The Origin of the West

When Lizbeti first saw it in the parking lot of the Serengeti main gate she was puzzled. She walked over to it and picked it up, turned it over in her hands, examining it from all angles. It was a shoe. A single beautiful shoe, a hiking shoe, and it was brand new. She smelled the new and polished leather, searched with her nose for any signs that the shoe had ever been worn by a human being, but found none.

She spent the next hour scrupulously searching every nook of the large parking lot, neglecting the beaded bracelets and earrings she had come to sell. She looked for its mate, but turned-up nothing. She was puzzled: What would one shoe be doing here by itself? She searched the parking lot again behind every rock, and tree, and bush, but could find no matching shoe.

The shoe, it turned out, was a high-tech experimental hiking boot made by an Italian company specializing in mountain climbing equipment, and was kicked out of the Land Rover by a sleepy German tourist who got out to go to the restroom. The tourist had just returned from a climb of Mount Kilimanjaro. The boots had been given to her by a friend who worked at the mountain climbing company and had access to the prototype. The tourist, however, had opted for an older more conventional and comfortable pair of boots for her climb. It was her plan to break in the new boots on her trip to the Serengeti game reserve; there would be little walking involved and they were quite stunning as far as hiking boots went. So the boots were taken out of the backpack and rested on the floor of the Land Rover waiting for the time to be put on. That is how one came to be kicked out by the sleepy tourist on her somnambulatory trip to the restroom. The safari guide moved the Rover closer to the bathroom so the orphaned shoe was never discovered as the occupants of the auto sped on to their safari camp. By the time the lost shoe was discovered, it was too far to return, even if they had known the point of its loss.

Lizbeti, of course, new nothing of this history and continued to turn the shoe over and over in her hands; it was indeed a beautiful shoe, having been designed and manufactured by a company that catered to both performance and fashion, and boasted many celebrities as their clientele. Lizbeti took off her left sandal and put the shoe on her naked foot. ‘It not only fits, but it looks stunning,’ she assessed as she wiggled her foot back and forth in the shoe. She sat on the stonewall that bordered the broad expanse that was the parking lot, and tucked her sandaled right foot behind her left calf, letting the shoe protrude prominently from under the hem of her full-length dress. She also assessed this effect as stunning.

This was the beginning. Lizbeti never went anywhere without wearing the shoe. When she sat, she would sit with her left leg crossed over the right, her sandaled foot tucked discretely behind, the new shoe peaking coyly out from under the long dresses that now became a permanent feature of her wardrobe. Lizbeti walked everywhere in two different shoes so that it inevitably caused a slight curvature of her spine. Rather than providing her with a disability, the induced imperfection produced a distinctive style to her walking resulting in a wave-like motion of her already quite attractive backside, so that she rather sashayed through her daily routine.  

The altered walk, along with the increased confidence provided by the shoe, added to Lizbeti’s youthful energy and beauty and made her a veritable magnet for selling her beaded bracelets and earrings in the parking lot of the Serengeti main gate. The increased revenues of the jewelry sales were invested in a higher quality of long dresses, adding to the attractiveness of the bead seller. Which, in turn, resulted in grater sales.

Other bead sellers began to feel jealous of Lizbeti and her distinctive shoe, her long and colorful dresses, her majestic walk; they began to make unkind remarks behind her back—just loud enough to hear if you listened closely. Which Lizbeti did. It was true that Lizbeti had all but cornered the Serengeti jewelry market, but it was also true that the unkind remarks of her sister bead sellers caused her a good deal of pain. One evening when the pain was particularly troublesome she went for a walk in the moonlight. ‘It’s not my fault that I sell the most, people just seem to seek me out, I don’t even have to go to them, they come to me. I’m not trying to sell more than the other women—I just am.’ An idea sprang from her thinking.

Lizbeti called a meeting with her sister sellers and it was decided: The women set up a long table under the shade of a great baobab tree: each woman would contribute beadwork of all kinds to be sold and Lizbeti would preside over the sales, each of the sister merchants would take turns being her assistant. The plan worked better than anyone had hoped; everybody’s beads sold more than they ever had before. The unkind whispers stopped. Lizbeti took five percent of the sales and made more than she ever had, even during the best times. And she no longer had to make the beaded bracelets and earrings herself. The bead work enterprise was written up in a popular guide book and business picked up even more as the bead jewelry became an “in”, must have item, on a trip to the Serengeti.

Lizbeti moved out of her mother’s house and became a prominent citizen of her village, and was often invited to social functions of which she attended in two very different shoes. The men seemed to pay little attention to the aberrant foot-ware, focusing rather on her walk, the women however often commented on what they termed “the great embarrassment,” although when she was seated they were wont to give her envious looks. The more prestigious the event, the more these comments seemed to swirl. Lizbeti, unlike with the unkind whispers of her sister sellers, seemed to pay little attention.

One such social occasion was a get together with local politicians asking for the villager’s vote for district council representative. By this time due to her wealth and prestige, Lizbeti was on hand as one of the leading village personages. She sat on stage with the village elders, and other prominent community members and listened to the local politicians make their pitches—’hot air, in the already hot air,’ thought Lizbeti. The last person to speak was named Arthur, he was young and pleasant and Lizbeti thought at least he was not bad to look at. After the speeches there was punch and sweet cakes. Lizbeti was a bit surprised when she turned around from the punch bowl and saw Arthur standing behind her with a broad smile.

“Hello I’m Arthur Mzema,” he said, “I wanted to meet you. I noticed you when you walked in.” What he really meant, was he noticed her while she walked in, and it wasn’t the mismatched shoes that drew his attention.

Lizbeti offered him her hand putting her left foot forward. Arthur noticed the stylish shoe as he bent down to kiss her hand. Nobody had ever kissed her hand before, but Lizbeti was able to maintain her composure though she wondered if he could hear the beating of her heart, which sounded to her like a flock of doves startled from an Acacia tree. They talked for a little while, then Arthur moved on, he was a politician after all. Before she left the gathering, Lizbeti gave the village elder a sizable contribution to give to Arthur to help him in his campaign. The village elder was quite surprised since women did not give campaign contributions, actually nobody in that village gave campaign contributions, but Lizbeti was proving to be quite a dynamic community force, he noted with a little less than complete happiness.

Arthur, however, was happy. Indeed, he was thrilled at the attention stemming from the girl with the magical walk. So much so that the next week Arthur drove to the parking lot of the main gate of the Serengeti, bought rather a lot of bead jewelry, and asked Lizbeti if he could call on her. Lizbeti smiled, nodded her head with a coquettish lilt; never once exposing her right foot.

A courtship ensued, fast by African standards, and the two were married well before the elections for District Council. Lizbeti took on an active roll of political advisor to Arthur’s campaign. Truth be known, Arthur was somewhat of a dull candidate and did not think that fast on his feet, except where magical walks were concerned. However, Lizbeti moderated some of his positions, and radicalized others, with the same sense of fair play and good judgment she had shown in her meeting with her bead-selling sisters. Arthur’s campaign showed signs of life.

While Arthur was a somewhat somnolent politician, he was a prominent eligible bachelor, and his courtship and marriage caused quite a stir in the press, and people were quite interested in his beautiful, if slightly eccentric, bride. This gave Arthur an additional bump in the polls. When a prominent African fashion magazine did a story on Lizbeti complete with glossy colour photos, her mismatched shoes came to light. Arthur, the astute politician in training, had not previously lowered his gaze to a view that would have alerted him to the fact that she wore two distinctly different styles of shoes. He was very surprised but showed enough awareness not to take advantage of it. After a short conversation with Lizbeti, Arthur gave an interview saying that the shoes were, indeed, a fashion statement. 

The press who had previously treated the shoe incongruence as some kind of bumpkin faux pas was electrified. The fashion magazine that wrote the original story begged for a follow-up and Lizbeti and Arthur feeling that it would be to Arthur’s political advantage, granted it. The article went into the styles of shoes worn by Lizbeti, contrasting the stylish mountain boot with the locally made African sandal. Lizbeti quite artfully termed it a meeting of Africa and the West, as she outlined the implications of this metaphor for the development of the country—the country went wild. The magazine provided photos of both Lizbeti’s feet and gave the name of the Italian mountain shoe company and the local sandal maker. Each was deluged with orders. The mountain shoe company was confused because it had scrapped the experimental model, but it quickly resurrected it to fill all of the orders coming in from all over Africa and countries that had privy to the African fashion magazine. Soon the story was picked up by the television press and went worldwide. 

The sandal maker couldn’t believe the interest in his formally anonymous product, and put on five new workers to handle the orders. He was confused by orders requesting only right foot sandals and could never quite accommodate to the request. So people that ordered sandals got both. This turned out to be a good thing since the Italian mountain company only sold both shoes too. People began cooperating on their orders, dividing their purchase of a pair of high teck hiking boots and a pair of sandals. But, when the boot company understood the source of the request, they priced the foot-ware separately, the left boot going for three times the price of the right boot, though you still had to buy both boots. There was no corresponding difference in the price of left and right sandals. The sandals, however, through the economic logic of supply and demand, themselves tripled in price. No one seemed to mind. As the world embraced the fashion phenomenon the already successful Italian mountain equipment company increased significantly in value resulting from the formerly experimental foot ware. The local sandal shop put on another ten workers.

Arthur won the election in a landslide—the people voting with their feet. Arthur, with some coaching from the side, became a credible and extremely popular politician. Lizbeti’s last name was the same as an African hero of independence, though not of her country, and Arthur showing some political savvy of his own, adopted the name and grafted it onto his own and became known as Arthur African Independence Hero-Mzema. The hyphenated name was a modern social innovation in Africa, and the women in the country loved it

Lizbeti continued to be featured in fashion magazines, but also became an articulate spokes woman for a variety of social and environmental causes and her views were remarkably compatible with her husband’s. 

Infatuated with the word Italy that was indelibly stamped into the inside of her boot, she took every opportunity to learn about the country, and influenced Arthur to pursue his academic education in that country. Arthur studied hard making brief trips to Italy and was eventually accepted into a master’s then a doctoral program in political science. And while an Italian education wasn’t the worlds most prestigious, it was a bit higher in sophistication than Arthur and Lizbeti’s country; besides the contentious politics of Italy was good training for an African politician. Lizbeti, of course, accompanied Arthur on all his trips, learned Italian. She became a regular figure in Italian fashion houses but declined to formally promote any house or product although she was frequently asked. She was also asked by the Mountain Equipment Company to advertise the now famous boot, but in this too, she declined saying that it would not be proper for the wife of an active politician to promote a product, even one as important to her life as the experimental high-tech hiking boot. The people loved her. Arthur for his part climbed the slippery ladder of politics with Lizbeti always at his side, always in the background, first as Member of Legislature then as a Member of Parliament. As he came close to finishing his doctorate there was talk about him as a candidate for Prime Minister, citing his authentic proletarian African roots and his fluency with the West.

Lizbeti continued to ware her mismatched shoes, and while she could not be induced to advertise the boot, she did accept a gift from the company of two new pairs, her original was getting a bit shabby and would not hold the polish the way it used to. It had begun to contrast poorly with the designer dresses that were given to her by the major fashion houses. The two remaining right boots were auctioned off for a fundraiser in support of a neglected wild animal park and brought in a small fortune.

Her walk remained the source of much conversation and was copied by an army of women—young and old, worldwide, and was the source of much joy in the country. In an interview she was asked about her close ties to the West, particularly the Italian influence, and what place the West had in Africa’s future. She tucked her right foot smartly behind her left letting her new boot peek shyly out from the hem of her long dress, smiled sweetly, and said: “Half and half.”