Primary school children in village schools can get away with coming to school barefoot. Most of them don't own a pair of shoes and if the teachers sent them home, there would be no pupils in the classroom! It's different in the city, including the urban slum where we work. The humblest primary school serving the poorest children requires shoes. A barefoot child will not be permitted to enter. To make things more difficult, the schools require not just any shoes, but regulation black leather shoes for both boys and girls. Depending on the school, a teacher may tolerate non-standard shoes for a few days or weeks, but after warnings the child is sent home and told not to return until he or she has the proper footwear. Since one pair of second-hand leather shoes can cost more than one term's school fees, many children find themselves back on the streets when they should be in school.
Shoes have been an essential part of our program since the beginning. Initially, we distributed shoes donated from America. But as both shipping costs and the number of students increased, this became cost-prohibitive. Next we tried buying new, discounted shoes (not real leather) made in China and sold in Uganda. We gave them to all of our kids at the beginning of the year and they looked great — all shiny and smart. Four months later the shoes were falling apart. By the next school year, I had become familiar with Owino Market, Kampala's frenzied and chaotic bazaar for all goods new and used, and for all comestibles from soup to nuts to fried grasshoppers.
As I moved from one shoe stall to the next, I despaired of finding someone I could do business with. Each vendor seemed more interested in overcharging the muzungu for a one-time sale than in establishing a long-term relationship. Then I found Richard, an experienced dealer in durable imported second-hand leather shoes. Richard had vision and the spirit of a true entrepreneur. He quickly perceived that he could earn more in three days putting shoes on our kids than in weeks depending on unreliable walk-by traffic in a market with dozens of shoe traders. This was the arrangement we made: We provided Richard with quantities and estimated sizes. He transported the shoes to our office in bulk and assisted in fitting the children. He gave us a fair price and we paid him in full: cash on the proverbial barrelhead.
Africa is a cruel place, and Uganda is no exception. Just a few days after our 2009 shoe distribution, Owino Market was destroyed by a raging fire, most likely caused by arson. Over 25,000 traders lost their entire stock and their livelihoods. I phoned Richard. Surely he could recoup with the money he had just earned from us. Tragically, he had spent his profits on new inventory the day before the fire.
But Africans are resilient in the face of disaster. Owino Market has since been rebuilt with assistance from the government and the private sector, and through the gritty determination of the vendors. Richard and many others have scraped together enough cash to restock. We're looking forward to continuing our partnership next year on "shoe day."
Join Us for a Presentation
Before returning to Uganda in September, Peter and Sharon will be giving illustrated presentations about the work of the St. Nicholas Uganda Children's Fund in the following locations. All are welcome to attend.
Alberta, Canada: Sunday, August 2. Holy Martyr Peter the Aleut Orthodox Church, 1939 33rd Avenue SW, Calgary, AB. Divine Liturgy at 10:00 am followed by coffee hour and Uganda presentation (12:00 noon).
Greater Chicago: Sunday, August 23. St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, 1000 Barber Lane, Joliet, IL. Divine Liturgy at 9:30 am followed by coffee hour and Uganda presentation (11:00 am).
Youngstown/Warren/Sharon: Wednesday, August 26, 6:30 pm. Holy Cross Orthodox Church, 950 Maple Drive, Hermitage, PA.
Greater Cleveland: Sunday, August 30. St. Luke Antiochian Orthodox Mission, 36125 Aurora Road, Solon, OH. Divine Liturgy at 10:30 am followed by coffee hour and Uganda presentation (12:00 noon).
Read the entire article on the Uganda Children's Fund website (new window will open).