Walking a Mile with (or without) Another Man’s Shoes

The Barenaked Ladies have a line, “I have a tendency to wear my mind on my sleeve, I have a history of taking off my shirt.” Well there is also the phrase that “You can’t really understand another person’s experience until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.” Well I also have a history of being barefoot.

Eric holding down the defense.

To give you some context, I was first introduced to the barefoot movement about 6 years ago in college. The benefits of being barefoot include improved balance and coordination, stronger foot and ankle muscles, better postures, and a more natural running form. Since that time I have done my fair share of barefoot walking, running, and hiking, and expected to adapt just fine during my Peace Corps service.  My feet, however, were not adapted for life in Namibia.

Most of the kids here go barefoot all day except when they are at school and have to wear shoes as part of their uniform. Often these are falling apart, a reflection of the challenging economic conditions they face at home. Additionally, the pavement here can get hot enough to melt your shoes. There are also other obstacles to contend with like thorns, rocks, and broken glass. These ingrained challenges are things that people have learned to deal with.

Another instance where people often go barefoot is when when playing soccer. Young men like to play on the concrete courts around town and will often wear one or no shoes. The first time I chose to forgo shoes, I got a giant blister on each foot. It’s clear that they have played this way their whole life and are used to it, but to me, I felt a definite lack of control when sprinting and changing directions. Playing with these guys has given me the perspective that Namibians are extremely tough. I have seen two toes smashed and that person has either kept playing or been back out the next day, playing through something I would expect to take more than a week to heal.

Improvised goals include anything from cinder blocks to broken school desks

So my walk of a mile in another’s shoes has been barefoot, just like many of the people here. Being unshod has also shown me how fortunate I was back home, but also how fortunate I am here in Namibia. In the states, most people have shoes and can choose to be barefoot for the benefits, or they can protect their feet when they want to. Here, I also have the privilege of being able to put on shoes if need be. Physically I can wear shoes if the terrain is too rough; figuratively, I can put on my “shoes” and rejoice in the comforts of my ever more distant American ways.

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