a day without dignity: shoes in karamoja, uganda

this post is my small contribution to good intentions are not enough’s “a day without dignity” campaign.

a day without dignity is a counter-campaign to TOMS shoes a day without shoes “awareness raising campaign” (commercial). on or around april 5th – the same date as a day without shoes – we’re asking aid workers, the diaspora, and people from areas that receive shoe drops and other forms of charity to speak up in blogs, on twitter, or at school.

head over here to see, read and hear more posts from around the world!


the place i call my home is in rural north-east uganda in the region of karamoja, a place that is more often than not referred to as “forgotten” or “backwards”. a common question from even other ugandans is if “those people there are putting on clothes.” well, yes, as a matter-of-fact, people do “put on clothes.” oh yes, and shoes.

part of my work in this region is that of an education secretary for a diocese of the church of uganda. and as a part of that work, i spend a lot of time in, talking about and thinking about schools. all of the schools that i work closely with are primary schools, 13 of them to be exact.

i have visited all of these schools at least twice in my tenure (some more than that), and most recently my explicit purpose in visiting was to conduct a lengthy survey the province had sent to all of the diocese in the country. this survey wanted to know darn near everything physical about the school: number of desks in each class, number of pupils, exam results for the past three years, if the school has a functioning locking-cabinet, etc. at least one teacher from each class was interviewed and their class preparations evaluated.

something that i added to this survey was to ask (or have my counterpart) ask the head teacher and the teachers two extra questions: 1. what are the things that make you really proud of this school, the pupils or the teachers? and 2. if money was no question, what would you change about the school?

now, i don’t know, maybe because of how i framed the question people weren’t thinking about shoes. i suppose you could argue that, but, why? the point is: out of 13 schools, 13 head teachers and at least 26 teachers not one person mentioned shoes. or hand-outs.

most commonly in these schools, which are surely the poster-children of “poor schools in africa” had nothing to do with shoes. or clothing. or gifts, really. the top five, in no particular order:

1. desks for the pupils– the children sit on the cracked concrete or dirt floors. all day. every day. concerns were raised about breathing in dust all the time, that sitting on the floor does nothing for a child’s dignity and that it was “difficult for them to study properly without somewhere solid to sit.”

2. energy saving cookstoves-once upon a time the world food programme (wfp) put some energy saving stoves in some schools in karamoja. this was quite a while ago, and now they are broken. “we love to save energy, but no one knows this stove. no one knows how to fix it.” on more than one occasion with zero prompting from me and without them knowing my personal passion for sustainability, head teachers asked to be taught to make energy efficient stoves. pupils can then come directly to school in the morning rather than go out looking for their daily firewood allotment, and the earth is happier in the process.

3. books-text books, writing books, planning books for the teachers. most schools have none of these things. a few years ago UNICEF gave out ‘schools in a box’ to many of these rural schools. they contained things like chalk, writing books, planning books, pencils and the like. it is my understanding that no warning was given that they would stop receiving these boxes, and that they were not even informed before receiving the boxes. one head teacher had stretched the last of the paper for over a year, handing out the very last book on the day of my surprise visit. he handed the book to the p5-aged girl who asked for it and looked at the box, sighed, and said “now what will i do when that one is empty?”

he went on to say that if there was a way that they could earn the books-the school, the pupils, both, that would be best. sometimes the children” abuse” the books they are given because they are a)children and b)under the impression that more books will drop from the un-blue and white sky. he is of the mind that if the pupils can somehow earn the books, or see that someone somewhere had to work for them, that they would take better care of them. i’ll get off my “ownership” soapbox for now…

4. clean drinking water– many schools have incomplete or damaged rain-catchment systems, if those are fixed pupils will not have to pump water but can just get it from the tap it is contained and cleaner therefore decreasing the chance of water-borne-illness. they were also asking for trainings on how to properly care for the systems as they were just dropped in by various non governmental organizations (ngos).

5. teacher upgrades– many of the teachers in these schools have been teaching for a long time with no teacher’s in-service, no workshops or extra trainings. they feel that they are unable to provide the level of education that pupils need to reach the next level of secondary school.

nary a shoe request.

gifts-in-kind are just bad aid. they just are. i’m not going to tell you what shoes to buy and not buy, or that not wearing shoes for a day doesn’t have positive impacts* but what really gets my goat regarding TOMS shoes is that it is a FOR PROFIT organization masquerading about as a charity. if you want to “raise awareness” by having middle, high school and college students go a day without shoes, great–but don’t pretend to be something you’re not. and FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE consider the local economy in places where these shoes are literally being “dropped”.

there are already enough imported second-hand shoes (dresses, skirts, trousers etc) flowing into the “developing world” that are already arguably hindering local textiles industries. not to mention the innovative and local solutions people come up with all on their very own.

some photographic evidence:

mamas on the way to market

tyre sandles (above and below) are very popular around here. men, women and children wear them alike and they come in many styles or fashions. i personally know at least one cobbler in town (uncle) who makes and repairs these and other shoes. sadly i didn’t have a chance to interview him about his work, perhaps i will on another day!

elders at an education meeting

also popular in these parts are brightly colored sandals from china, and converse knock-offs (i assume, also from china).

abek (alternative basic education for karamoja) students on parade!

the last portion of this challenge is to encourage you, the reader, to do something else to “raise awareness”. i challenge you and your good intentions to buy less (in general) buy local and fair-trade (when you must buy) and do your research in donating money.

*my friend lizzie is one of these delightful surprising outcomes of a day without shoes campaign. check out her blog and thoughts on participating in this day.

also of note: elizabeth’s post on a day without dignity: gulu edition.


9 thoughts on “a day without dignity: shoes in karamoja, uganda

  1. Pingback: A Day Without Dignity | Good Intentions Are Not Enough

  2. I love this post! This encompasses a lot of what I was thinking about as well concerning “what makes a good non-profit.” Because you are absolutely right, TOMS is a for-profit company and this day is definitely a day of advertising for them which gives me some qualms about promoting them. Thank you for this!

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