Barefoot

By Nathan Mei

I look down at my shoes and they are pure white. I can see the Nike swoosh on each side. I am on a service trip in Kenya, about to enter a village in Mombasa where children are taking us to their households so we can deliver food to their families. The first thing I notice is the reddish-brown dirt I’m walking on. There are no concrete roads in this whole area. Then I come to realize that the

dirt I’m walking on is also the same dirt that some of the

housing is made of. As I follow behind this group of schoolgirls and schoolboys, who by

the way, are holding our team members’ hands, I notice a little girl no older than eight.

I could tell she was not from the school we had just visited earlier because she was not

wearing a blue uniform. She was about four feet tall, wearing a peachy red pajama dress

and was barefoot. But what caught my attention was that she was carrying a bulge in her

right arm. It was a baby boy wrapped in a large piece of magenta fabric slung over her left

shoulder. 

 

She had the sling tied around her as skillfully as a mother would. The baby must have

been her little brother; the body of responsibility that she had to take care of everyday.

Of course she was careful, but she was also effortless. This girl was peering around at us

strangers, smiling, and watching other kids play, all while calmly holding a human half her

size in one arm. She had more responsibility at her age than I did right now. I didn’t even

know where her mother was. She was walking alone. Imagine the amount of trust a

mother normally has in an eight year old daughter. Then compare it to this. Amazed at

the independence and dependability that she possessed, I kept near her as we continued

to walk. I looked down at my shoes again. The white soles were browning and I could feel

the dust in my socks.

 

I watched her start adjusting the sling while walking which looked dangerous to me, so

I hurried myself over to try to help. There was nothing I needed to do. She didn’t need

my help. All she did was smile at me and push the baby from her side to her back. Then

she jumped (which scared me again) to tighten the baby’s position like you do when you

feel your backpack starting to sag. Now she looked like she was a student on her way to

the Luce Elementary across the street from my house. I thought to myself, except she’s

carrying a baby and the kids back in America are carrying notebooks and pencils. While

kids here are responsible for getting their homework done, kids there are responsible for building their own shelter. Whenever I become clouded by my insignificant first world problems, I think back to this little girl in the peachy red dress. 

 

It was time for us to help build a mud hut. The mud we were using would be taken from the ground right where we were standing. To begin, a group of boys poured buckets of water into a pile of sand. As I took off my shoes, I took notice of their condition and I grinned. If I’d slapped my shoes against a wall there would’ve been an explosion of dust. I was secretly elated that I was finally barefoot just like everyone else I’d seen in the village. I stepped into the building area and felt the satisfying coolness of mud between my toes. 

 

Some time went by and it was time to go. I looked outside the building area and located my shoes. They were no longer pure white. Then I looked at my sticky red feet. No way I’m putting my socks and shoes back on. I wanted to be like them. I wanted to feel the ground under me. Every rock, every grain of sand. But as I walked with my shoes in my hand, the older as well as the younger folks on the team started to tell me to put my shoes on. Of course I knew why, I’d been warned about foot disease. But I pretended not to know. I just wanted to know what it felt like to live like them. Going barefoot was the only literal way I could do so. I fought against their pleas but eventually I was forced to wash my feet and put my shoes back on. I’d asked,“But everyone else is barefoot, why can’t I be?” I said this knowing that they were going to reply saying that it’s for the same reasons we can’t drink the water here, which was exactly the reply I got. 

 

I got kind of upset that my shoes were back on. All I could feel on my feet were linen and foam. I guess that’s how it works when you try to humble yourself. You can try all you want but if you were born into something, you’ll never truly understand what it’s like to have nothing. You’ll always be wearing a protective layer of privilege. Your shoes will always be on. But that won’t stop me from trying. Today, I look at my white shoes that are now brown and I remind myself to walk through life barefoot.

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