Shoes: the least of our problems by TMS Ruge | April 5, 2011 | Filed in : Headline,International Development,Uganda | 15 comments I’ve spent the last week thinking about what to write for “A Day Without Dignity”.

Shoes: the least of our problems

Teddy on his 4th birthday, April 3rd

I’ve spent the last week thinking about what to write for “A Day Without Dignity”. Lately, I’ve been getting overwhelmed by the sheer number of uninformed people and organizations, both large and small, who continue to show zero restraint in effort to demonstrate how socially aware they are. The Smart Aid crew of bloggers has done a commendable job of late of rising to challenge these individuals and organizations.

As repetitive as the exercise has become, I think that is is important that our voices continue to rise against any and all acts of “dumbassery” in the field of international development. I especially welcome those voices from developing countries – so often the target of ill-informed campaigns meant to rescue them from their supposed underprivileged lives.

I spent this past weekend with my mum in her village of Kikuube in Western Uganda. It’d been number of years since I’d spent my birthday with her. I started my birthday with a long run through the winding slopping hills in the early morning mist. The cool breeze felt like heaven as my Nike-clad feet crunched the gravel on the country road. Danger, our scrappy family dog, ran along side me, jutting in and out of the bushes like a dart.

My morning jogs through the village had ceased to be a source of amusement for the villagers. They knew me by now, and greeted me with smiles and waves. I couldn’t help but take note of everyone’s feet as I passed them, keeping a small mental list of how many wore shoes and how many didn’t. Good thing it was early morning on a Sunday, there were few feet to count and many were already in the gardens barefoot and tilling mother nature for the season’s planting.

After breakfast, I took the motorcycle through the winding pathway to the local church. My mother is usually the preacher, but she was ill this morning, down with a chronic asthma flare up. I’d changed her medication a few weeks earlier, the side effects of the transition had left her energy-spent and weak. The view along the way to church has always been my favorite things about Sunday morning in Kikuube Village: endless rolling terrain of sugarcane plantations. The bustling forests of yesteryear were slowly being replaced by subsistence farmers transitioning to cash crops. Mother nature was loosing as the community continued to develop.

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Hi heels on a dusty mud floor at Kihoole Church in Kikuube village

I arrived amid songs of praise with but a handful of people. Church always started this way. The deacons would arrive to setup the sanctuary by sweeping the dusty mud floors, cleaning off the array of drums and stringing flowers. There were no windows or doors to open and the roof was missing one shingle. Even then, the sanctuary had come a long way in the last three years. I had claimed the responsibility of paying for the floor to be put in, as my way of giving back. The jubilant choir kicking up dust as the songs of praise hit their spiritual climax served as a gentle reminder that I hadn’t fulfilled my promise. The women clapped and danced up a storm. At one point they kicked off their high heels and sandals and let the spirit ride. As the voices got higher, the hands clapped louder, the sweat dripped, and the hips swayed to the hypnotic rhythm of the traditional drummers. The songs subsided into prayer as we prayed for continued peace, the blessed rains, the health of our children and family members, school fees, our leaders, our markets, our friends and our enemies. We prayed for those we knew and those we did not. We gave thanks for what we had and what we didn’t have. As I rode home, my mind played back the dancing feet kicking up balls of dust as the children played in the corner, some with shoes and some without, and the odd thought that, no one prayed for shoes.

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Barefoot children on their way home from school

Why has it become so easy for people to start feel-good campaigns that no one asked for? There are a thousand things this village needs and nowhere on the list are t-shirts and shoes. Or used bras, socks, underwear or whatever the latest SWEDOW item du jour. We can safely say that it has nothing to do with the intended communities. The whole exercise is about making someone feel good. Unfortunately, that someone is never the recipient. It is never the people in this and many other villages that are purported as poor and thus in need of XYZ. It is probably easier to go a day without wearing shoes and feel good about “doing something.” Yes you are doing something, but do you know that what you are doing is the dumbest, most ineffectual act of dumbassery you could do. Yes you are doing something, but tell me how going a day without shoes is going to magically pay for the badly-needed school fees in this village. How is that act of self-sacrifice going to bring development and jobs? Yes, you raised awareness. But it was awareness of your own guilty pleasures and a life of excess. So you send a pair of TOMS shoes to the kids I passed on their way to school Monday morning, how is that going to make their badly-equipped classrooms better? Or train the teachers? Or pay them better. Let’s not mention the cobbler in the town center you just put out of business. Unless of course, your argument is that when the pair of cheap TOMS shoes — which were never designed for this environment — break down, he can fix them. Nice one.

Is it really that hard NOT to do something no one asked for?

I took another extended ride on Monday, spending time in the trading center to just observe the day in the life of Kikuube Village. I stopped by Gabriel’s shop. A 76-year old retired teacher with 4 sons he still worried about. None had adequate jobs and were grossly under-paid. He was wearing a dusty black pair of shoes that looked like they’d been brought back to life by a talented cobbler. He was lamenting about taking out a loan from the bank at 25% interest to help his youngest son start a small business. His own shop was sparse but frequently visited. He has never let me leave without taking a soda. What would this man do with a pair of TOMS shoes? Probably sell them. He worried less about himself and his feet and more about the future of his sons. And shoes were the last thing on his mind.

I came home and asked my mother (without revealing to her what I was about to write) what was the one thing, above all, she wanted me to have as I was growing up. Without hesitation and in the soft voice I’ve always known to have wisdom, she said, “an education.” Not a good pair of shoes. Not a tshirt. Not good life. But an education. As simple as that sounded, it left a resounding thump in my heart. As I went to sleep that night, I stared at the picture she gave me for my birthday. It was a black and white photo of a little boy holding his chin and smiling. I turned it over to read the inscription,

“Teddy on his 4th birthday, April 3rd.”

I was wearing a pare of gum boots. TOMS didn’t get me those, my mother did, along with my education.


naini singh March 8, 2012 at 11:03 pm

Just to add to this discussion, if you can watch the movie Children of Paradise (i think its a movie from afghanistan) …:)

Barb Harrison March 8, 2012 at 3:34 pm

As I have mentioned in one of your other blogs I have been doing humanitarian work in Kenya for the past 3 years. I agree with you that the people need jobs. I only do income generating projects. I also, don't force my ideas, I ask the people I'm dealing with what they are capable of doing and try to help them establish that business. At the same time I bring along with me bags of clothing and shoes from Canada. The children at the orphange and the school that I'm dealing with are quite grateful for the items. Also, the women I have encountered especially young girls are quite happy when I bring them underware. I agree with your ideas that jobs and education are needed but not everyone that comes to Africa can supply these things. So why discourage those that can only offer clothing and shoes.

jobitek December 26, 2011 at 10:58 am

I suppose one would have to listen to who's begging and what they're begging for. An education, a t-shirt, shoes, used bras and underwear, a chance to grow up without the myriad diseases that shouldn't be killing children in this day and age? What are the beggars begging for? Shoes? If so, by all means, provide them and feel good about that. If not, well then. Perhaps it's not better to presume that those whose feet are not enclosed in $75.00 TOMS are any less human and have right to those. Thanks for your thoughts, tms ruge.

j.bol November 1, 2011 at 4:02 am

i dont really believe in that beggars cant be choosers adage. its exactly because the aid ngo world believes in that that it becomes acceptable to provide sub-standard goods and services. i say beggars can, and should be choosers. why not? if everyone else has a right to do so?

Christian Bowe September 22, 2011 at 4:22 pm

Thanks for being personal and truthful on this topic, it's much needed. I used to intern for a land rights NGO in Cambodia, where I worked with households at risk of illegal forced evictions and land grabs. These people want a secure place to live and access to education and hospitals without having to pay outrageous fees due to corrupt officials. People often sell these handouts so they can get their child a checkup or use them for an alternative purpose as I've seen people using the malaria nets as fishing traps. Keep on keeping on, tms ruge.

@ifeanyianeke September 2, 2011 at 11:00 am

Just happened upon this wonderful post and can't help but wish for more grease to your elbows. Took me back to my village!

tms ruge September 2, 2011 at 11:11 am

Thank you! Great visual reference there. I love it!

Udara May 8, 2011 at 11:39 pm

Loved this post and you hit the nail on the head-this is about someone feeling good about themselves. Freud writes about the need we all have to be above someone else because that's what pity ultimately leads to.
Now, I'm not against some of these organizations but it would be wonderful if they actually took the time to ask real Africans how they can help. And I'm willing to bet that if they asked this simple question, the answer will almost always be jobs.
Let the employed parents buy the shoes for their kids.
Great post.

tms ruge May 9, 2011 at 4:56 pm

Thanks for the insightful comment Udara..

Kendo April 19, 2011 at 12:41 am

Dear TMS Ruge,

I read the article with interest and I loved it. I loved the way you have manage to describe a situation that is indeed so true! And do not think that this is critic to other initiatives but rather your are highlighting important aspects that should be getting more focus.
Personally, I share your tears for our people and your spirit to recognize our weakness all, as Africans to address certain situations.

There are no easy way to express the pain we feel for our people and the poverty we suffered every day. There are so many initiatives and yet it is hard to really see a great impact in our lives. I hear you and feel you, my brother! And as you continue to question yourself, you are already doing a lot.

This shoe story brought back so many memories and inspiration, thanks!

tms ruge April 19, 2011 at 4:42 am

Thanks for the comment. I didn't really aim to criticize the TOMS shoes campaign. I did want to highlight that this and other campaigns as such don't actually deal with the many issues that we face. We need to look at ourselves as Africans and start to turn down these cheap gifts. We are not incapable of rescuing ourselves out of this quagmire of development that we are in. We simply just need to believe in ourselves, take a deep breath and get to the heavy work of developing on our own terms.Thanks again for the comment and support.

JRyven April 9, 2011 at 11:23 pm

tms ruge,

I'm impressed by the writing that I've found on this site. I've subscribed to you on twitter.

tms ruge April 9, 2011 at 11:31 pm

Thank you, and thank you for becoming a reader.

Oga April 6, 2011 at 7:19 am

In Ghana (and elsewhere) people say "beggars can't be choosers." I can't help but laugh at the fact that you acknowledge your inability to honor your promise to your people and at the same time insult the foreigner who is donating to your people.

Yes, shoes are not going to change the world but a good pair of football boots could help the next Micheal Essien make it to the top. What pains me is that we in the diaspora don't do our part to help back home yet are perfectly comfortable dissing the efforts of those who don't know our people back home.

Seriously, my friend, you need to think more about what YOU are going to do and less about pooh-poohing what others are doing. We should be embarrassed that it takes the white man to put shoes on the feet of our cousins and mosquito nets around their beds while we sit and comfortably blog away from the diaspora.


tms ruge April 6, 2011 at 8:25 am

Hi Oga,Thanks for your comment. I think “beggars can't be choosers” is a universal comment. As I sit in the board meeting here in Masindi for a company that I have invested in heavily ( that contributes to the welfare of over 150 farmers, I just have to laugh at your ridicule. Why don't you show me what YOU are doing for your people. Perhaps I can take an example from your wonderful contribution to your community and do more.Thanks for trying to take the high road and put me in my place, but I'd beg you to get to know who I am and my work before you lambast me. Yes, “beggars can't be choosers” but I'd venture to say if you “teach a man to fish, he'll eat for a life time.” I guess you are content with spoon-feeding your own people.. Good luck with that empowerment strategy.Just because I haven't put in a floor in a church that I attend doesn't mean I can't. There are much bigger priorities my friend. Thanks for not looking at the bigger picture.

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