Bare feet and labels

Kaya Hartley - Senegal

March 28, 2012

During my stay in Senegal I have been asked countless times who I am. To my Dakar host family, I am Haby Ndiaye. To the stranger on the street, I am toubab. The vendors call out ‘my sister!’ or ‘my friend!’ To my Potou host family I am Fatou Seye, to my host mother- my child. In Gueoul I am Toiche Mbawe or Jo-Jo. To many I am the teacher, the student, the volunteer, the American.  I am 19 years old, I’m a vegetarian, I’m a mormon, I am female, I am shy, I am adventurous, I am disorganized, I am creative. I am Kaya Hartley. A complex, interesting, diverse human- just like every person on this planet. I am impossible to explain and describe in one word or one label.

I came across an ad for an organization, there was a picture of an African child with bare feet. Across the bottom of the picture it read; I walk two miles to school every day with no shoes. And then, donate now to provide African children living in poverty with shoes. I’ve seen ads like this before, in fact, I’ve gone through my closet searching for lightly worn shoes and pulled out my wallet multiple times.

When I first arrived in Senegal one of the first things that I noticed were all of the barefooted children playing and running around in the streets. My automatic reaction was sympathy and my first thought was ‘ I’m going to spend all of my stipend getting these kids shoes’ After spending some time in Senegal, I came to the realization that most of these barefooted kids DO in fact  have shoes, they just prefer not to wear them. Of course! When I was a kid I didn’t like wearing shoes either. The difference is, these kids and their parents aren’t aware of the dangers and disease they are exposed to by not wearing shoes.

While it is so much easier for us in the U.S. to look at the situation- see a kid with no shoes and automatically start sending our used shoes off to another continent, It would be SO much more effective to organize a way to educate people on the health hazards of going barefoot.

Just like it is  easier for the stranger on the street to see me- label me as a toubab and assume I’m rolling in money instead of going out of their way and sitting me down in order to REALLY get to know me.

I see so many NGO projects here, all with good intentions- but failing to realize that it takes so much more than putting up a building and dumping out materials to make a solid improvement. I realize in some places there are families that can’t even afford to buy shoes, I’m not trying to say that all material donations are bad – only that there is always so much more. In order to improve, you must understand. Understand all of the complex, interesting, diverse cultures, people, and aspects of life.

Kaya Hartley