Shoes. Something so basic we don’t even think much about them other than which pair of the many in our closet we will wear at the moment. On any given day we may actually wear several different pairs of shoes depending on the function we require:
Sneakers – Do I wear the good ones for the machines at the gym or the old ones for gardening?
Hiking boots- I rarely wear them but have them just in case
Crocs – just for hanging out
Dress shoes – brown, black, or navy depending on matching which outfit
Boots – Do I wear Uggs for winter warmth or snow boots for shoveling?
Flip flops – Do I wear the cheap ones for the beach or shower shoes in unfamiliar places?
Sandals – Do I wear the hiking ones with straps or slip-on dressier ones to wear with skirts?
I think my assortment of shoes is fairly standard for a middle -class, middle-aged (I refuse to say elderly) American woman living in a temperate zone. Because I don’t change sizes and do tend to buy top quality footwear, I keep my shoes for years. I do switch out my sneakers more often because I’m an avid walker and don’t want to develop foot problems. Both at the gym and at my running shoe store where I purchase my sneakers is a six-foot-tall cardboard box to place used sneakers in to be sent to developing countries, one of which is El Salvador. The following story explains the reason they send them.
My partner has never ever forgotten the haunting account resonating in his head about families so appallingly poor that all members of the family share one pair of shoes. Living in austere conditions of what we entitled Americans may view as forsaken shacks, but Salvadorans would fondly call cheerful homes, where cracks between the boards are so wide, they allow rodents easy passage, this is where the folks in these poverty-striken campesino (farming) communities live with only one pair of shoes for the whole family. This one pair of shoes sits beside the makeshift door or piece of fabric serving as a door.
The shoes themselves consist of a heavy pair of what we would classify as work boots. They are probably made of leather or some facsimile of leather. These shoes are constructed for heavy duty use and would be large enough to fit the biggest pair of feet in the household.
One special location near the door is designated for the pair of shoes. Whoever has the greatest need for that pair of shoes at a particular moment gets to wear them first thing in the morning. It may be the mom heading down the mountain to get the morning water in the plastic container atop her head before sunrise. When she returns, the shoes return to their designated spot at the door while another family member may prepare to walk to the agricultural fields to work the plot of beans, maize, or sugar cane before the heat of the day. When he or she returns, the shoes return to that same spot beside the door for the student who may be off to morning classes. At noon when the student returns from school, the shoes return to the door for the fourth family member to use for walking to obtain cooking water. An afternoon student may require the next shift of shoe usage. A return to the fields in the late afternoon after a tortilla and a rest in the hammock requires another person to use the family shoes. Early evening a teenager may want to join his friends in a game of soccer. EVERY community has a makeshift soccer field. Perhaps the family shoes are unavailable at this time or they are simply too clumsy to play well in. We’ve watched many players play barefoot or with shoes tied hanging over their shoulders. When I asked why, the response was, “They can’t risk someone else stealing their shoes.”
Another trip down the mountain for more water may be on the evening agenda. Water is needed for not only drinking and cooking, but also for the family laundry which will hang over stick fences to dry. Between tasks the Salvadoran women may prefer to wear a cheap pair of flipflops or go barefoot.
This cycle repeats itself every day of their lives. The shoes have no day off. I can’t imagine they would even fit every family member well. Do younger kids wad up tissue in the toes to be able to wear adult sizes?
You get the picture. One pair of shoes undergoes a great amount of wear and tear.
A friend of ours, Eric, wrote this after returning from his first trip to El Salvador:
“There was Alano, the man living in abject poverty who bought this pair of shoes in the 1970’s and still wears [them]. He stitches them every other week with twine and cuts up used tires he finds in the landfill every three months to replace their soles.”
He took this photo of those shoes and makes sure to provide a new pair of footwear on every subsequent trip to the country he makes.