18 June 2014 is National Barefoot Day in South Africa. Taking a leaf out of the TOMS book, the National Barefoot Day which is organized by The Put Foot Foundation, urges South Africans to go barefoot for a day in order to highlight the plight of millions of underprivileged children who live every day without shoes. The Put Foot Foundation adds the word indignity to the plight of these children. Their mission statement: ‘Giving young, under-privileged children hope, pride, and dignity through a pair of brand new, 100% leather, quality, South African-made school shoes’. The message seems clear; going barefoot is something to be ashamed of, steals your hope, and going barefoot is simply not something to be proud of. Luckily the answer is fairly straight forward; let’s buy shoes for every underprivileged child who does not own shoes.
And this is the problem. We are not really solving the problem. Yes it is true that many children don’t have shoes, and yes, they do feel shamed by their lack of shoes. However, I am not so sure that funding, buying, and distributing shoes to these children are the answer. It might just be that there are bigger issues at hand. For example, why don’t we choose to address the prejudices of a society that connects the values of hope, pride, and dignity with the wearing of shoes? Won’t we do our children, and not only underprivileged children, a huge favour by teaching them that the essential values of hope, pride, and dignity are not found in the stuff that you own, including shoes. Is it not much more important for children to learn that they should not judge others based on the quality, the kind of, or lack of attire; indeed that they should not judge at all. Surely this is a lesson that cannot be out grown and will stand them in good stead for the rest of their lives?
It is this inherent and underlying connection between pride and dignity and the wearing of shoes, which chafes so many barefooters in the world; to the extent that TOMS International One Day Without Shoes is called a hoax and a scam. They rightly argue that a healthier society is one where people can go barefoot if it is their choice, without struggling to enter shops, being frowned upon in public places, forced to wear shoes at work et cetera. But before we as barefooters vilify The Put Foot Foundations and the TOMS initiatives to quickly, let’s take a step back for a moment.
Although I disagree with the connection that The Put Foot Foundation establishes between the wearing of shoes and the dignity of a person, I have to applaud their efforts to shoe underprivileged children in South Africa. I know it seems like a contradiction to my argument above as well as my choice to live life barefoot. However, not everyone, and definitely not every child, live in the same environments that I do. To a large extent my privileged environment makes it possible to live barefoot. Most of the places I travel are serviced by decent municipal services; I do not have to walk through uncollected garbage, open and running sewage streams, stagnant water pools et cetera. I have warm clothes to wear on the coldest of days, although I even then choose not to wear shoes. Going barefoot to me is a choice, the children that The Put Foot Foundation tries to shoe does not have a choice; their default setting is barefoot. A photo, accompanying an article in the Sunday Times, paints the picture that the metaphorical thousand words cannot.
Primary school children who, because the lack of governance, have to use toilets in some of the worst conditions I can imagine. It is conditions like these that steal the hope, pride, and dignity of children. The lack of shoes just add discomfort, and disease to their, already challenged, lives. It is in situations like these that the short term solution is indeed to give each and every child that live in these conditions a pair of shoes. But that is only the start, once you have given each of these children a pair of shoes, eliminated discomfort and disease from their lives, at least to some extent, the real job starts. The improvement of the basic living and educational conditions of these children as well as the education of a society that being shod is not more dignified than going barefoot.
It might just be that being shod is a pure societal construct that, in most cases, are detrimental to the health of most individuals, as well as society as a whole. If we go barefoot for a day to this end, it might just be a small step in the right direction.