To The Cobbler We Go

Reflections on a broken sandal in Nigeria.

It was the summer of the Great Reawakening; that is, my first real open-eye experience visiting Nigeria, and somewhat a rite of passage for kids of the diaspora. This trip to the motherland always feels like it should be labelled a ‘return’, even if it’s the first time being there. It’s marked by the quiet moments, where the stark difference between two homes is loudest. The reflection in the dark when the electricity unexpectedly stops. The checkpoints at random on the roads, where you watch blatant bribery, with wide eyes but a poker face. And the moments when one simply has to stop and say ‘what the heck? Is this really happening?’

In my case, the Reawakening was highlighted by a camera, whipped out at anything of interest, anything beautiful or strange or both. (Not whipped out when area boys are right beside the car and would absolutely set fire to the situation and to the camera). Also by a journal, which I wrote in almost every night, trying my best to detail the experiences and sights of the day.

It was a complex relationship to navigate: some of the simple aspects of everyday living there that I found so thrilling overshadowed my analysis of the country in all its post-colonial shambles. Simply being surrounded by family and food was enough for me to put on my rose-coloured glasses and fall in love with the concept of the motherland. As well as that, so much of what I was missing out on in ilu oyinbo was just regular living there: the casual practice of religion, extended family only being a drive away, there always being a function to attend around the corner (not even necessarily by invite), warm weather, and the strange but simple comfort of being surrounded by people who look like you.

But notable also was the sorrow and bittersweetness of the entire affair. The country’s potential hiding in plain sight, obscured by broken systems and a people who genuinely can’t afford to be motivated by anything other than self-interest. This was made even more poignant by my consumption of African literature while I was there. Not only was it one of my first few times reading with narration and characters that I could relate to, I was reading all of this sitting in the same land where these ideas were conceived and birthed, the same land whose troubles and history inspired the pieces in the first place. But most profound was seeing the prophecies and logical consequences of these fictional predicaments come true. Thanks for the diagnosis, Achebe.

Realisations aside, I present the incident in question in the title of this piece:

My Broken Sandal

I am walking with my grandmother to the mosque for Friday prayer. My younger boy cousins are bouncing around us, barely holding grandma’s hand, and play-fight-walking the whole way there. I keep a close eye on them — they are so boisterous, I am nervous that they will bumble into oncoming traffic in their giddy glee.

Somewhere along the uneven, unfamiliar path, I am the one who stumbles. In a small second, I gracefully twist my ankle, buckle my knees, and snap the brown strap of my white platform sandals as my foot and shoe move in a different direction from the rest of my body. Grandma just looks at me to make sure I’m okay, and then tells me that we will get my shoe fixed on our way back home after prayer.

I do not know what this means, I just know that halfway between home and the mosque, there is no quick fix. I limp on to the mosque, to the amusement of my cousins. I arrive, taking in the marble-floored house of God and observing the demographic of women upstairs as I listen to the Yoruba sermon.

On the way back, my broken sandal ordeal remains. We are almost home when I think Grandma has forgotten, but what do I know? ‘After prayer’ could mean the next day, or after lunch upon return home, or whenever she gets time. I also do not really know what to expect regarding the repair of a sandal. When a shoe gives way like that, it is thrown away, as far as I know. But when we are only a street or two away from home, Grandma turns up a different alleyway to the one we took on our way. She stands outside a house with an open door and metal machinery outside and waits for a conversation between someone in the house and someone outside holding snacks and a soft drink to finish and then receives the prayerful and warm greetings she is used to as a lovely and well-known elderly lady in her hometown. She tells me to give the greeter my shoe and I do, with minimal greeting of my own. What he does is a lightning speed act of something between glueing and sewing with what appears to be a curved-tip screwdriver. I get back my sandal and am told to put it on. The repaired sandal thong that rests between my toes is stronger than it was before, stronger than the original one on my other foot. I wiggle my toes in slight disbelief at this solution. I give the Uncle/Brother Greeter-Repairer minimal thanks, and he turns to my grandmother:

‘You know I was visiting Osogbo and this young woman didn’t greet anyone in the house as she is. Does she not talk to people?’

‘You know she understands Yoruba. There is nothing you’re saying that she doesn’t understand’, my grandmother tells him.

He looks at me briefly as if to say ‘is that so?’ and looks back just as quickly to my grandmother. That is all. I am amused: I do not remember him from the prior week’s visit, but I do remember my active decision to ignore the large delegation of young men who had come to visit the owner of the house who was hosting me and my family. After all, they weren’t my guests, I was a guest myself in a house that wasn’t my father’s. And no one introduced us.

Uncle/Brother Greeter-Repairer-Complainer turns to give someone who has just arrived instructions on car parts, and Grandma, my cousins and I, turn to go home, with another greeting goodbye.

I think about the bin at home, overflowing with rubbish from things that weren’t made to last. And I think of my broken sandal in Nigeria. I think of a mosque within walking distance, and a cobbler a lane or two from the house. I think of knowing a person that can give life to an old product that you can either continue to use or pass on to someone else (Grandma now owns those sandals, I didn’t bring them with me when I left Nigeria). I think about who we greet and how (though I still would hesitate to greet a large group of unknown men). I think about the ecosystem of products and services that keeps a small town alive, and the people who provide these. I think of permanence, of recognition by shopkeepers and cobblers, by neighbours in the broadest sense of the word.

I think: what part of this story could I recreate in Ireland? In what weather would I wear sandals? In what pothole would I twist my ankle? Why would my grandmother be with me, and my younger boy cousins? And where would I find a cobbler who fixes my shoe questionlessly in a few blinks? So much I question from this small encounter: community, consumerism, convenience, care. Very few experiences from The Great Awakening failed to inspire the thoughts: What does it mean to belong? Where is home? Has there always been such an obvious alternative to the countless shoes I have thrown away?

Photo by Jeremy Chen on Unsplash

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