The Finest Shoes in the World

This post was written by Mick Lebens. He and his wife, Elaine, are the founders of Zozu Project.  

“At the end of our trips to Uganda we have made it a habit of leaving things with our Ugandan friends. To be truthful they are usually things that I somewhat self-consciously admit no longer meet our first world standards. They may be an old pair of jeans or a well-worn shirt that would soon be donated or even discarded after our return home. These are always received by the recipient much like a young child in America gleefully opens gifts on Christmas morning. It is a humbling exchange, to say the least.

Two trips ago I was making my usual transfer of jeans and shirts when I told the recipient, one of our sponsored children Raymond, that I also had a pair of Keen shoes whose strap had pulled away from the sole making them useless in my eyes. He excitedly exclaimed with a gleam in his eye, “I will fix them, I am a cobbler!!” And with that the shoes, or what was left of them, exchanged hands.

During our next trip, I was spending time with Raymond when the long forgotten shoes came to my mind. I asked him what had ever come of them. Raymond, the cobbler, proudly stated that he had fixed them and given them to his father. He noted that he wore them nearly every day.

The Lebens with Raymond (in white collared shirt) and his father (far right)

Several months after we left we received news that Raymond’s father had died after an illness. Our hearts ached for him and his family and we longed for our next trip when we could love and support them in person. That time finally came during our most recent trip in late June of this year. In many ways it was our best trip (although I’m guilty of feeling that every time). This trip stood out, however, in that many of the children we have seen grow and mature for 4 years now. Especially with the older children like Raymond, the conversations are more complex and their dreams for the future now more possible. It was during one of those talks with Raymond that I brought up the shoes again. I asked him whatever became of the shoes and did he still have them. To my surprise he said he no longer had them but the reason why was even more startling. He told me “it is a custom in our community to bury someone when they die in their finest clothes. My father always cherished those shoes and they were his finest.” I had no words for Raymond and even if I did my tears prevented me from saying them. My discarded shoes, that if truth be known I had strongly considered tossing away as rubbish, in this community were received by Raymond’s dad as the finest of gifts. I haven’t quite worked out in my mind why some in this world we live in are given so much materially and why others struggle for the basic necessities. I have concluded, however, that this honor and privilege to be a part of someone’s opportunity is my life’s greatest gift. I thank all that have joined in this Zozu Project journey and reassure you that there are many stories such as this one of change and hope that are occurring on this little dot on the map in Uganda. Your sponsorship, your gifts, and yes even sometimes your shoes matter in these children’s lives.”

Mick Lebens, who wrote this post, is married to Elaine Lebens, and together they are the founders of Zozu Project.

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