First Person

Ethiopia: Walking in someone else’s shoes

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A young woman washes her plastic shoe at a water tap from an Oxfam-funded project. Photo: Eva-Lotta Jansson / Oxfam America
A young woman washes her plastic shoe at a water tap from an Oxfam-funded project. Photo: Eva-Lotta Jansson / Oxfam America

As Oxfam continues our response to the floods in Pakistan, Coco McCabe is visiting Oxfam America’s projects in Ethiopia, where recurring droughts, conflicts, and soaring food prices continue to burden many families. Here’s her latest update from her journey.

 I’m in Ethiopia and I’ve decided to go shoe shopping—a chore that’s always a nightmare at home where there’s a shoe for every step: approach shoes, walking shoes, running shoes, dress shoes. I don’t want any of that stuff. I just want something that’s going to do the job for me here. Something sturdy and mud-worthy.

So here, in Agere Maryam, a few hour’s drive from the Kenyan border, I’ve decided to follow the lead of the local herders and go for plastic—all purpose, one-piece plastic. No glue. No stitching. No doodads. There are heaps of molded shoes for sale here—blue, brown, black, green—piled on tarps by roadside kiosks or offered in mounds in the nearby market.

But the abundance belies the reality: many people in the fields and pastures between here and the market in Finchawa go barefoot. Shoes, when people spend the money on them, are worn to shreds. And function always trumps fashion. In the market, I spy a boy darting through the crowd. On his right foot he wears a lady’s shoe—blue or black I can’t tell through the dust that covers it—and for his left foot he has found a man’s leather shoe, camel-brown and pointy. Its laces are long gone.

Tibebu Koji, my Oxfam colleague, tells me that plastic shoes—slip-ons or sandals– play a central role in the lives of herders who spend their days mucking through corrals, traipsing across pastures filled with sharp grasses and prickles, and wading into streams and ponds to water their cattle. The shoes are affordable, easy to wash, and airy as the temperature climbs under the burning sun. And when the old reliables break, herders melt them back together over a hot fire.

For a long time, plastic products came from Kenya, Tibebu says, shipped in on the road we now roll down —the only one between Addis Ababa and the border. But these days, plastic jerry cans, baskets, and shoes are all made in Ethiopia, many of them manufactured in the capital. And when it comes to shoes, they provide never-ending service: People collect the cast-offs so they can be ground down and used to make whole new pairs.

When we stop to buy water, I jump out of the car, landing in front of a big pile of plastic shoes. In less than five minutes, the deed is done: I’ve been shoe shopping. And for 20 birr—about $1.50—I’m set for the next muddy track, the next path full of puddles, the next field of dung. I’m the happy owner of a pair of size 43 shiny black sandals and for the first time in the four visits I’ve made to rural Ethiopia, I finally feel properly equipped for the work ahead. Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Google+