I’m one of those people who takes notice of shoes. To me, the shoe someone chooses to wear discloses much about their style, confidence, economic status, personal preferences and often provides insight into their hobbies and past-times. Shoes give perspective and in many cases the shoe says it all.
During my recent trip to Rwanda, I visited one of the poorest villages in the district of Nyarauguru, within sight of the Burundi border. As our tagisi bisi (taxi bus) pulled into town our team was immediately surrounded by the entire village population, including the mayor, who had learned the Abazungu’s (white people) were arriving that morning. The minute my polished toe nails, safely protected by brown leather strappy sandals hit the dirt, my shoe-ology was assaulted. My thoughts screamed, what does a shoeless foot have to say, Elaine? What does a calloused, diseased and dirty shoeless foot tell you? What does an entire village of shoelessness reveal about life in this community?
If these shoeless feet had a voice, I imagine they might say something like this.
The average Rwandan family earns less than $20 Cdn per month. One litre of milk costs $1, one kilo of potatoes $0.27, one kilo of tomatoes $0.60 and electricity to light and heat a home costs $5 per month. ‘As a result of the war and genocide in Rwanda, where close to a million Tutsi and moderate Hutu were killed and millions of people were displaced, around 20 percent of the Rwandan population moved into poverty and around 26 percent moved into extreme poverty (Justino and Verwimp 2006). The war and genocide are assumed to have led to an increase in female‐headed households. Such households are often considered to form ‘the poorest of the poor’ (Tinker 1990)’ (1). So, although shoes for these feet might be a necessity, they are simply a luxury, not a priority.
Wow. The shoe (or no shoe) has once again said it all.
I played a little game with the children of this village in order to capture this photo of their feet. Without speaking English, their laughter told me they found it funny to take a picture of feet. As a matter of fact, to them, taking photo’s was a giggle-inducing-novel-activity, period. I’m glad they eventually caught on to my game. I’m also very glad they had no idea that my game had a hidden agenda. My motive was to capture a profound illustration of poverty. My screaming thoughts wanted the photo of these feet to forever talk to me about my own necessities, luxuries and priorities. I hope that when I look at shoes in the future, my perspective will include this moment in my personal history………..when no shoes said it all.
(1) Quote taken from Dr. M Koster’s paper selected for presentation at Yale University, Dec 2008.