A LETTER FROM ZAMBIA: SALA'ULA USED CLOTHING
These letters were written between 1999 and 2003 to my beloved family as an informative and entertaining discourse of life in Zambia. I am going to reprint this series of letters over the next couple of weeks on my blog at the request of many who have read them in times past. I hope you enjoy them and capture the spirit in which they were written originally. Please feel free to leave a comment. I dedicate this reprint to my family… I love you all.
~ Pastor Tom Cunningham
"For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more; and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might win those who are under the law; to those who are without law, as without law … that I might win those who are without law; to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. Now this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I may be partaker of it with you.” ~1 Corinthians 9:19-23
It is Zambian cold season and we are seeing nights as cold as 45º F, which wouldn’t be so bad except they don’t build houses with heating capacity here. It is then back up to 80º F by the afternoon. Zambians are bundling up in the mornings and sometimes it is quite comical to observe. As you know, the precious Zambian people that I am ministering to are generally very poor and so they buy all of their clothing from outdoor ‘used clothing’ shanties, erected out of sticks, cardboard and black plastic. Merchandise held within these shops contain piles and piles of wrinkled used clothing stacked on wooden crates. These shops are all lined up in rows and rows in what we call the “Maramba Mall”. All of the clothing comes from the U.S. in the form of ‘free aid’. Of course, actual Zambian citizens have yet to benefit from anything ‘free’. Value Village, The Salvation Army, they all mean well, but Zambians never receive free clothing. Somebody in the government gets hold of the ‘free clothing’ as it comes into the country and the clothes then get sold and marked up in price. This continues all the way down the line. By the time it gets to Livingstone it has been marked up five times or more.
When this form of ‘free aid’ first came to the Zambian economy, all saw the opportunity to wear American clothing (a prodigious status symbol) instead of Zambian-made apparel. The effect of tons of American used clothing flooding the country was in actuality devastating. Overnight as the new merchandise reached the shops, the city of Livingstone lost 30 textile companies, clothing manufacturing businesses and sewing shops. Manufacturing entrepreneurs soon became nothing more than used clothing salesmen and Livingstone lost a good chunk of its employment market and sustainable economy. All because well-meaning ‘charitable’ organizations decided that since they really couldn’t sell this stuff to Americans — said amongst themselves, “Hey, let’s give it away to Africa!” Well, alright, I can’t prove it, but I am certain somewhere down the line the decision to do this was made by Jesse Jackson in an attempt to identify with his African heritage. In my ever-so-humble opinion, two weeks living in a genuine African shanty hut with mud walls and a dirt floor in Ngweenya Compound would alleviate that particular yearning for Mr. Jackson… for good.
The Zambians call the surplus of American used clothing, “sala’ula” which stands for (aptly) “2nd hand or used clothes”, but literally (in the vernacular) translates to “choosing something from a large variety of choices” or specifically a Bemba term that means “to rummage through a pile.” Containers and containers full of clothing from American thrift enterprises come rolling into the country—all the stuff they couldn’t sell to Americans they ship off to Africa to ‘give away’. You can imagine the multitudes and variety of 1950-70s extra-wide striped ties and brown polyester suits. Since the people here have no real visible model of what these clothes are for or on what occasion they were designed for, how to wear them, who wears them and when — well, you get a real treat to the eyes when you see sala’ula in action. On a colder-than-normal Sunday morning, a young Rastafarian man who had given his life to Jesus Christ recently strolled into church all wrapped up warm and looking quite spiffy, dread locks flowing in the breeze, wearing his new clothes he had bought at sala’ula. He was especially proud of his new coat, which, in a former life, was a light pink ladies terry cloth housecoat with a bathrobe tie in the front and some really nice fur on the lapel — something that an American housewife might wear around the house in the morning but NEVER in public. He wore it proudly with the pink tie in place and never once considered that he might look peculiar. It was after all warm and soft and “new” and to him, a coat was a coat.
Frequently, you might see a man without a shirt on, instead wearing a wool suit coat — or a vest from a 3-piece suit with no shirt or jacket. One man came to church with a new sala’ula suit on, but his feet were shod in ‘tropicals’ (you call them ‘flip flops’). He said, “I have the suit, but shoes are a problem.” Here, you can get an entire suit for a cheaper price than one pair of shoes. In cold season people wear socks, tied together, around their heads to keep their ears warm. Yesterday, I was driving home and a little girl was sitting next to her mother on the side of the road. She was keeping her head warm with a genuine ‘Santa Clause’ cap! The funny part about it was, she didn’t even know the significance and was happy and warm as can be. It looks odd, but makes you chuckle warmly. It was absolutely adorable. Having no social model, Zambian ‘career’ ladies often go to work in snappy ‘to-die-for’ red cocktail dresses, slit up to the thigh, or evening gowns with winter coats over them as corporate business attire. In all, a completely different culture, but quite an enjoyable one. I have fallen in love with Africa, her people and all that Gods wants to do here. I have never met a more amazing, hospitable culture in all my life.
Everyone here is doing well, our family has been assimilated by Zambia culture. Time is flying by. In January, we will have only one year left on our 4-year tour and will need to make the decision of whether we are coming back or staying longer. I’ll try to write more often. We will be traveling to Lusaka for our annual Central Africa Bible conference next month, then North to the Zambian Copperbelt (get out your maps) to preach several revivals, then South all the way to Cape Town South Africa to preach for my good friend Joe Rice. From the majestic ice caps of Alaska to the Mountainous coast of South Africa, I am seeing the world and doing the will of God all at the same time. Who could have ever imagined.
All my love,