Shoes: the least of our problems
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.
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.
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.