At Gikomba market, north of Nairobi’s downtown, women and men tussle for the classiest of second-hand (mitumba) underwear from a bale freshly opened by wholesale traders.
It is a Thursday morning, and mornings are when retailers from all over the country and even neighbouring Uganda and Tanzania flock the market for the not-so-new collections.
Up to 10 traders are in a pact with a single wholesaler, who gives them the privilege to pick the best of the arrivals before the rest of the buyers are allowed to rummage through the leftovers.
That Gikomba is the largest mitumba market in Kenya is not in dispute. But the puzzle is that in the larger business, the trade in undergarments seems to have a life of its own.
Panties, bras, boxers, which were among the items banned by the government in 2009 over health concerns, are some of the fastest-selling garments as they are popular across the age groups.
The crowding at the market is so tight that one can hardly pass through the mess of mud and smelly solid waste.
It does not help matters that it rained the previous night. But that does not discourage one from going home with a laced Victoria’s Secret garment they imagine was worn by Oprah Winfrey, at less than Sh100.
The underwear zone is said to be popular for thousands of youngsters, mostly campus students, who understand and cherish exclusive brands and designs from Europe, America and beyond, but have little money at their disposal hence can’t afford brand new ones.
“Look, I found a Commando,” one beauty who appears like a campus girl tells her mates as they marvel at the nude cloth jealously.
The Commando women’s classic thong is a prized garment for pop star Rihanna, as his stylist Mel Ottenberg once told The Strategist, an online blog that covers celebrity shopping.
“When it comes to thongs, I always choose Commando. They don’t show even when the dress is totally sheer and you’re going to see everything,” the stylist said.
Striking a rapport with the youngsters, they said just like any other mitumba clothing, the underwear enthusiasts praise them for being stylish, affordable, comfortable and durable.
“Women want a variety of undies, from what they call the uber-comfy, the sexy, the sporty and the well-tailored. They may be available in the shops but hardly in such a range,” the lucky girl explains.
All of them seem unusually knowledgeable on these foreign fashion trends. They say what to look out for to hit the market in 2020 were the likes of Tom Boy wear, Crotchless lingerie, Commandos and even the period panties, which is a brainchild of Thinx brand.
At the market, the men too are in numbers, although some women purchase them for their significant others. You can separate those buying for personal use from the retailers by the volumes of their purchases.
It is weird to ask a question as personal as what kind of underwear one prefers donning, particularly men. But one of the random interviewees, understanding the nature of journalism, dived into the topic with such composure, maybe because they did not intend to give their name.
The banker with a sense of style expressed his preference for boxers and briefs from two international labels.
“I wear Hanes, a top-of-the-world kind. Fruit of the Loom is another brand I recognise. I always look out for those two and I have never been disappointed,” said the accountant, looking content. He said they are cotton, the ideal material for undies, designed with soft rubber for the waist band with comfort flex.
Quickly searching through the Internet, online shops indicate that one piece of Hanes boxer would cost upwards of $10 (Sh1,000).
Since they are not readily found in local shops, one would have to find an agent to ship it and top up the cost of importation.
The next question would have been how much he spends and what links he uses to import, but he pre-empted this and chose to make it easy.
“I buy the second-hand ones from Gikosh (Gikomba),” he said and laughed. “They cost me Sh150.”
He said health concerns raised would only arise if the wearer fails to disinfect them before use.
“If you look at those that cost Sh150, they appear unworn. Those sold at Sh50 are wearier. All in all, they are supposed to be thoroughly cleaned,” he offers.
Several men interviewed at the market said the brand-new types of boxers and briefs stocked in local boutiques originate from China and were uncomfortable to wear.
“The China-made undies have strong waist bands that are hardly elastic. They leave marks on the waist. Also, sizes are not standard. You would buy a medium size and find it smaller than the ordinary,” one buyer said.
Another added: “Chinese send us inferior quality of inner clothes, unlike those sent from the US. They’re badly designed with tight rubber that interferes with blood flow. It’s better to buy mitumba, which are less costly, more superior in brand and also more comfortable.”
Although other markets in Nairobi including Toy, Muthurwa and even roadside vendors dispense these, Gikomba serves as a distribution centre where traders from all over the country get their supply of international brands at a fraction of the shop price. And the retail prices of goods are just a few coins up from the wholesale price.
Ms Eunice Njiru says most local celebrities find unique beachwear and other intimate clothes from the market, although not in person.
“They send their aides or directly ask us to save nice looking bikinis, swimsuits or gym wear whenever we find them in new bales,” she disclosed.
Close by, two youthful sellers animatedly alerted customers of their ‘camera’ male and female inner clothes, and from time to time interjected with a conversation in Chagga language between themselves. It was easy to know they were Tanzanian, but they would not admit too quickly for fear of being victimised for “taking Kenyans’ jobs.”
“We find business in the Kenyan setting more booming than in Tanzania, although some Kenyans think the opposite is true,” one of them, Joseph Mwazighe, says.