catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 8, Num 10 :: 2009.05.08 — 2009.05.22


Recycled abundance

Have you ever wondered what happens to the things even charity shops can’t get rid of? The clothes end up bundled up in great bales and sent off to developing countries where people sort them into huge mountainous piles on the streets. Sweaters in one pile, bras in another, undies in another, dresses, shirts, etc. — each has its own pile. You wander through the market, find the pile you want and haggle a good price.

I grew up in Pakistan and I can tell you that people in developing nations are the ultimate recyclers. If they can’t sell a sweater at the market, they’ll unravel the wool and sell the wool so someone can knit another. When I lived there, it made my skin crawl.  Now, however, I love the idea, the ultimate in repurposing cloth — after a good couple of washes, of course!

In Pakistan, nothing goes to waste. If something can at all be taken apart and made into something else once it is no longer functioning, it will be, and nowhere is it more true than in developing countries that “necessity is the mother of invention.” In poor countries, no one throws things away; they are simply recycled, if nothing else, as fuel to cook food on. Even cow dung is mixed with straw and made into patties, slapped on the side of houses to dry in the sun and then peeled off whenever you need a fire to cook the dinner on. What a fun household chore that would have to be!

All those old school assignments thrown in the bin? They are turned into paper bags for cloth merchants to put small purchases of thread in or for the local takeaway to put mouth-watering hot chips sprinkled with chilli and salt in. I used to read those packets and wonder where in the world they came from and whether one day I would be eating hot chips and reading my own English assignment or an old diary entry.  Now there was a thought that made me thoroughly shred all my inner murmurings before disposing of them!

When I returned to the UK, it shocked me to see how much was thrown away once it wasn’t working.  In Pakistan, if your clock breaks, you take it to the watchmaker to get it repaired. If your shoe gets a hole in it, you take it to the cobbler and he mends it. If your jeans get a hole in them, you patch them up or cut off the legs to make shorts, or delight in the fact that you have vintage jeans with rips when people “back home” are paying $40 for new jeans with rips already made in them – ahhhh, the good old 80s: all those peroxide, permed, big hairdos, bleached denim with ready-made rips and leg-warmers!  We now judge that decade’s style as outrageous, but how outrageous have we become when it costs more to fix something than it does to actually buy another one new or (gasp) to actually recycle it?  Abundance has become such a way of life for us that we take it for granted and no longer even think of making things last.

As a small missionary school community, we had our own version of recycling clothes, which took place once a year: the Barter Sale. Every summer, all the missionaries who had their children in boarding at our small school high up in the Himalayas would come up to the hills for the season and, on one weekend just before the school holidays, there would be a massive sale of clothes, toys and appliances to raise money for the school and to give people the chance to buy and sell their pre-loved goods.

In picturing the sale, you must keep in mind that (a) these missionaries often didn’t make it back to the west for three years at a time, (b) there weren’t a lot of good quality Western clothes shops in Pakistan at that time and © those that did exist were quite often several hours away from where people were living. 

We lived for the Barter Sale because that’s when we would be rubbing our hands in glee hoping to find wealthier friends’ coveted GAP clothes that hadn’t been through three other mish kids (missionary kids) before us. Oh, the suspense and delight when a friend would tell us that she was going to put a certain item in the Barter Sale! The sense of anticipation was nerve-wracking as we tried to calculate how to find a specific top, sweater or jeans in a mountainous pile of clothes on endless tables before anyone else did.

The day after the Barter Sale was absolute agony for me. Did I want to treat myself and wear a whole new outfit at one time, thus potentially opening myself up to embarrassment, or should I be modest and just wear one new item with an older ‘already established’ item at a time? Horror of horrors, the day of shame came in elementary school when I wore a very cool pink shirt to school only to have a school friend angrily accost me and tell me to give it back.  Her mother had put it in the Barter Sale by mistake and she was officially demanding its return. Need I add she was a redhead?  After that, the days following every Barter Sale were an agony of nerves as I wondered if the too-good-to-be-true bargain I had found was going to evaporate when I had to give it back.

If memories were photographs, one of my mind’s enduring snapshots of the Barter Sale was taken when I was about seven and was standing in the longest queue of parents and children waiting to be allowed in to the basketball court to find Barter Sale toys. It was a school of hard knocks because it worked on a first-come, first-serve basis and some people got to the sale at impossibly early times.  No matter how early we left for the sale (and we did leave incredibly early), our family was never early enough to get in before all of the roller-skates, skateboards or good quality Barbies were gone. Dad didn’t have to go through this because he always happened to be away at the time, but I know Mum absolutely hated the Barter Sale with a passion.

My poor Mum — year after year she tried so hard to get us there early enough that we could have a chance with the toys or clothes our little hearts had been hoping for all year, but we were always too late. I think perhaps if we had arrived at 5:00 a.m., we would still have had people in the queue before us. The only way to be in with a chance was to volunteer to help organize the sale and to be able to pick out a certain number of items to be set aside for you the day before. With four children and a husband away, it was much easier said than done and only really possible when we became old enough to occupy ourselves for the day.

I remember the joyous feeling of going up to the dining room with money in my pocket to get a sloppy joe (bolognaise mince meat in a hamburger bun). The taste of sloppy joes in that particular room at that particular time on those particular plates will probably never be able to be recreated. The sweetish taste Pakistani buns, the tang of the mince meat, the sauce dripping everywhere only to be mopped up with the last bits of bun. Incredibly satisfying. I remember helping Mum in the weeks running up to the sale sew those distinctive photocopied paper tags onto all the clothes we were putting into the sale, one part to be ripped off to record who was owed what money.  I remember helping Mum as she volunteered at the sale, sorting and counting up each person’s tags and putting their money into envelopes.

I remember the year when we were allowed in a day early because Mum was volunteering and the satisfying feeling of looking at those piles of clothes on long rows of tables, shafts of afternoon sunlight streaming through the high windows of the auditorium in our school, a converted British-built chapel. Strangely enough, the year when our family finally obtained the privilege of a first peek at sale items, was also the year when I realized we didn’t need anything from the Barter Sale, that we were happy without having to buy anything. We had money to spend but didn’t need to spend it and were happy to leave things for those who did need them. It was a moment of irony, a feeling of fullness and contentment with what we had. I think that one year, toward the end, we may have even skipped the sale altogether to spend a relaxing day at home, or was that my imagination?

Writing down memories, it is hard to know what to include and what not to include because ultimately, the things that we now realize are injustices we unwittingly committed because “that’s how things were” or because of the decisions of those in authority. It is with shame that I remember that the Pakistani staff members were only allowed in to the Barter Sale after parents and students had gone in first. If I felt the unfairness of some things, how much more did they? Having children of my own now, with the desire to bless them and give them what they desire most of all, I think about how hard it was to get toys and clothes in Pakistan and I wouldn’t wish the agony of the Barter Sale on anyone.

I remember with gratefulness my Mum and all her love doing her very best to provide good toys and clothes for us kids on a tight budget, only seeing her husband once every three weeks and then only for a weekend at a time for the whole summer. She gave up her summers with Dad for us. She took a lot of complaining and ungratefulness from us and had to make the best of a lot of hard situations, some of which we may never know about because she and Dad protected us and dealt with them on their own.

When I look back on my childhood I see that although we may have missed out on a lot of things that other people grew up with, we had so much more than many, many people around us but more than that, our memories are rich, full of vibrancy and color and a great deal of joy.  It was only years after I left Pakistan that I looked back and realized just how very poor a country it is, how a very little goes a very long way, how generous people were with us and how freely they gave their hospitality.  It shames me, it challenges me not to take my abundance for granted, to constantly provoke myself to gratitude and continual generosity. 

Our hearts’ desire for our family is that we live open-handed, generous lives and one conversation I had with my six-year-old daughter recently delighted me and touched my heart deeply.  She sighed one morning at breakfast and said “I wish we were rich!”  I, thinking all too cynically of materialism, consumerism and of the evils of marketing to children, asked her what she would buy if we were wealthy.  She replied “We could help sick people and give lots of money.”  I know that she is catching the heart of her Heavenly Father, as well the hearts of her earthly parents and grandparents.

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