By Rachel Pieh Jones
I saw a scruffy boy at the Nairobi airport and wondered, where is that kid’s mother? His hair stuck up in all directions, uncombed and unwashed. He wore blue jeans with holes in the knees so wide the bottom half and the top half of the jeans were barely still connected. His red sweatshirt had a hole in the neck, both armpits, and the cuffs were shredded to strings. His shoes. I think they used to be shoes. Now, they were merely a see-through blue upper attached by shoelaces at the ankle to a rubber bottom that was filled with holes. His dirty socks poked through the holes and the soles flipped around his feet like flip-flops that flopped in the front instead of in back.
He’s not really motherless but he sure looked like it. His name is Henry and he’s my son.
He loves those shoes and jeans, that sweatshirt. He refused for months to get rid of them and refused to duct tape them (duct tape fixes run in the family).
But we were now in Minnesota and it was a below-zero-almost-every-day kind of December. Henry could not wear those shoes or jeans anymore. Grandma had already purchased new jeans; it was up to me to buy him new shoes.
We went to the mall, every expatriate’s favorite first place to go upon re-entry (oh wait, it isn’t?), and marched to the shoe store. I pulled a pair off the shelf. While Henry tried them on the store employee came to help us.
“How do they fit?” I asked.
“They’re a little tight,” Henry said.
“Anything is going to be tight after those.” I pointed at the old pair and the employee noticed, for the first time, the pile of rags and recognized them as used-to-be-shoes.
“Holy crap!” he said. “Are those your old shoes?” He started laughing so hard he drew the attention of the other staff. He picked up the shoes (a brave move if ever there was one, maybe he hadn’t seen Henry’s socks yet) and held them aloft.
“Guys, check this out.” The soles hung loose, his fingers slid ‘in and out of the upper part of the shoe. “Dude.” That was in a whisper. “Do you think Adidas has ever seen a pair of their shoes like this? Dude.”
Then he looked at me and I could see in his eyes admiration for Henry and (I’m sure I totally imagined this) condemnation of me. What kind of mother lets her son run around in such horrid clothing? Not only run around in these rags but wear them on airplanes and to the mall? Obviously, his eyes said (or rather my heart saw), a bad kind of mother.
“Why have you waited so long to buy new shoes?” he asked.
“We live in Africa,” I said.
I hate that I said it like that, like it was an excuse, like shoeless children are to be expected if they live in Africa, so I tried to fix it.
“Not that Africa doesn’t have shoes.” Now I was defending a continent.
“They have plenty of shoes.” Now I was lumping an entire continent into a word ‘they.’
“Its just that Henry goes to boarding school.” Now I’m an extra bad mother and ‘Africa’ is so bad I have to send Henry elsewhere.
“I mean, we live in Djibouti.” Now I’m talking about booties.
The employee had most likely made no judgment on my parenting and probably hadn’t caught my ridiculous: ‘we live in Africa so I can’t buy my son new shoes’ comment and I was now inundating him with meaningless information. He just wanted to laugh about shoes, not get a lecture on shoes in Africa, where is Djibouti, or why we chose boarding school.
But he was politely looking at me, nodding. I had a choice and how I communicated with this young man would either confirm the general idea that Africa has no shoes or would condemn me as a terrible, lazy mother. Who was going to take the fall here? Me? Or Africa?
I could easily have played into what so many Americans think about Africa. It is a single monolith, it is entirely poor, people don’t have shoes or clothes or food or jobs or creativity or … basically a continent filled with lack.
I could have said something foolish like, “Africa doesn’t have good shoes.” Then Africa would bear the blame for not being of sufficient quality, not me. I would be the brave mother who dared raise a son in such trying circumstances. I would be a hero. I could even suggest we donate this pair of trash shoes to ‘Africa.’ Maybe they need them. If they aren’t good enough for my son, maybe they are good enough for an African’s son.
Or. I could tell the truth.
I could say that I had made the cheap, lazy mothering choice. I just didn’t buy him shoes. That is exactly what I said.
Then I dragged this poor salesman into a monologue about how I shouldn’t have oversimplified my answer and how Africa is a continent made up of a multitude of diverse nations, each with lots of shoes, and yes there are some people on the massive continent who don’t have shoes (personally, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t own shoes. I know plenty who don’t own beautiful shoes or quality shoes or multiple pairs of shoes) but that isn’t because Africa doesn’t have shoes, and how I feel sad about my kids being at boarding school, but not guilty, and how parents of teenagers face the unique challenge of clothing them well, made even more unique in our case by distance.
We bought the first pair of shoes Henry tried on and he wore them out of the store, the old ones in the box (to be burned later).
I don’t want to go into that long and awkward of a conversation often and learned my lesson that day. I need to be careful how I represent this continent and this nation, even in off-the-cuff remarks. I have had the unique opportunity to learn some things and have a responsibility to honor that knowledge. I don’t need to lecture, lectures won’t make much difference, I’m sure the salesman tuned me out back at “Holy crap!”
But may I never make the conceited choice of masking my parenting weaknesses behind living in the developing world, may I never make the selfish choice of blaming my failure to do something for my family on my expatriate status. May I never choose to say ‘Africa has run out of shoes’ so that I will look like a better mother. And maybe, if I learn to speak more wisely and accurately, I can help begin a small trickle of change. Maybe people will begin to see Africa not as a continent of lack but of beauty and strength and power and growth.
I think the salesman was glad to see us go.
Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband Tom Jones (not the singer, though he thinks life might be more interesting as a musical) and three children. Raised in the Christian west, she used to say ‘you betcha,’ and ate Jell-O salads. Now she lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas.