February 26, 2009


The school year started a month ago but we haven’t quite finished the job of getting everyone sorted out. (Why this is our “job” is an issue that comes up below.) Specifically, there are still some students who don’t have school uniform shoes yet, or, if they have them, are either too small, too worn out, and generally unusable.

I should say first of all that I don’t actually think not having a pair of shoes is the end of the world. Children run around Itipini all day barefoot even if they do own shoes, especially in the summer heat. Why not just go barefoot to school as well? The trouble is that rules are rules and the rules say each child needs to have a uniform or else they can’t go to school. Yes, I agree. It’s a dumb rule.

I wanted to illustrate this post and so began taking pictures of students’ feet. They thought it was kind of weird but they just love having their picture taken so they obliged. All of these are “good shoes.”
Lots of families are good about outfitting their children with hand-me-down uniforms bits or spending some of the grant most of them get for each child on the uniform. But shoes are a particular obstacle because they are quite expensive. A good pair of shoes can cost half a month’s grant and that grant is used to cover a lot of expenses beyond shoes. The expense of the shoes is the main reason we haven’t purchased any yet. I simply did not have enough cash when we went uniform shopping.

I’m not quite sure how this happened but last week a hoard of mothers (about 30, I’d say) all showed up on the same day and at the same time demanding shoes. Not requesting but demanding. That put me in a bad mood to begin with and after several false starts, Mkuseli and I began to see them one-by-one. We basically had two requests - show us the old pair of shoes and tell us if you get a grant. If the old pair of shoes was in decent shape or could be repaired rather than replaced we sent them off to do it for themselves. Replacing a sole only costs about two dollars here. If they got a grant we also told them to buy the shoes themselves. You can get a cheaper pair of shoes for about six dollars or a quarter of one child’s monthly grant.

Our principles seemed great until they met reality. The trouble is that the two of us and the mothers disagreed about what constituted a decent shoe and whether they could legitimately afford to buy them themselves. Plus, it was the middle of the month and the grants come at the end so all of the cash from last month is gone but this month’s hasn’t been distributed yet. As a result, each conversation became a knock-down, drag-em-out affair (in Xhosa!) with the mother explaining her financial history to us and how she could not possibly afford them and us explaining how shoes are expensive, we can’t afford all of them, and this is what grants are for. That brought the reply that the grants aren’t big enough to cover everything they are stretched to cover - notably food - and this was a bridge too far. I was tough and unyielding (for me) and found myself saying repeatedly, “zithengele” or “buy them yourself.”

There was also something else at work. Not all the mothers were being completely truthful with us. One mother swore she didn’t get a grant when I knew that she did because she had told me so when we interviewed her for the micro-credit program. (Why she needed us to buy shoes when she was ostensibly making money for herself is a topic for an upcoming post.) I told her as much and she blinked briefly and then began to concoct a story about how she actually didn’t get a grant for this child. In another case, as we finished with one mother, she handed off her old pair of shoes to a second mother so the second mother could display them again as evidence of how much her child needed new shoes. This might have worked but they did it literally right in front of me with no pretense of secrecy. Another mother came in and showed off two pairs of shoes in absolutely horrendous shape and I was about to agree we could help her with shoes until Mkuseli pulled me aside and whispered angrily in my ear that those weren’t the shoes the children were wearing to school and were just the oldest and rattiest pair the mother had been able to find.

That is when I decided I had had enough. The heat, the language barrier, and especially the dishonesty made me end that day’s proceedings. I went outside and announced to everyone still waiting that if they got a grant, they were on their own and if they still needed help they should come back the next day after school with their child in uniform so we could see the shoes on the child’s feet.

Almost no one came back the next day, which confirmed for me a view I’ve been developing that many people will try to ask us for money on the chance it might work and if it doesn’t then they’ll find another way to manage. I have seen this to be true in many, many situations. I am always surprised at how much more money than I expected is floating around in Itipini. This is not to say that life in Itipini is just fine but that people can often find a way to cope without my help.

It also made me wonder how much I’ve been lied to in the past. The same day as the shoe situation, a woman had come into the clinic with one child and asked for files for two children. One of our rules is that a child has to be in the clinic to get medicine or formula because we want to see the child ourselves rather than rely on the mother’s report. (Not that the mother’s report is incorrect but that unless we do this one mother will come get formula for her baby and her four neighbours’.) I asked this mother where the second child was and she indicated a child sitting on the floor next to her. This ploy might have worked except a) I knew the child to be the son of another woman sitting on the bench and b) I had just found that child’s file. I shook my head and asked again where the child was and the mother again indicated the same child sitting on the floor. I was pretty frustrated by that point and just walked away and let the mother wait a long while before I helped her again. I can catch these situations now but I wasn’t always able to. And what am I not understanding now?

Back to the shoes, I am of several minds about the issue. I want children to have as few distractions as possible at school and if having shoes will focus the mind then they need them. But I also don’t want to create the expectation in Itipini that we’ll just buy shoes for everyone even if people can buy them themselves. That is, in part, what the grants are for. I want people to understand that when they buy something for themselves it is better for all concerned because it gives us more money to spend someplace else. (Try explaining that in Xhosa!) If a mother doesn’t get a grant, she should be working with the social worker to get one, not appealing to us for help. (It would help, of course, if our social worker actually came to visit us or was even in his office at the right hours.) I also don’t think every child needs a brand-new pair of shoes. Poverty sucks but I’m not going to opt for the Cadillac option (expensive new shoes) when there’s a lesser version (repairing the shoes) that will do.

It all becomes a very complicated lesson in situational ethics. I know I wasn’t consistent throughout the many conversations and several mothers called me on it. But I tried, I really did.