Monday, October 30, 2006

Leave it to the NGOs


The shoes.


An interesting experiment, and in the end, I’m going to go with a qualified success.

Success because look at all those shoes up there. All different sizes and brands and some that had never been used and others that had been used to train for an Ironman but still had plenty of life in them and another pair that helped one woman take first in her size group (apparently that exists in some races?) in what was also her first race.

They more than filled the largest duffle bag I could find. And because running shoes are built for speed and portability (because who can carry lead weights on their feet for miles?) the largest duffle bag I could find was still only half as heavy as my regular old suitcase (which was filled with many things you might not expect to find, such as salsa and black beans and dried mushrooms (which are very light, I promise) and all sorts of things I apparently couldn’t leave America without taking).

So a second success: I carted all those shoes onto a trans-Atlantic flight without having to pay extra-baggage fees.

And then I had completed the trans of the Atlantic. I was in Africa with hundreds of dollars of (used, donated) shoes, and a customs service that’s not nearly as corrupt as customs services in other African countries.

In Senegal, bags get X-rayed coming and going. So after your passport is stamped and you’ve gathered your luggage from the conveyor belts (and hefted an enormous duffle bag into a careful balance, strapped to your way-too-fucking-heavy suitcase on wheels, thereby avoiding the suspect or at very least expensive “help” of the various airport hangers on), you must lift the bags onto a second conveyor belt, to pass through the X-ray machine (unhook, heave, grunt, no one wants to help you here).

My suitcase of treasures (throat lozenges and hair gel and batteries) thuds through without question. And then:

“Can you please open this one?”

I do. “They’re running shoes. They’re donated by people from America who want to give shoes to people in Dakar who run. They’ve all been used already.”

He paws and looks.

“You should give some to me.”

Heh. Heh. “Next time.” (Which I say all the time here. Next time. Tomorrow. We’ll see. All of which mean no, because you don’t say no.)

“No. You should give me a cadeau. A present.”

“They’re for people who fait du sport. Who do sports.”

All the while, pawing through, picking through the pairs with their laces carefully tied together.

“I have children. They do sports.” More picking, looking, shopping.

“You will give me this pair.” He has a pair of pink running shoes. For his daughter. “A cadeau.”

Defeated. Hopeful. “Fine. D’accord.” I zip up as he turns to his colleagues, showing off his bounty. They look on jealously. But now I’m free to go. One pair only. The other officials will get theirs benen yoon. Next time.

And so I have imported the shoes. Phase one: Collect. Phase two: Transport.

Phase three: Distribute.


Here’s where the qualified joins the success. For one thing, when I got back to Senegal, it was the middle of Ramadan, the holiest time of year for Muslims. A month-long holiday. A month-long fast. No eating or drinking during daylight hours. Which, you can imagine, seriously cuts down on the number of people doing sports. So the streets filled at dusk with runners, to whom I imagined giving shoes…. Not so much.

Although it doesn’t stop everyone. My running buddy, Badji, still runs with me as the sun is setting in the evening, with not a drop of water or a single calorie to keep him moving. And now he does it in a pair of lime-green Nikes, European size 43.

But the shoes get distributed. Word spreads, requests come. People love the shoes, are thrilled with them. But.

A friend of a friend, who walks, takes home a pair of red Asics, size 45.


The mother of a friend who got shoes called me last week. “I only just found out that you gave Valentin shoes,” she cried apologetically. Then, “thank you for giving them to him. He loves them. He wears them every day.”

“You’re welcome. I hope he can do some sports in them.”

“Sports? No, he uses them every day!” That’s better than saving them for running. All the time is better than some of the time.


And the red Asics, size 45. “He cleaned them up and wore them to his (estranged) girlfriend’s house. He told me,” says my friend, “that he would never waste such nice shoes on sports.”


These are not swollen-bellied, starving children. They are not dressed in dirty rags. They are students and employed adults. I don’t want to give the wrong impression of what I see here.

It’s not that they’ve never seen fancy sneakers before. But almost new Nike’s and Adidas and Asics? Are high fashion. The same way they are in some places in the states.

I’m not sure there aren’t plenty of runners in Dakar who wouldn’t appreciate these shoes for what they are, and use them as intended. But I’m not sure I’ve done a very good job finding them.

So I’m not sure I’d try this again. Might leave it to the professionals. And keep my eyes open. Because in March there’s a half-marathon here (which I’m going to run in). Maybe there are some running groups or teams or something which could help distribution next time.

Thank you, all the same, to everyone who donated. Rest assured, at the very least, your shoes are not collecting dust in a closet.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Uppity but good

Way back when I first came back from Botswana, I feared I’d become “one of those horrible people who says things like, “well, in Africa, things are completely different.” And, “everything is so commercial in America.” And, “you wouldn’t understand. It’s an African thing.”

Actually, I wasn’t sure what I meant by that.

I knew there was a type though. Something about people who’d been someplace exotic and were far too smug about it. But I couldn’t quite put my finger on what changed when they came home.

Well now I’ve spent nearly eight months in Senegal, and I’ve finally understood. It’s not that they come home different. It’s that they GET home differently.

They (and by they, let’s be clear, I mean me) don’t need no stinking airplane, because they (and, remember, I mean me) are far more comfortable on their high horse.

You think you got troubles? Well me and my high horse are here to tell you, it’s NOTHING compared to what we deal with over ‘n Africa. (Which, for the purpose of this moment, I will fail to point out is actually comprised of dozens of countries with thousands of languages and ethnic groups and widely varying economic statuses and levels of development. Because that is a horse of a totally different smugness.)

Daily grind getting you down? Well at least you have a JOB! And MONEY! And ELECTRICITY! Not like the POOR, UNEMPLOYED MASSES in Africa.

Annoyed that you now have to spend hours in line at security at the airport, and then they threw away all your make-up? Well cry me a river, baby, because there may be no security screening for the bush taxi, but you’re still going to wait hours for it to go, and your make-up’s all going to melt anyway, because it’s HOT here and those cars don't got no air con.

Can’t you just picture the fun that I am to be around? Th-------is much fun. Times a hundred. Am I right?

But sadly, only a select few of you got to see my charming smuggery in person. So, to share the joy all around, I thought I’d blog it.

And thus, without further ado, I bring you:

The Five Things You (Yes, YOU, the person I’ve never met, whose life I know nothing about, who could very well never have even been to the US, YOU are the person I’m judging) Don’t Appreciate Enough About America


Okay, so here’s the thing.

I pretty much wrote this post in my head back when I was in America. And I had all sorts of things that I was going to include in this list.

I vaguely remember something about well-paved, multilane highways, and the joys of cruising at 65 mph (not a hair faster, thanks Mr. Traffic Cop) with terrible American radio blasting at full volume.

And I’m sure I was going to say something about summer fruit (which I caught the tail end of ). Farmer’s Market peaches. Yum.

But frankly, I’m annoying myself with all this high horsery, and I’m afraid the humor impaired among us might miss the irony, and think I’m really this horrible. Out loud.

Plus, I’ve been back for about three weeks, and it just doesn’t seem that important any more.

I hereby promise (completely insincerely) to post far more frequently in the coming weeks. I need to update y'all about the shoe drive, of course. Plus I have lots of stories.

If I'm feeling REALLY brave, I might even take a picture of the world's scariest spiders that have invaded my neighborhood. They're bigger than my hand, and their webs are bigger than my apartment. For a girl who has always been spider-phobic, this is pretty much my worst nightmare made reality. The pinky finger grasping desperately at my sanity has only held on this long thanks to the fact that these monsters (SO FAR) have only been spotted outdoors. Heaven help me if I ever find one in my apartment.


No seriously. Gah.

Anywho, in the meantime, if you're looking for more of my wit and charm, feel free to news google me, where you'll find several more Voice of America stories, and, inshallah, articles published elsewhere in the not too distant future. (If I don't pimp me, who will?)

It's nice being back.