Monday, August 27, 2007

Stepping out of African misconceptions

August 27, 2007
Kumasi, Ghana

*Step one (more to come)

The first time I wore high heels in Ghana I ended up chasing a story about a dead baby found in a Kumasi gutter. Despite the heels a colleague and I chased the story well: down back alleys, through people’s homesteads that spill out onto the streets and over and around heaps of garbage, their children and livestock. Somehow, I navigated in style.

Ghanaian women navigate similar if not more chaotic and muddy streets every day. For this and the way they dress with the shoes to match they deserve a round of applause (quiet pitter patter, runway style applause.) They are far more stylish than the average Canadian woman: a dashing pink belt with polka dot top, a pinstriped business suit with daringly high red heels or a camouflaged print with a fine black lace skirt. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so impressed, or rather surprised. Admittedly, before I came here I had no idea Ghanaian women would be so well dressed. I came with grubby tank tops and old jeans; ‘It’s Africa,’ I thought. But like so many preconceptions about Africa, I thought wrong.

Through the course of six months I’ve spiced up my wardrobe, as bleak as it may be, with shoes. They’re everywhere in this country. In markets they come in heaps. On streets they’re displayed on plastic tarps laid on the ground beside gutters and among the general clutter of life in Ghana. The secondhand shoe trade in Ghana employs thousands of people. The shoes are, as my friend and colleague Abena says, “works of art.” They are also cheap and irresistible.

I now have a shoe man. His name is Kofi and he knows I have an eye for Nine West shoes. He gets his shoes from the UK by boat. He, and he alone, has the power to release the shoes, pair-by-pair, or step-by-step if you will, from the crate. These are shoes that have danced: wedding shoes, prom slippers and fancy party high-heeled little numbers. These are the shoes that people buy, wear once and give to goodwill or something similar in the UK, and so feel good about themselves. That, or the person dies and their shoes, like everything else, are given away.

From the UK to Ghana, Kofi’s shop is the place to be on a Friday afternoon. Women arrive, spend hours trying on shoes, digging through piles, commenting, suggesting and encouraging. Recently I was told to sit and try on shoes that a woman thought would look good on me. I did. Later I returned the favour when a woman was looking for flats in size 41.

One person’s trash is truly another’s treasure. The shoes in Ghana are far from trash – they are inspiring, confidence building, expressions of creativity and ultimately a great addition to an already fine wardrobe. (T)

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