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.


Blogger Danielle said...

Well, your heart was in the right place!

7:53 AM  
Blogger Lisa said...

You took American cast-offs / garbage and turned it into really special gifts for people. I'd say you did allright.

Very cool!

8:37 AM  
Blogger jeanne said...

Yep, you done a good thing. And I can understand their thinking!

11:44 PM  

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