My latest trek took me from Dallas to Johannesburg, South Africa for two weeks of exploring new factories and checking the status of factories currently producing Haggar products throughout Africa. The trip included 22 factories in 5 countries and many times there were multiple cities and long drives within each country. Needless to say, it was a busy schedule and a logistical nightmare to coordinate the many suppliers, factories and agents that traveled together. Countries visited were South Africa, Lesotho (Le-soo-too, as pronounced in Africa), Swaziland, Zambia, Malawi and Kenya.
If you use your imagination, Johannesburg reminds me of Dallas. It is a large, modern city of little historic interest and with both rich and poor. Jo’burg, as it is called, became South Africa’s largest city by being a crossroad. Does this remind you of Dallas? For the majority of Jo’burg inhabitants, home is one of the black townships surrounding the city- the biggest is Soweto (anachronism for South West Township). Soweto was the epicenter of the movement against apartheid: a country totally separated by races: whites, blacks and coloreds (mainly people from India). Fortunately that is in South Africa’s past and Jo’burg has emerged as a powerful city in the region. At least Dallas’ reputation has never been that bad.
Upon arriving Jo’burg we drove three hours north to north to Ficksburg, South Africa with the ultimate destination of Lesotho. Leaving Jo’burg, things quickly change to stunning wide-open plains and occasional squatter cities. These communities are squalid, tiny homes constructed with spare pieces of tin, wood and anything else they can find. Normally the shacks have no power and a makeshift outhouse close by. Its time like this that I wonder why I was destined to ride by these houses in a brand new Land Rover vs. living in those conditions.
South Africa is Africa’s most prosperous and advanced nations but obviously not all have enjoyed in its prosperity. The South Africa sewing manufacturing base is in slow demise due to high wages, cheap imports, the Rand (their currency) has gone from 14 x US$1 to 7 x US$1 and a textile base that unresponsive, slow and expensive. Wow, does that sound familiar?
Ok, now back to quaint township of Ficksburg, S.A. Although it was the first days of summer, it was very cold. Although very cold from my viewpoint, shoeless kids, both white and black played soccer in the park as I was shivering. I guess that kids that grow up in the country are immune to weather no matter where they’re from. Ficksburg is a fly fishing region and snow had dusted the mountaintops that morning. Is this the Africa you imagine?
The proper name for Lesotho is the Kingdom of Lesotho because it’s a monarchy. The King of Lesotho has very little power and the government has been stable for the past five years. The Lesotho factory management (Taiwanese, Sri Lanka and Philippine men) live in South Africa and the next day I understood why they preferred South Africa vs. Lesotho. Crossing the bridge from South Africa to Lesotho was as dramatic as driving from Texas to Mexico. The cities of Lesotho are nasty, even for a sewing veteran that has traveled to some deplorable countries. I’m not sure how to describe it other to say that the population lives in filth and apparently that’s OK with them. Garbage everywhere, shops that looked liked they survived a several riots and fires (which they did during a government meltdown a few years ago), razor wire and burglar bars on everything…. Use your imagination.
I should now describe much of Africa and the sewing factories that we visited. Unemployment is over 50% in every country. Very few factories lose workers to other factories since unemployment is so high and people are so desperate for their jobs (OK, that’s not like Dallas). Depending on whom you talk to, about 40% of the Africa population has AIDS. Some factories disagree with this assessment, since they lose few workers and they feel it’s another way for African nations to scam money from ‘rich’ countries. Other factories have sewing lines of 60 trainees to fill in for workers that get sick and never return to their jobs, presumably they go home and eventually die of AIDS. South Africa reportedly has the world’s largest AIDS infected population, almost five million. Regardless of opinions, AIDS is a huge problem that every country is trying to control. Highway billboards, factory bulletin boards, etc, all promote the use of condoms. Unfortunately most Africans believe in its “God’s Wish” vs. “Cause and Effect.” Most women have children from many men, they seldom marry and most Africans accept infidelity and promiscuity. AIDS medication has helped a few to live a normal life and the medicine cost has now been lowered to about US$100/month. The problem is the average wage of a sewing an operator is about US$40/month (remember, they are the lucky ones with a job). The average life expectancy is around 40 years (high birth mortality rates and AIDS) so I reckon that people think they’re going to die of something, so why worry?
My nose observed a very sour smell when we arrived at the Zambia airport. Due to a lack of water and education, almost everyone reeked in body odor. I’m not talking about a little end of the day smell, but the smell that would turn your stomach. If I grew up having to hand carry water to my house I’m not sure if I would smell any different. I am not attempting to be critical, but simply reporting the situation as my nose “sees” it.
Typically, country people in Africa migrate to the cities looking for work. The land reminds me of South Texas (with mountains) but with very little water. The people cannot eat the bark off the trees so they migrate to the cities looking for a better life. The cities, in general, display severe poverty, filth and crime is rampant throughout the continent. From walking in the streets of Lesotho during the day, to walking the streets of Nairobi (Nai-robbery) at night, to seeing well advertised government anti-corruption campaigns in every nation we visited, very little seemed safe and I’m generally adventurous and enjoy a walk throughout a city. In traffic jams we were always told to keep the windows up due to robbers that would cause a distraction and then grab a purse, camera, etc. from the inside of your car. Razor wire seemed to be the national welcome mat for most homes and businesses. Many impoverished African nations receive about 60% of their total income from other ‘rich’ nations in the form of food and other gifts. Gifts from the U.S., Taiwan and China were many. Despite their desperate needs, Zambia, Malawi and Kenya all recently had their foreign nation’s aid suspended for more than three years due to the high levels of their government’s graft and corruption.
Security guards routinely frisk sewers as they exit the factories. Many security guards are given bonuses if they catch workers stealing and frequently sewing operators are caught stealing a single zipper although it means the loss of the only job in the community.
United Nations passports (light blue) could be seen at many airline ticket counters. Most airline passengers were foreign government workers, missionaries or affiliated with a religious group to help these desperate nations. If you haven’t yet figured it out, Africa is a very, very poor continent.
Corn is the main crop grown throughout Africa. The corn is ground into porridge for the principle meal that can be supplemented with small portions of goat or beef. Very hot spices are used to flavor most meals.
Most men dress “normal” and women have more variation. Women wear full skirts and/or blouses of African printed designs. The prints of the skirts and blouses generally do not match and many times an African printed piece of cloth is used as a headdress. Walking or riding in extremely overcrowded minivans is the transportation system in most cities.
Most sewing factories in Africa are less than two years old and they coincide with the passage by the U.S. of AGOA (African Growth and Opportunity Act) that provides most sub-Saharan African nations quota free/duty free status for apparel products. Factories are mainly Taiwanese or Dubai, U.A.E. headquartered (India owned) factories. Most factories have more than 1,000 workers and several have 6,000 - 7,000 workers. The growth has been phenomenal and the management is mainly from Taiwan, China, Sri Lanka or India. Locals occupy many lower level supervisory positions and all of the entry-level positions (no foreign sewers). The African workers are very inefficient and very slow. The only difference is that some factories are slower than others. Most products are denim, some products are very complicated and the sewing quality was generally good. Wal-Mart products dominate in almost every factory visited.
Returning back to Lesotho, this tiny landlocked nation located within South Africa has extreme poverty. Driving in the countryside boys frequently can be seen sleeping on the ground while they watch a few cow or goats graze the sparse grasses and weeds. The land is very arid and mountainous. Winters (opposite our summers) are quite cold and snow on the ground is normal. Houses generally are very small, built with mud walls that are round shaped with a thatched roof. Other houses have small cinder blocks with thatched or tin roofs. In the cities I noticed small barracks and was told that many workers hike out of the mountains seeking employment and they rent a small one room apartment that usually have no running water or electricity. Very tough way of life and many of us take far too much for granted. Lesotho’s 2.1 million citizens are known as Basotho and the official languages are English and South Sotho. Due to French missionaries, most people are nominally Christian. Traditional culture is still strong and consists of ancestors who balance people from the ever-present dangers of evil. Witches, both male and female, play an important role.
The Kingdom of Swaziland is located further east, between South Africa and Mozambique. This tiny country is also landlocked but the King has total power. When the previous king died it was difficult to choose the successor since it was thought the king had 70 wives and around 300 children. Even today, each year all of the young women of Swaziland (about 20,00) are honored to line up topless and hope to be chosen as a wife of the king. The current king normally chooses one new wife every year, sometimes he picks none and sometimes he chooses three. I guess you have to be a king to understand the desire to have 70 wives since I normally struggle to maintain just one wife. But, if you were remodeling a building there may be some advantages.
Wages in Swaziland are somewhat better than Lesotho and the people’s living conditions reflect a better prosperity by sharing a ride in the back of a small pickup with 10 others rather than walking to work. Lesotho and Swaziland both have Taiwanese factories that are huge and ultra modern.
Zambia is located north of South Africa and Zimbabwe and is one of the most uninhabited countries per square mile of any in the world. It is also one of the most impoverished and suffered greatly under a very repressive dictatorship that governed from its independence from the UK in 1964. With a leadership that incorporated Marxism, tribal beliefs and widespread corruption, by 1974 Zambia became one of the poorest countries in the world. English is the official language and there are about 35 dialects spoken within Zambia.
While racing down the highway with our driver in a Mercedes Benz owned by the Chinese government, it was scary to think of what would happen if there was a wreck in a country that does not have a hospital. Blood transfusions? I don’t think so! Since we did not visit Victoria Falls that is located the Zambezi River that divides Zambia and Zimbabwe, there was not too much report other than red dirt and vast plains. Some remnants of the British Empire can still be seen with modern farms and ranches that would occasionally pop up alongside the highway. These farms had eight-foot fences with about 10 strands of electric powered wire to keep the locals from helping themselves to their corn and other farm products. If you want to see the ‘real’ Africa, this wide-open country with little used national parks is the place to be. If you can’t make it to Africa, just drive between San Antonio and Laredo, Texas for a better description of the terrain.
The main tourist attraction in Malawi is Lake Malawi. The clear, fresh water lake is popular for diving and it dominates this small landlocked country. The political past unfortunately is a similar story to other African nations who gained their independence from the UK. A ruthless and corrupt dictator proclaims himself “President for Life” and everything goes downhill. When we arrived at our hotel in Lilongwe, Malawi, I thought we were at a Dallas country club with all the Mercedes Benz and Land Rovers that were in the parking lot. As it turned out, this impoverished government was having an evening banquet. In another disheartening note, when we returned from dinner the government banquet had adjourned to poolside. The group was extremely well dressed with men in suits and women in African dresses or formals. During my morning walk, I passed the pool and it was totally trashed. The poolside group just tossed their trash on the lawn and it was discouraging to see such lack of respect to the environment and their country. Lilongwe is boring and the countryside looked like Laredo (not exactly a garden spot).
Not only has Kenya been recognized as the ‘cradle of humanity’, it has one of the most diverse collections of tribal people in all of Africa. The Swahili word “safari” is almost synonymous with Kenya, which is why it attracts so many foreign tourists. I call the word “Kenya” synonymous with “horrible roads.” The U.S. government and U.K. have posted a travel warning to this country and it has certainly damaged its important tourism trade. British Airways recently suspended air flights to Kenya when a high threat of terrorism was determined.
Kenya has probably lost more lives to terrorism than any other country except the United States. The bombing of the U.S. embassy killed 240 Kenyans and the more recent bombing of the Paradise Hotel in Mombassa is evidence of Kenya’s pro-U.S. position. Security is very tight when entering a hotel or restaurant. Usually there are one or more protective gates and guards use mirrors attached to poles to inspect under your vehicle to search for bombs. I’m not sure if these inspections alarm or re-assure most people. In my opinion, they’re just a waste of time and inconvenience since terrorists seem always to find ways to kill. But, “something must be done” takes precedence.
Kenya is part of the East Africa region; the equator goes through the country although there are many mountains that are snow topped throughout the year. Along the coast, Arab traders dominated its coastline since the 8th century. Their dress and the many mosques can see Muslims. The Arabs began the slave trade of Africa and by the 1800’s approximately 100,000 East Africans were being enslaved each year and shipped throughout the Mid East and the Americas. Fortunately the British took control and stopped this practice.
British farmers began to move into central Kenya and the movie “Out of Africa” is based on life in early Kenya. The normal competition for land generated conflicts for many generations as the modern world took control of the land from the indigenous population.
I traveled to three parts of Kenya during this trip: Mombassa, Nairobi and the Rift Valley. Mombassa is a coastal city about an hour’s flight from Kenya. There are some very large factories located there and other than that I have no plans to return. The coastline was unusual with dramatic tides. The coastline could move about 200 yards from its high tide mark and leave a long area of exposed sea bottom. Sunday was a relaxed day after almost two weeks of constant traveling and changing hotels. Fortunately there was a constant wind that reduced the mosquitoes. I never take malaria pills and this area is known to be a malaria breeding ground. As a side note, I stopped volunteering to donate blood many years ago because with the new donor restrictions I’m always disqualified.
Nairobi, sometimes known as Nai-robbery, is the capital with almost perfect weather. Although located on the equator, the capital is 7,000 feet in elevation and this provides a cool year round weather. Nairobi suffers from traffic gridlock due to overpopulation and poor planning. Kenya is not “as poor” as its neighbors and some sourcing dogs do not want to place sewing production in countries that the people are not starving. In Spanish the expression is “En cada cabeza hay un mundo” or “everyone has a different perspective.”
I visited a small mill and sewing factory in the Rift Valley. While driving out from Nairobi the mountaintops in the morning were about 45 degrees (remember this their summer) and the views were simply spectacular. The factory was owned by third generations Kenyans who are Sikhs from India. They no longer consider themselves Indians since they have adopted into Kenya and all of them speak Swahili, the local language. As children they could only live in the Asian section of their town and the hillside was reserved for the Brits (whites). They now live on the hillside overlooking the Valley. After the tour and visit, the factory took me to a national park located five minutes from the factory.
The Kenyan government purchased a farm from an old Brit and turned it into a national park. The highlight of the tour was a lake full of pink flamingos. It is impossible for me to estimate the bird population so I can guess there were somewhere from 50,000 to 100,000 pink flamingos + huge flocks of giant pelicans (later I was told there were two million). I learned that flamingos feed in shallow waters by sticking their heads into the water and they use their beaks like a backhoe to shovel mud into their mouths. Their beaks have filters that separate the mud from microorganisms. The birds are actually white but they gain their pink color from their diet. The roar of the noise of the birds (and smell) was something one could ever forget. In two hours we saw various types of monkeys and baboons, zebra, giraffe, water buffalo, rhino, more varieties of antelope than I can identify, ostrich, Eland and warthogs. This brief “safari” has peaked my interest and I will fill out a vacation form soon to fully enjoy the beauty of Africa.
A few parting views:
In Kenya the overcrowded mini van form of public transportation are known as “matatus” and they normally have slogans painted on them like “The undertaker”, “Public enemy” and “Get in and die.” Maybe DART (Dallas Area Rapid Transit) could use some of these slogans?
In general, Americans are fearful of Muslims dressed in traditional robes.
How many countries are left for the sewing industry to exploit? After the elimination of world apparel quotas, I suppose there will be only one, China.
If you’re having a bad day at work, think about a guy I saw pruning a palm tree in Mombassa. He tied a small rope to his feet and pinched his way up a very tall and very straight palm tree. Once on top of the palm tree he squatted on the thorn branches with his bare feet while trimming the other limbs. And you think your job sucks?
I think eating mud for a living would be a worse career.
One of Haggar’s supplier’s is known by the first name of “Haps” (his real name is Shje Sheng-Fu). I asked him how he adopted that name and he told me that as a child his nickname was “Happy.” I wish I had more friends nicknamed “Happy.”
Whoever invented business cards was smart.
America is the only country that you must remove your laptop computer from your briefcase to pass through airport security. Are we that smart? On second thought, when did the last laptop take a pilot hostage? On third thought, what “Walkman” electronic gear ever brought down an aircraft?
Communists and leaders of impoverished nations drive Mercedes Benz’ but I drive a Chevy. I’ve been thinking about that one.
Most people always enjoy returning home from a trip more than leaving for a trip.
What can the average guy learn from a lion?
Hakuna matata are real words and good advice.
If you believe in the credo that drinking Black Label extends your life, then after two weeks of traveling with several suppliers my life expectancy has increased by five years.
We all take WAY too much for granted.
Countries Prior to El Regalo