At the HLM market in Dakar, women weave through the stalls displaying the latest African prints — except that almost none of them is made in Africa anymore.
Oumar Thiam, the accountant of a bustling store, has a Yahoo inbox dotted with emails from vendors whose names appear in Mandarin characters. His shop has only ever sold Chinese knockoffs of African waxprint fabrics.
"They are very similar to the original. If there's a difference, it's in the quality, but it's so much cheaper," he said.
Africa expert Peter Pham says that just in northern Nigeria, a quarter-of-a-million jobs have been lost in the textile industry.
"Certainly these cheaper products make it affordable for more people, but at the same time, it has eviscerated the manufacturing sector in Africa," says Pham, who is the director of the Africa Center at the Washington-based Atlantic Council. "They can't beat the price of the Chinese knockoffs."
Back in Ngaye Mekhe, the workshop of the Gueye brothers is still operating at full tilt, despite the onslaught of fake slippers. The brothers made their first slippers at the age of 10, learning from their grandfather.
Since then, their shoes have been worn by a Senegalese president and their client list reads like a Who's Who of the country's ruling elite. They have managed to stay in business, because the upper crust of Senegalese society appreciates the difference in quality, and is willing to spend extra for their double-lined, soft-leather shoes, mounted on high-end rubber and ranging in color from cherry red to sable gray.
The pointy-toed slippers are typically worn by Senegalese men on special occasions, like baptisms or weddings. They are also the footwear of choice on Fridays, when men don flowing robes and head to the mosque, leaving the slippers in long rows on the curb outside.
The toll on the roughly 1,500 other shoemakers here has been hard to weather, and many artisans say they are struggling to pass on the craft to their sons, who no longer see a future in it. Besides slippers, they have diversified and are now also making sandals as well as loafers. The shoemakers sit on the side of National Highway No. 1, next to their pearly-white and ruby-red creations that grace their outdoor racks.
Besides not selling to the Chinese, the Gueye brothers have another tactic. The copied shoes have soles that come off after a few months.
"The best part is people then bring me these shoes, the Chinese shoes! And ask me to fix them," scoffs Mactar Gueye. "My rule is I don't let the Chinese buy my shoes. And I won't fix any Chinese babooshes," he says, using the local word for slippers. "This is about our survival."
Associated Press writers Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal; Saleh Mwanamilongo in Kinshasa, Congo; and Yves Laurent Goma in Libreville, Gabon contributed this report.
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