My wife and I once shared an apartment with a Ugandan friend. Born and raised in Kampala, Nakalema (not her real name) was incredulous when, at a dinner conversation, I casually mentioned that I did not wear shoes in primary school. “Olimba! (You are lying),” she exclaimed. “They allowed you to attend school without shoes?”
My initial suspicion that she was joking vanished when I realised that she genuinely believed that all kids in Uganda had enjoyed a lifestyle similar to hers.
The truth, of course, was that the vast majority of us walked long distances to school and to family gardens without any footwear.
Throughout my early childhood, my bare feet pounded the rugged paths and roads of Kigezi and made the acquaintance of thorns, sharp stones, animal droppings, mud, hot dust and swamp water without expecting a different arrangement.
Owning shoes was such a foreign concept that I do not recall ever wanting them. In any case, asking for shoes would have earned me threats of caning. Such possessions were not a right but a privilege that one earned through hard work.
The first time I wore shoes was at my baptism into the Native Anglican Church. I was about 9 years of age. A family photograph of the happy event shows me seated, my legs fully stretched, at the end of which are oversized shoes that give visual balance to my generous head. My shoeless siblings are seated next to me, an oddity that is easy to explain. The shoes were not mine.
Mrs Freda Kikira, a dear friend of my mother, lent me the shoes. She had bought them for her son James Mugisha when he started high school at King’s College, Budo. James had faced ridicule and bullying by some Budo boys because the shoes had thick, fat soles, with a wide and round toe cup. The popular shoes at the time were narrow, sharp and thin-soled.
As a result, James had abandoned the “ugly” shoes, exiling them back home in Kabale, which enabled Mrs Kikira to come to my aid. One problem was that James, being a few years my senior, owned larger feet than mine.
Not to worry. My mother was ready with pieces of newsprint as shoe inserts, leaving just enough room for my feet. Socks were several years in the future.
I must have looked odd to Rev. Andereya Gihanga, our rural dean at Kihanga, as I dragged my heavy legs to the alter to receive the great sacrament. With my Church membership secured, the shoes were returned to their owner. Not even our relocation from rural Mparo to Kabale changed the arrangements for my hooves.
My father’s salary at Kabale Hospital was just enough to provide us with the basics and to support and educate his extended family. Shoes for kids were not a consideration. In any case, the schools did not encourage us to wear shoes, rightly fearing the psychological impact of evident socio-economic differences among students.
It was not until 1966 that the need for shoes arose. I was in the second term of Junior Two (grade eight) at Kigezi High School. Our school choir, in which I sang alto, had won the Kigezi District singing competitions. We were going to participate in the national competition in Kampala.
Mr. Stanley Kinyata Bamwanga, our music master, decreed that anyone without shoes would not go to Kampala. Devastated by the news, I rushed to Kabale Hospital to inform my father. With tears in my eyes, I explained the best I could why my father had to meet the unplanned expense. I need not have tried as hard as I did. His face lit up, his smile an unforgettable consent to my request.
A few days later, my mother took me to a shop on the south side of Kabale Stadium. She had already decided what shoes I would get. My only role was to present my feet for fitting. The owner, an Indian called Mr. Bhachu, brought a box, out of which he removed shiny black “French” shoes. (Why they were called “French” is a detail that is long deleted from my memory.) I tried them on and promptly declared them a perfect fit.
To my mother’s repeated enquiry whether or not they were comfortable, I responded in the affirmative. It would be days before I discovered that tight shoes could be a source of great discomfort.
It was a major transition for me. I had now arrived in the shoed class and I would represent my school in the big competition at Namirembe Cathedral. I treasured the privilege of owning those shoes and gave them tender loving care. There was no guarantee that I would get more shoes. Unlike today’s kids who throw away perfectly usable shoes because they are “not cool,” I kept mine until my feet outgrew them. Then my mother, their real owner, gave them away to a relative.
Years later, my mature mind recognised that of all the wonderful things my parents taught me, among the greatest was that ownership of material things was a privilege, not a right, occasioned through hard work, focused scholarship and discipline.