Zimbabwe Revenue Authority now charges 40 percent duty and 15 percent value added tax as well as US$3 penalty for every kg of imported underwear. Sadly, the market is still exploding with these garments an indication that there are still some loopholes at customs in their importation.
It is heart-rending to see women risk their health everyday because of ignorance and indifference.