THE SHOE PROJECT

Shoe Story 26: Caroline's Shoes

By Yemi Laotan



It’s been eleven years since my feet stepped on Nigerian soil. Caroline is not my blood relative, yet her shoes evoke sharp memories of home. Ironically, in Canada, our lives intersect and our worlds become one. And it all begins with this delicate pair of sandals.


It was only after a week of my husband suggesting I write about Caroline’s shoes that I finally made my way down to the store basement to retrieve them. When he initially made the proposal, I thought to myself, “What do I possibly have in common with Caroline? Or her shoes?”

We are not blood relatives. We do not come from the same village, town or country. I am West African, while she is Southern African. I do not believe I was being pompous or proud. I just could not see the connection…yet. Maybe it was because I had not held her delicate sandals in my hands.

I have been away from home for over eleven years. To refresh my memory, I often watch Nigerian movies, visit Nigerian blogs and forums, cook our local and traditional dishes, and wear African clothing. But who would have thought that Caroline’s shoes would induce memories?

To fully understand my story, you have to meet Caroline.

Caroline Tjambiru comes from the Himba tribe in Opuwo, Namibia. The Himbas are a pastoral people with nomadic tendencies. Their lifestyle is sustained by livestock. They count their cattle the way we count our dollars! Having many cows is viewed as a measure of success.

Because of his work in Fair Trade, my husband, Paul, sponsors a few artisans from Africa to visit Canada. Caroline was the second visitor to come to our home this year. Before her arrival, she stated that one of the requirements she had was that she would be able to wear her traditional attire everywhere.

To give you a hint about native Himba culture, their women wear very little clothing. So, you can only imagine the reaction she caused…all positive though! Some people cheered, some clapped, some stared and many took pictures. After all, it’s not every day you get to meet and greet someone from the Namib Desert.

I acquired a pair of Caroline’s sandals through a project Paul did with the Royal Ontario Museum. Crafted from animal skin, these sandals are used by the Himbas for work and daily activities. Their soles are very flat and four to five inches of thin strap stretch from the toes to around the feet and then are tightly secured onto the inside of the heel. Simply put, they are designed to fit one’s feet comfortably and are very practical. Though the sandals look quite flimsy, they are not. Himbas walk for miles in them.

When I held this pair of sandals in my hands for the first time, the main thing I noticed was the overpowering smell of otjithe (a mixture of red ochre, fat, and perfume). Then, the red mud is smeared all over the sandals. Anyone who grew up in Nigeria can attest to its red mud. There is no escape from it…since it is everywhere.

The sight of ochre took me back to my childhood. I recalled playing soccer with the boys on the street, in the dirty red mud, when my mom was out. I would keep one eye out, and race inside the minute I caught a glimpse of her returning. She hated my playing outside with the boys and could not understand why I did not engage in more “feminine” activities.

Also, the sandals look like flip-flops! They prompted me to remember the numerous flip-flops I wore as a teenager. The many dirt roads I trekked. My feet were always covered in red dust or mud, regardless of the season! Everyone knew it came with the territory, so no one really complained. If anything, it was expected.

At the age of 19, I left Nigeria and headed for Europe to complete my post-secondary education. I studied in Ireland and Hungary. Six years ago, I arrived in Canada. The customs guard looked at my passport and observed that I had been to a lot of places. “But you can stay here,” he said. Today, I am 30, and I call Canada home. Yes, Caroline's sandals brought back memories. Snapshot memories of home, both sad and sweet. But above all, a thirst to go back. It has been too long.

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