Monday, July 23, 2007

What does a pair of shoes really cost?

Brian Sabeta, a participant in ASAP’s Bridge the Gap Education project, when asked what one thing he would change about his life if he could, said that he would ask for shoes. He walks six kilometers to school everyday, and he said, quite simply, that his feet hurt.

A year ago I would have seen a simple answer to this problem. I should buy Brian a pair of shoes! I have a closet full of shoes I don’t even wear, so certainly I can afford to buy a pair for a boy who really needs one. But during my time with ASAP, I have begun to look at the problem differently. What happens next year when Brian grows out of those shoes or wears them out? Do I buy him another pair? What about the year after that? What about when he grows up and has children- do I buy them shoes as well?

I’m learning that buying shoes for every barefoot child is not feasible, nor is it sustainable. Further, it may not even be desirable. By giving Brian a pair of shoes I would be telling him that he needs me to provide for him and that he, his family, and his community all are incapable of taking care of themselves. I would be perpetuating the dehumanizing cycle of donor dependence.

Of course, this theory doesn’t make Brian’s sore feet feel any better. Then what can we, as cultural outsiders, do? We can support programs that train, equip, and empower local communities and individuals to meet their own needs. In Brian’s case, the answer is Kufusa Mari Junior, a program that teaches kids a simple form of savings and lending methodology. The children of adult Kufusa Mari participants form all-kid clubs and learn to save money to pay for their school fees, school supplies, and uniform. Participants can even use the money to buy, you guessed it, shoes.


Marlien said...

I was searching the web in order to find out as much as I can in regards to the various organisations that are involved in Zimbabwe. The situation is alarming and deteriorating fast as you must know very well and also experience. I came across the ASAP website and found the story of the shoes...Very nice of you to think of this little boy's future and how you can improve his future by teaching him how to save money. I completely agree with it in theory but something occurred to me while reading this... may I ask where did you get your first pair of shoes from? I certainly did not buy my own shoes when I was six or even 14 - my parents bought them for me. and guess what I now buy my own shoes. I do not depend on somebody else to buy me shoes for me. The difference however may be that I had the advantage, above most children who live in poverty, that my parents were able to buy me shoes. How many children living in affluent homes in the USA, Europe and other "first-world" countries have to save money at an early age to buy shoes?

Stephanie said...


Thanks for your comment. You raise a good point in recognizing that children in first world countries are blessed to not have to buy their own shoes. Certainly I didn't have to. But that fact is hardly the only thing that differentiates my childhood from Brian's. I never worried that my parents would not be able to afford food or clothing for me. I never faced being kicked out of school because I couldn't pay the fees. And not once did I worry about my mom or dad dying of starvation or disease. These are all very real fears for Brian.

The issue that you raise is a real one: that the theory claiming self-reliance is better than donor dependence cannot fully apply to children as no one expects a young child in the first world to provide for themselves. I think you are right and wish that we could provide a first world childhood to everyone in Zimbabwe, but that is outside our power. However, ASAP can give kids education, support, and a strong hand up. Our hope is that by improving Brian's future, we are ensuring that his children won't have to grow up as fast as he had to.

There are no easy answers to the disturbing differences in wealth and lifestyle between the first and third world. I applaud you for wrestling with these issues and not just closing your eyes as so many people do. If you would like to get involved with ASAP's work, please contact me (

Anonymous said...

I was recently in Zimbabwe and was asked a number of times for shoes. Needless to say, I left a few pairs but how real a need is this and where can one donate shoes with the guarantee they will get to the actual people in need?
Sorry for being a bit off topic here...

Peter said...

That is a great question! My best answer would be going through a church organisation connected to Zim. They do a great work of getting packages to the right people. We don't do exactly that so it would probably not be the best tool going through us. Search around for churches in your community that have missionaries in Zimbabwe or in Africa and they can help you out. I hope this helps