Early last year, I had the privilege of spending a few months as a volunteer in Rwanda working with an organization called Gardens for Health, International. Their goal is to help groups of people with HIV learn how to independently and sustainably grow their own food with the idea that better nutrition will allow their retroviral drugs to be more effective. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life and I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to spend the time in such a beautiful part of Africa and meet so many remarkable people. As rewarding as it was, it was as equally heart wrenching to see the suffering since so many of the sick were also poverty stricken.
While I was there, I was fortunate enough to be staying in a lovely neighborhood and each morning I would walk part of the way to work before hailing a motorcycle taxi. Every morning, I would walk by a beautiful home on a hill and often, the housekeeper would be outside at the bottom of the hill sweeping the dirt from the driveway to the side of the road. Some days, if there had been a heavy rain, I would even see her sweeping the mud from the road in front of the house over to the side as well. It always reminded me of the quote by Mother Teresa: “If everyone swept their own doorstep the whole world would be clean.” Every single time I would walk by, she would wave and flash me a beautiful smile and say hello and good morning in Kinyarwandan: “Mwaramutse”, she would say and I would greet her back.
One day, I came home early and was walking up to the house where I was staying. Just as I reached the driveway, I heard something behind me and realized that the same woman had been following me. I stopped and waited for her to approach and as she did, she began to point to her mouth as if she was hungry. We could not speak to one another but I understood perfectly. As she got closer, I noticed that she was wearing a very-worn, thin, dirty and broken pair of flip-flops and that her feet were incredibly dry and cracked and a bit swollen. I remember thinking how painful they looked. I think she noticed me looking at her feet because she looked down at my shoes. I had only brought two pairs of shoes and a pair of sandals with me to Rwanda. The pair I was wearing was for everyday and they were very comfortable for walking; something that I was doing a lot. I had been wearing them for almost two months and my feet were very happy. I took off one of my shoes and she tried it on. It seemed to fit perfectly and the reaction on her face was as if she had never in her wildest dreams imagined that her foot could feel so good. Before I knew it, I had given her the other shoe. She looked at me as if she didn’t believe I was letting her have my shoes. Seriously, I never intended to give them away and the exchange happened without a second thought on my part. It actually felt a bit surreal at the time. She slipped on the second shoe and then raised her hands and looked towards the sky and with much emotion said thank you and went on reciting some things I did not understand. I smiled and said you’re welcome and gave her a big hug and she continued to get emotional and continued with her hand gestures and to say thank you as she walked away with my shoes. And I climbed the driveway and walked into the house barefoot with a smile on my face.
Later I thought that we don’t think about our feet when they’re comfortable, but their comfort certainly contributes to our overall sense of wellbeing. I thought about what it would be like to have to live out my days without shoes. It would have made my work incredibly difficult while I was in Rwanda. Many people throughout the world will never even get to experience the feeling of a comfortable pair of shoes. Maybe some have no need to, but there are many who do.
My feet weren’t quite as comfortable for the rest of my stay, but it didn’t bother me. I was happy that I put a smile on my friend’s face and made her feet feel good because she had been putting a smile on my face and making me feel good every morning when I passed by. And we both got a taste of what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes…