Clothes with Karma in the time of the virus

We touch in so many ways, just not physically

clothing exchange
Clothes we’re loved, waiting for new homes where they will be loved again

Tessa is at the garden gate and we lunge at each other. I want to hug her and kiss her, smack-bang on the lips (it’s a South African thing). Then we both pull back. Instead, we knock our elbows together in what’s being called “My Corona”.

I greet Pumeza with foot taps. Belinda and I do a kind of waving dance with our upper bodies, a bit like mating birds. And the excitement overflows into a hip-wiggling shuffle with Kathi and Kathy (aka “the Kathies”).

We are gathering in my garden for a clothing exchange, which we’ve called Clothes with Karma Under the Milkwood. Taking note of rising numbers of people testing positive for the coronavirus that causes Covid-19, I had considered cancelling this event. But I figured that we’d be okay if we followed the no-touching, washing-hands rules; plus, we’d be out in the garden on a hot day, not cramped into a confined and stuffy space.

clothing exchange
A moment at Clothes with Karma Under the Milkwood

The last supper

The conversation, naturally, is mostly about the virus. We’ve all brought snacks (it’s a bring-and-share event so that it is never a big burden on the host) and it’s a true feast of deliciousness.

“It’s the last supper,” Cindy remarks. We are all aware that we are very likely to self-isolate very soon.

The next day, our President, Cyril Ramaphosa, will announce a national state of disaster, banning gatherings of more than 100 people, among other things. He will also show us exactly how to do My Corona, the elbow greeting.

By then, though, there are warnings that we should not even touch elbows. “Bow, smile, don’t touch at all,” a paramedic on my family WhatsApp group cautions.

Life goes on

Eventually, 20 women are chatting under the milkwood on this Saturday afternoon. I am not the only person to screech “Don’t touch!” when there’s a hint that a hug is brewing. Lisa M and Lisa D reach for each other. Then they freeze to a wild chorus of laughter.

For now, we are socialising and laughing together. We are celebrating life. For now, we are happy. We are not hugging and kissing.

“New” clothes

And we are choosing “new” clothes from the boutique we’ve created under the trees, stocked with items we’ve loved but no longer wear. We’re doing it avoid buying new clothes, to reduce the impact of consumerism and harmful industry practices.

Lisa M, who we call the Queen of Games, has come up with a system that turns our ordered choosing of items into a surprise that involves numbers, coloured balls and a huge amount of giggling and dashing around. But there’s no smash and grab here. Clothing exchange formats vary from rushing at a pile of clothes in a first-come, first-served style to large, formal affairs that often involve money changing hands.

Our Clothes with Karma events fall somewhere in the middle, with numbers limited and no money involved. Apart from the space dictating a comfortable number, I am convinced that lower numbers make the events more personal and keep people being nice to each other.

Kathy beats me to a black, knee-length dress. But I gain an Olkapolka dress, a denim jacket, a swirly cardigan and a pair of jeans, as well as a warm jacket that I think will fit #him (it does) and a set of colourful casserole dishes. We started Clothes with Karma events with just clothing, shoes and accessories, but we now include other items: books, art, crockery, even pieces of furniture.

We give more than we take. Piles of clothing and other items destined for nearby, poorer communities

The base is integrity

We are all smiling with our hauls. There’s a healthy pile of clothes and other items remaining when we’re done, which is exactly what I am aiming for. Participants are urged to bring more than they take because the unclaimed items will be packed up and distributed through an NGO to people in nearby, poorer communities. There is no policing; it rests on personal integrity.

Some go the extra mile. Jale, for example, quietly places a large box of children’s clothes onto a table set aside for donations as she knows that there is a great need for these items.


So we do not touch physically. But we feel the love deeply. And it strengthens us as we batten down the hatches of social distancing and self-isolation.

See you through the window. Be safe.

5 thoughts on “Clothes with Karma in the time of the virus

    1. We should all try to do that, support local businesses and people – the impact is so huge already. This is a real test of our humanity!

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