From the time I first got in contact with shoes, I’ve never taken to them. Maybe it’s because that contact was late in coming. Yet again, it may be because my feet had got so used to housing living things (ever heard of jiggers?) that they didn’t fancy being turned into housed guests. To-date, my feet have never got reconciled to the ‘luxury’ of wearing shoes.
For having battled with those living things in their protracted struggle to be sheltered and fed, each of my feet faces outward, instead of forward. As to the toes, when freed, they face in the direction in which their bruises pointed them. Moreover, in that struggle most of my toes acquired heads the size of ‘nyamaturi’, that familiar, blown-up wild animal.
So, I lived in dread of when the heads of my toes would have to be forced together, to face in the same direction. Unfortunately, the curse of being the son of a chief brought that ordeal earlier than would have been comfortable.
It must have been 1956. We had to be ‘confirmed’, which meant we had passed the catechism test. The test, itself, meant repeating correctly the sing-song that we’d been taught from the catechism booklet. The reward for passing the test came in the form of Holy Communion (being allowed to take the Eucharist). From then on, I would regularly step up to the Altar and receive that coveted bread, as a near-to-holy-fat-headed-but-still-tiny Catholic Ingina.
I had to dress for the occasion. At cockcrow that morning, then, our ever-caring mama went around to rouse us children out of sleep, making sure that Chief (our old man) was not disturbed. She knew that if he ever was, he would drench us in freezing water. Never mind that, at the slopes of Mount Muhabura, mornings were always ice-cold.
To dress for the occasion, the church had provided me with second-hand shoes (which it also had received as charity) as the son of a chief. I remember that after being scrubbed clean, I put my shivering feet forward to be stuffed into the shoes. But, since our mama did not have the strength to do it, she called for the assistance of our bulky farm hand.
Ignoring my screams and kicks, the farm hand forced my feet into the shoes and we were shepherded out of the house. We were going to cover the 16-km journey from Canika to-and-from Kinoni Parish on foot, as usual.
However, before we could even cover a km, I stopped because my feet felt like exploding any time…. You see, in handing you those shoes, the priests did not care to check for sizes. Therefore, I must have been given shoes that were too small for my little feet….
When I persisted in screaming, old mama had to ease my feet out of the tortuous shoes so that they could ‘breathe’, until we reached the church. On arrival, a strong man at the church was asked to squeeze them back and I limped into church. But when time for the Eucharist came, I could not walk and had to be half-walked-half-lifted to the Altar and back to our pew.
It was only after church that I was rescued and walked home on my good old bare feet, running and skipping to savour such joy. Three years later I sighed with relief when we were sent into exile, because I knew there would never again be the forced ‘luxury’ of shoes.
Then 1969 came. I had to go to secondary school and, I was told, people didn’t walk to such schools on ‘forks’ (in reference to toes). So, when I carried my suitcase to the bus-stop, I slung my shoes over my shoulder, a recent acquisition from my elder brother in university in Kinshasa, D.R. Congo (which meant they were not brand-new, either). We could not wear them in the refugee camp, understandably, fearing to be misconstrued as showing arrogance even before attaining secondary school education.
When we reached Mbarara, south-western Uganda, we entered the first shop that sold socks. The Indian shopkeeper watched in bewilderment as we sat down to don our shoes, after buying socks. Walking, however, turned out to be impossible, as my ‘Congo shoes’ were two sizes bigger than my feet. Fortunately, though, the Indian was not new to such cases and he got me some cloth to first stuff into the shoes.
Then we put our suitcases on our heads and walked the short distance to school. How clumsily for yours truly, I don’t have to feed your malicious streak!
Thinking back, however, I must have been in the company of many. Most students felt more at home going to classes in slippers. Even in having housed living things, there were students who had to dig holes in the leather of their shoes so as to accommodate their toes that seemed to permanently point sky-ward.
Shoes! With a government that cares for their early familiarisation with them, Rwandan kids don’t know how lucky they are!