Re-use culture

Used shoes section of the Lilongwe Market on a regular business day.

A senior employee of the British High Commission came to live in Lilongwe under a two-year contract. He drove a brand-new SUV, sent his kids to the most expensive school in the country, and employed enough domestic staff to keep his wife happily free of things to do. At the end of his contract, with a job waiting for him back home, he put an ad on a local expat Google group: he was selling a half-broken toaster for US$60.

For better or worse, Malawi is a country of second-hand things. Old machinery from ‘charitable’ companies in Japan, used clothes from the United States and Europe, imported vehicles previously owned by at least three different people, etc. Whether poverty has amalgamated recycling practices into Malawian culture, or whether it just comes as common sense for Malawians because they are not yet under the spell of consumerism, there is little in this country that doesn’t get a second, third, or fourth use.

Zioney has worked as a cleaner in our house in Lilongwe for over a decade – long before we moved in. Every day she takes the plastic supermarket bag used as a bin liner, empties it out into a big trash can outside the house, washes the bag, hangs it to dry, and neatly puts it back in the bin. The cupboard under the sink is overflowing with plastic supermarket bags, but that is not the point.

Both toaster guy and Zioney are taking part in re-use practices, but while Zioney is washing carrier bags because she doesn’t see the point of throwing them away, toaster guy is not throwing – or in fact giving – away his toaster because he wants to make money. Clearly this expat is missing the point of the re-use culture in this country.

Perhaps the more important point – and this is where I’m going to gallop away on my high moral horse – is that the people like toaster guy, who post on the Google group Lilongwe Chat, are happy to pay for expensive fundraising dinners and cocktail parties that raise money to help Malawians, and yet when they leave the country can’t bring themselves to give away so much as a coat hanger (also for sale on ‘expat leaving’ ads, ¢75 each).

I dare predict a few months from now, when Mr Toaster has settled back in London, his wife is going to take a trash bag full of stuff they brought from Malawi and drop it off at a charity on her way to Oxford Street, and before you know it, someone who probably used to work for Mr Toaster will buy his old shirt at the second-hand clothes market in Lilongwe.

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