To the reader, an apology: this is an obituary for a pair of shoes, and not even an illustrious pair at that, for though purchased in a shop in Ethiopia, they never shod the feet of Emperor Haile Selassie.
I first met them, those shoes, in a duty-free shop at Bole Airport, Addis Ababa. When I left the hotel on a stroll the evening before, I had been wearing a pair of leather slippers custom-crocheted by Crochet Plus – whose owner is better known for her poetry. It was a fine evening on a short layover on my way from Somaliland to Nigeria and I thought I would see the city around my hotel.
I decided to walk.
It is an undulant city, Addis Ababa. The wide street on which my hotel was located ran up a mild mountain and I wandered a quarter-kilometer, browsing shops. The bookshop was a spiritual experience: the mild-manner clerk stood like a priest in a darkened chapel. Around him ran pews of books in a language I was illiterate in, not because they were Spanish or Portuguese or French books, but because they were Amharic – printed in an African language far more ancient that English, French, Portuguese or Spanish, a language spoken by Jesus in his time, by twenty-odd million people today and currently the most widespread Semitic language after Arabic. I browsed the titles, marvelling at the breadth of contemporary literature of which I was completely ignorant. The 6th Hargeysia International Book Fair, from which I was returning home, had similarly opened my eyes to another universe of literature in Somali, yet another indigenous African language that was even more ancient than Amharic. I had met exponents of their written word old and new alike, their national bard, Hadraawi, educators like Siciid Saalax Axmed, young writers like Saddaan Xuseen Carab and Barkhad Maxamed Kaariye. For a moment I reflected on all the wisdom and wit and science and poetry that had been uttered and written and lost to the antiquity of our own languages. And then I walked on.
I was browsing a craft shop when I heard a crack and a rumble. I hurried to the door in time to see a great storm break over the city. In minutes the hitherto brilliant evening was overcast. Preternatural dark clouds scudded across the Addis skies and the rain came hurtling down. I watched pedestrians run into shops for shelter. It was not the kind of rain anyone walked through.
So I extended my window shopping another thirty minutes until the rain was tame enough to brave. There was only one problem: the sewers had flooded and spilled onto the tarmac. The friendly street I had walked was now a shallow stream. As I crossed over into my hotel, fierce floodwaters snatched and swooshed away my right slipper. If I was holding a toddler I’d have lost him too, such was the ferocity of the stream that now had the street for riverbed. I had a broken second in which I could have tried to rescue my slipper, but the relevant proverbial wisdom warned that the chaser of the chicken was guaranteed a fall. That was the same fate, I surmised, of the chaser of slippers snatched by Ethiopian floodwaters. The moment passed and suddenly I was less a slipper on an Addis Ababa street.
i decided it was less silly to go barefoot with the explanatory slipper in hand, rather than walk half-shod. I entered the hotel reception sheepishly, feeling like a writer on really hard times. My luggage was already in the belly of an Ethiopian Jetliner, already checked through to Lagos so I was facing a sudden and serious emergency. I explained my dilemma. The shy receptionists couldn’t stop grinning. This is an emergency, I said, unnecessarily, I need to buy a pair of shoes, or slippers, anything.
And they really tried. It was apparently an exciting assignment because I suddenly found myself assisted by several superfluous Ethiopian hotel staff firing off staccato Amharic. Unfortunately, the proper shops were closed, it being a Sunday evening following a storm. And the gift shops they could find in the vicinity of the hotel had tiny leather slippers that could only accommodate three or four of my toes. it was a comic reversal of the Cinderella story, a desperate man trying to fit his oversized foot into tiny slippers presented by a giggling succession of ladies. In vain.
By dawn, I came downstairs for the bus to the airport wearing a scandalously white pair of bedroom slippers with the name of the hotel blazoned on top. You know the type: effeminate, frivolous… It was tiny too: although my toes were fully hooded, my heels made full contact with the ground. I had taken it with the full blessings of the hotel management, but I kept getting dirty looks from random travellers as I passed through the security queues at Bole International Airport. They looked from my feet to my hand luggage, as though it was crammed with the towels, cutlery and bedsheets of my transit hotel.
As soon as I cleared immigration, I made a beeline for the duty-free shops where I sighted a number of shoe racks. ‘Duty-free’ the prices may have been, but they certainly weren’t mark-up free, yet my size in shoes were not to be seen at any price among the shops that had opened their doors! I was desperate: my flight had been announced, but I fully realised that my reputation would not survive an arrival at Murtala Mohammed International airport in white hotel slippers three sizes too small. That was when I saw the gentle shoes, whose obituary you are now reading.
Dear reader, it was destiny, that meeting between man and shoes. They looked small, those brown, casual shoes, as though they were another waste of time, but they were stitched of a soft patent leather and when my feet slipped magically into their comfortable clasp, when my heels (savaged all morning by the cold Ethiopian floors) docked effortlessly, and my toes wriggled, free, I sighed like a man making the urinal at the last possible moment before disaster. Twenty-five American dollars, I paid, the cheapest of all the shoes I had seen that morning, but certainly the most valuable I had ever had in my wardrobe. Then I was running for my flight.
I caught it too.
Three years have passed. They were never eye-catching shoes, this I must confess. In the world of footwear they were duck, not swan. They were too workaday to be handsome – they were a ‘jeans on a barbecue-night’ kind of knockabout, but they were my lucky shoes, embodying the relief that suffused my last minute rescue in Addis Ababa. Well, I have pushed those Bole shoes, but no longer. Today, it goes to where all good shoes go, for if I turn out in them once more my friends will take a collection for me. So with due apologies for keeping you from your world-saving, bank-rescuing, student-mentoring, NGO-administrating day, I ask you to join me in this moment of silence in memory of my Bole shoes.
May only good termites eat their patent leather.