I have attempted to buy shoes twice since arriving here in Addis Ababa. About a month ago I decided that I needed a new pair. Up to that point in time I had been wearing a single pair of shoes, almost exclusively. They’re brown leather and belonged to my father before I commandeered them. I’ve had them for a long time. I believe I wore them to my high school prom. I wore them throughout most of my college career as my “nice” shoes. I graduated in them. I wore them as my walking-through-the-woods shoes while I spent a summer rock climbing in West Virginia. They’ve been places. Addis Ababa is technically a city, but the quality of the streets and the things that you step on make walking around here more like navigating an obstacle course than normal city ambling. I do a lot of walking here and after six months of this my brown leather shoes that have survived years of abuse have sort of eroded away into something resembling those weird dried up pig’s ears you can buy as a treat for your dog.
I am very self-conscious, especially when buying things like clothes or accessories, so for me simply going into a store and shopping for shoes requires an immense amount of effort, concentration, and mental fortitude. I guess there are nice places to shop in town but, adhering to my volunteer’s budget, I usually just duck into some uneven shop on the street if I need to buy anything like fruit, bread, broken cell phone covers, pirated versions of straight-to-DVD movies, or artfully designed Miley Cyrus backpacks and John Cena shirts. Usually I know exactly what I want and it’s a quick in and out deal. With shoes it’s a little different. I have to sit down and try different ones on because there’s not much point if they don’t fit. Bona-fide name brand imports like Nike or Adidas are common, but really expensive, so they’re more or less out of the question. Finding the low prices requires navigation of the extremely entertaining world of knock-off imitation brands. The easiest one to look over is Adidos, but because they really only changed one letter they lose creativity points. My undisputed favorite fake shoe brand so far is Redbook. Instead of Reebok. Redbook.
However, Redbook does not even come close to the entertainment value of Facefood, a café in between Bole and Tele Bole. Imagine the Facebook logo but instead of Facebook, it says Facefood. Just imagine it. Well, there’s a big sign like that right on the front of Facefood café. First of all, all food is for your face, unless maybe you’re hooked up to a feeding tube. Secondly, what the hell? At least Adidos and Redbook are trying to trick you into buying their products by ripping off other shoe brands. What are you supposed to think when you see Facefood? “Oh hey look, a social network site that’s a building. Let me just go check and see if Frank posted his pictures from spring break…what? It’s a café? Oh well, no choice but to order a club sandwich and a macchiato.”
For my first go at buying new shoes I decided to play into the knock-off brand thing. I went to the really cheap area of town and found what I thought to be a nice white pair of fake Converses for 300 birr – about 16 bucks. They even had the word “Best” inscribed on the heel. I thought it was a pretty good deal. I walked back to the compound I was living in and showed one of the property guards, Fitsum, my new shoes.
“Uh-oh, Matty. These shoes poor…”
“No, look. They say ‘Best’ on them, they can’t be poor. They’re the best.”
“Look. From China. Maybe one or two months. If you play football, only one or two weeks.”
Fitsum knew that these shoes probably came from some wretched Chinese sweatshop and would only last a month or so. Less, if I played football in them (which I did not). I actually laughed him off. I thought, who would make shoes that only last a month?
Two days after wearing the shoes in Addis the sole started to come part. Two days! After a week or so they were borderline un-wearable. Three weeks of use and they look like they’d been through a cement mixer. Apparently Fitsum speaks the truth. But why should have I believed him? He’s only been living on the streets of Addis and bargaining for goods for 30 years. At this point my old brow leather shoes actually were more functional than these white converses. Learning from my experience, I decided that I needed to up my standards a bit. This is how I found myself in a well put together little boutique full of pants, belts, and shoes. It even had a changing room. The woman attending the register was very pleasant, but very determined that I look over every shoe in the store:
“Chamma konjo an’na rekash efellegallo.” I would say. I want nice, cheap shoes.
“Ferenji! Amarigna gobez!” would be the reply. Foreigner! Your Amharic is good!
“Look at this one, and this one, and this one.”
She then displayed an array of really weird looking shoes that would look alright on Pharrel Williams, but absolutely ridiculous on a white person such as myself. You know those toothy-white Supras with the comically over-sized tongue that has “SUPRA” stamped on it in a large, aggressive typeset? They just don’t work for a white kid with a week old beard, a nondescript haircut, and an arsenal of earth-tone sweaters.
Eventually I decided on a pair of dark blue boaty-type shoes. They’re not really my style but they fit me and they were the cheapest shoes in the store. I paid 600 Ethiopian birr for them. That’s about 33 US dollars. Other than plane tickets, this pair of shoes is the single most expensive thing I’ve purchased in Africa so far. Even so, I think that’s a reasonable price for a brand new pair of shoes that are hopefully more robust than the Best shoes. In fact, these ones had the word “Comfort” written on the interior of the soles. Nice. Since I’ve been alternating between two pairs of pants every day since I arrived here in Addis, I figured that as long as I’m buying shoes, I may as well buy some new pants. I bought a pair of faded grey jeans that cost 350 birr (20 bucks) and are actually a quality article of clothing.
After about half an hour in the store I walked out with my new shoes on and bag full of pants. I proceeded to have dinner with some friends. After dinner I caught a ride halfway back home and took a taxi to cover the other half. It was about 11 o’clock, which is really late for my neighborhood on a weeknight. I got back to the compound, knocked on the gate, and was let in by another guard, Samu. Remember that my shoes are a very dark blue color – almost black. In fact one could say that they’re the color of night. There is hardly any light and my shoes are the color of everything else in the world at this time.
“Wow, Matty. New shoes.
Despite the darkness and the fact that I’d probably woken him up, Samu instantly noticed my new dark blue shoes.
“Sin teh no?” asked Samu. How much?
“Sidist meto birr.” I replied.
“Wow, wow, Matty. Very expensive.”
I then proceeded to pull out my old pair of shoes in order to show Samu that I needed a new pair of shoes because my old leather ones were falling apart. I showed him the holes and detached soles. They smelled like a heavily used gym bag. See? I’m a person that only indulges in materialistic phenomena like buying new shoes when I really need to – is what I wanted to convey to him. He looked at my brown leather shoes for a moment, and then gave a chuckle.
“Matty, we can fix. Just up the road there is shop. Wash leather, new rubber. Brand new shoes! Maybe 60 or 70 birr.”
Apparently you can fix broken shoes. And apparently there were people right up the road that could scrub clean the leather on my old shoes and replace the desperately worn out soles for less than five dollars.
“Minden no?” asked Samu. What is this?
He had spotted the bag in my hands containing the pants and asked what it was.
“Pants,” I reply.
“Sin teh no?”
“Sost meto hamsah birr.”
“Wow, wow. Very expensive.”
“What? No way, Samu. Fair price. How much did your pants cost?”
As I said this I pinched a fold of Samu’s dark green pants as if to give them a thorough inspection. They seemed solid.
“These trousers?” replied Samu, looking at his pants. “Free. These are from army. 20 years old.”
Well, he really had me there. In the 80’s and 90’s Samu was in the Ethiopian army. He’s told me tons of stories about sleeping alongside crocodiles, spending all day in a river building a bridge, hiking through the mountains for days with only a canteen’s worth of water, or parachuting out of a plane into a forest. All while wearing these goddam pants that he got standard issue. So that’s why they were so solid.
And that’s why he noticed my new shoes. Samu, along with all of the other guards at the workshop, is paid 1,000 birr a month. That’s $54 every month. Samu has two little kids and a wife to support. No shit he’s had the same pair of pants for 20 years. Why the hell would you spend one third of your monthly salary on a pair of new pants when the one pair you already have works just fine?
Ethiopians pay attention to these things. Buying a new pair of shoes or pants or underwear is a big deal for a lot of the people here. But I must say that Ethiopians are far and away the best dressers I’ve ever seen. The people living on the street obviously don’t have more than a few rags to work with and once you get to the middle and upper classes this weird sort of materialism sets in and people begin to look like Barbie dolls or mannequins. However the overwhelmingly numerous working class Ethiopians really know how look sharp on a budget.
Walking around, I’ve found that a lot of people will glance down at my shoes upon passing. I’ve heard that an accurate indicator of quality of life in places like this is the quality of people’s shoes. It makes sense. As long as something is on your feet it’s legit. Only people with extra cash will buy new shoes strictly for style points. In fact, if you walk around barefoot long enough, your feet will callous up and you won’t even need shoes.
Back in America I have separate pairs of shoes for:
-Going to work
-Rock climbing (two, in fact)
What kind of monster am I? Y’know, maybe the reason I’m getting such bad ITBS in my knee is that this perfectly decent pair of running shoes that cost $80 doesn’t flawlessly fit the graceful contours of my beautiful feet. Well, better upgrade to a $150 combo of new shoes and new insoles because my feet deserve to feel like they’re on a cloud, even when I’m pounding pavement for hours at a time. Also, when I’m just casually strolling, running shoes are too warm because it gets hot outside sometimes and I want my feet to be able to breathe. This is why I need sandals. Night on the town? Better put on a nicer pair of slick shoes so any girls I meet won’t think I’m a cheapskate, and thus will be more likely to accompany me back to my flat where we can do things like talk about all the shoes I have.