What a difference a pair of shoes makes!

Today, I set out with the brother and sister of Manuel (see earlier entry “success story”) to buy them shoes. We have our first donation/contribution from Stan and Bluma Kaplan (my parents). Hop into a taxi for 20 cordoba (75 cents), which is a treat in and of itself, and it takes us to the Mercado Central. First stop as we make our way through the hustle and bustle of market life is a small outside stall to buy socks to try the shoes on with. This accomplished, we go into a shoe store and Inibel quickly selects a pair of shoes for “collegio”, school shoes. Miraculously the first pair she tries fit well, look good and are comfortable. We pay for those and she proudly holds her bag as her brother Mamo starts the process. He selects black leather dress shoes, which I tell him are for fiestas and the young girl helping us in the store, agrees. He needs one pair of shoes that can double for football, fiestas and (hopefully) school. He is not convinced when I show him a pair of black sneakers that fit this description. He had his heart set on the impractical formal slip ons, which would be fine if he had a few other pairs for more practical usage, but all he has are a pair of cheap plastic sandals.

I know from raising boys, that shoes can make all the difference in how one feels about oneself. There is a certain status that a new pair of well chosen shoes instantly provides.. I have noticed that since buying Manuel his shoes, he holds himself differently. He has transformed in front of my eyes. From a “street boy” he has mophed into someone who is always clean and nicely dressed and groomed. He now proudly displays a white chain with a cross on it and certainly looks very “cool” these days! Whenever he sees me, he offers help. A few days ago, he was in the right place at the right time and I introduced him to a French neighbor who was picking up two heavy bags of Selva Negra vegetables from our house. Manuel “got the job” of carrying them to her house, for which he got 10 Cordoba. When I saw him later, he told me excitedly that he was going to the market? What for? To buy rice and beans with the 10 cordobas that he got, to help feed his family. Now that’s a mensch!

The social and economic divide here may not be as rigid as the caste system in India, but to my observation, there seems to be an equivalent set of layers that are hard to overcome. Let me illustrate this economic class divide. Our house is sandwiched between two sets of families. They have same age children. We noticed that the kids on the right and the left never played together, or even spoke to each other. It became clear after a while that the family on the right looked down upon the family on the left as they were deemed “poor”. We did not discriminate between our neighbors and have had an equal amount of interaction with both groups. As a result, today, all the girls of more or less the same age, now play together.

Having only cheap plastic sandals from the outdoor market is the lowest rung on the ladder, any other sandals or shoes are one rung up. But having a pair of black leather collegiates, instantly transforms the individual from being “very poor” to fitting more in the overall community. This is a first step toward upward mobility.

A few people who read this blog ask me, “but if you buy shoes or uniforms for one kid, wont lots of other children hear about it and come and knock on your door ?” The answer is yes they do. I share fruit, peanut butter sandwiches and yoghurt, almost daily. I go for shoes or backpacks when there is clearly a need and some persistence on their part to come by and ask a few times. I go when I have the cash and the time. The effort to take a child to buy shoes or a uniform is always a cultural learning experience for which I am most appreciative. It allows me to interact and integrate in a way that I would not be able to do, without it. So we all gain something from the activity. I am also doing a kickass job of teaching manners and a little bit of English. Speaking of which, Mango is becoming bilingual from his walks with Pedro – scary, he is learning Spanish quicker than I am!

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