Shoes in African history, a comparison

Something happened in November 2011 that I don’t think I’m ever going to forget. I’m also probably going to keep on bringing it up over and over again. Usually when I hear people talking nonsense about the lack of achievement of my African ancestors, I firmly school them. When I start going on about Abyssinia or ancient Ghana and how one too many Africans today have chronic cases of colonial mentality, the haters usually have the grace to shut up.

However in November, I met a fellow Nigerian, Yoruba lady who caused me to see red. I don’t recall what we were discussing beforehand but I remember her words exactly, she called our African ancestors ‘heathen’ and implied that she was happy that Europeans and missionaries came to free us from our devil-worshipping days with Christianity and Western education. She openly said that she did not believe any Nigerian or African had achieved ANYTHING before the kind Europeans came to save us all. She knew this because her grandmother said so! I was speechless for a second then I started talking. I talked, kept on talking for about an hour (I just went on the history of people of colour and why colonial mentality has people like that lady thinking that we were/are nothing without Western intervention). She ended up walking out on me, while I was talking, with this repentant look on her face.

Encountering her has reminded me that there are people who truly disdain anything African in this world, whether it is our religions, cultures, histories, or customs. I tend to keep myself in safe spaces but I believe that people who view my ancestors as ‘devil-worshipping heathens’ are in the multitude.

It is legitimate to worry that any attempt at humanising Africans through our history will always be put down. We must always have been running around in the jungle (never mind that the continent’s geography is diverse, there are Africans that have not seen any damned jungles) sleeping on tree branches, dancing naked around fires and waiting for white skinned people to come and teach us civilisation.

Anyway this post is about shoes, or their lack thereof in African history. A lot of folks, Africans included, believe that our ancestors never wore shoes, that shoes were introduced to the continent by the British. Now I’m not trying to argue as to whether wearing shoes or not denotes civilisation, but when applied to African history, I view this as another attempt to dehumanise Africans.

Now imagine you ran a search on footwear in African history and came across this,

“The available evidence about ancient African cultures suggests that most Africans did not wear shoes for much of their early history. Although many northern tribes had contact with people who wore sandals and shoes, including the ancient Egyptians and Greeks, and later Arabs and Persians (from present-day Iran), a complete record of when or how Africans adopted foot coverings does not exist. The most common depictions of Africans from statues, artwork, and examples of traditional dress still worn by groups throughout the continent suggest that bare feet were most common.

Footwear is now worn in Africa. When Europeans established trade routes with Africa in the fifteenth century, European products, including shoes, entered Africa and many Africans began wearing Western style foot coverings. Africans also created their own slippers and leather sandals modeled on Western examples. But whether imported or made nearby, shoes were available mainly to the wealthiest Africans. Although many present-day Africans wear Western style shoes, sandals, and boots, not all Africans wear or can afford shoes and several aid organizations ship shoes, among other things, to Africa.”

This must certainly be the truth, you know because today people send their old shoes to AFRICA because people over there cannot afford shoes. Why should they have been wearing shoes in the past? Note that the above seems to have academic references, so it must be the truth. Also note how ancient Egyptians and Greeks are grouped together, the civilised North.

If you were lucky with that ‘footwear in African history’ search you may come across this,

“Due to the hot climate, most Africans in the past did not wear shoes. When foot coverings are donned, open sandals are preferred, which allow the circulation of air, as in the bowl-shaped oval sandals from Uganda or the flat, wide sandals worn by the Hausa in Western Africa.

Leather and rawhide are the most common materials used in making footwear, although shoes of other materials are occasionally employed for reasons of status or ceremony, including wooden toe-knob sandals from Zaire, and cast metal shoes from Cameroon.

Ashanti ceremonies abound with references to the shoe. As the king’s feet are never to touch the ground, his footwear is a symbol of his special status. Boots worn by the Yoruban elite provide a wide canvas for dazzling beadwork, which can cover the entire surface of the boot. Thigh-length boots embellished with finely-woven leather strips are worn by the Hausa, and provide protection while riding camels.”

Shoes from African history

The latter gives a reason for most Africans in the past not wearing shoes, and it was not because they were waiting for the British to introduce the concept. I don’t get why I’m still going on about Africans wearing shoes in the past, before European context. These things should be a given! Instead we’ve argued about whether Africans had bloody two story buildings before the Europeans showed us how it was done, we’ve argued about whether Africans understood the concept of love before the Europeans came and taught us that there is an emotion called love, and it just goes on. How frustrating.

It gets even more frustrating when evidence to the historical achievement of African gets ignored so that people can continue believing nonsense.

35 responses

    • I wonder how Christianity would have played out in sub-Saharan Africa if the influence was through the Ethiopian, Eastern Orthodox Ethiopian Church instead of the white-washed version of Christianity that came from the Greeks and Romans.

      Christianity evolved, originally, with black Africans in the Horn, but it went north and west, first and was filtered before spreading to the rest of the continent.

      I notice that the Horn portrays Jesus in his original form, a dark Semitic man wearing cherubas, while West Africans worship a very Anglicized Jesus with straight brown hair, pale skin and blue eyes.

      But the black West injects that Jesus wither was a black man wearing an Afro, or a dark skinned clone of the white Anglicized Jesus.

      I’ve come to value the image of the Ethiopian Jesus as the original and true image of Jesus.

      • I wonder how Christianity would have played out in sub-Saharan Africa if the influence was through the Ethiopian, Eastern Orthodox Ethiopian Church instead of the white-washed version of Christianity that came from the Greeks and Romans.

        This would have been interesting but as far as I know the Ethiopian Orthodox Church did not/does not do much proselytizing. The spread of European missionaries in Africa was truly tied to colonial schemes and it looks like the Orthodox Church had no such interest.

        As for images of Jesus as a dark-skinned Semitic man, it seems to me that his image has become lighter as time passed and as Western influences reached into Ethiopia. The earliest pictures of Christ and Mary I’ve seen from the Ethiopian Church show dark-skinned people. However just 2 days ago, I was watching a documentary highlighting a church festival in Ethiopia and the same image showed a pale-skinned, blue-eyed Mary and Jesus.

  1. This is interesting…the only piece of oral history I’ve ever heard my father recite is the coming of the white man, and how they had “no toes” because of foot coverings…and I find that to be a shame that that would be the only one he recites, hehe…

    It’s funny how people feel comfortable, in the name of religion, decrying entire past civilizations. Okay, let’s take at base that they may have been polytheists, if that’s what bothers one. It’s not like European culture they so worship (hmm…a form of polytheism in itself…) didn’t absorb aspects of their polytheist history…and take pride in it and celebrate it on the regular as if they are the crux of all civilization, so why shouldn’t we do the same, as we are the source of humankind, for real.

    Some people cannot be helped. I just hope they keep their lips sealed and carry on with their daily business and don’t teach this swill to children…

    • Oh hai Chinyere!

      I’ve heard the ‘no toes’ oral history before but after discovering vintage images of African wearing shoes, I have come to question this history. I really wonder if this history is truly part of an oral tradition or just a colonial retelling fed to convince us of the ‘savage’ nature of our ancestors. On the other hand, if sandals were more popular and only hunters and the elite wore covered shoes, it does make sense that people would say white men had ‘no toes’.

      Some people cannot be helped. I just hope they keep their lips sealed and carry on with their daily business and don’t teach this swill to children…

      But they will teach this to their children and considering the poor state of Nigerian education, no one is learning this is schools either. One of my fears is that one day everything about African history will truly be forgotten and the only image will be that of the barbaric unintelligent heathen savage running naked through the jungle *shudder*

      It is a sad thing to be brainwashed into despising your own ancestors.

  2. Excellent, as usual.

    she called our African ancestors ‘heathen’ and implied that she was happy that Europeans and missionaries came to free us from our devil-worshipping days with Christianity and Western education. She openly said that she did not believe any Nigerian or African had achieved ANYTHING before the kind Europeans came to save us all. She knew this because her grandmother said so!

    I would’ve seen red too.

  3. It honestly boggles my mind that people can believe that about their own cultures. It’s very sad. We have people like that in China, too, and even though we have so much that’s recorded in writing, not enough is taught, and pop culture only contributes to people continuing to have the wrong ideas about lots of things. :|

    I really admire that you stick up for your ancestors verbally! I just give up and consider the other person ‘lost’. :|

    • In China too? Wow, this makes me more pessimistic because all we have here are oral traditions which tend to be dismissed and lasting historical monuments that are largely ignored and under-researched.

      I really admire that you stick up for your ancestors verbally! I just give up and consider the other person ‘lost’.

      I’m reaching the apathetic stage, sadly it does get frustrating with such people.

      Do you think you could share how pop culture in China contributes to people having wrong idea about Chinese history?

      • Well, I think a lot of what we have left in writing is not being approached in a critical enough manner and is accepted at face value, while the education of the younger generations is strictly political (i.e., terrible facts have slowly been whitewashed in order to promote a political agenda).

        The most obvious thing wrt pop culture is that a great majority of tv series using the backdrop of the Qing dynasty paint it as a ~glorious period of Chinese history, perhaps even the most glorious, which is seriously untrue and does a huge huge disservice to history. And the simultaneous tarnishing of the Ming dynasty and its accomplishments. :| (Possibly the worst is that the past is often seen as nothing more than a mere backdrop to the actual `drama` in the tv series, so the people making the shows make up all sorts of wrong stuff…that then get believed by people watching the shows, because they’ve never been taught otherwise. :|)

        • Thanks for sharing.

          I’ve always thought that having big budget historical movies was a good thing because at least history is shown as shiny and complex. It’s rare to come across well-made historical movies set in any African country, those that exist just drive the whole ‘uncivilised peoples’ myth. I hadn’t considered political motives and undermining of certain periods in favour of others.

          And yeah there’s a huge difference in ‘pop history’ and history history.

  4. *Deep Breath*…. to calm the anger within. The widespread and uninformed perception of our people isn’t just being propagated by them but also being READILY accepted by some of our own clueless people.

    Nice article, E.

  5. Lovely post!

    I have always thought that our progress as a people was rudely interrupted by the imposition of the teachings of the white man.

    I do not believe that we would not have found Christianity, however, because we had not matured sufficiently, we now have our own hybrid of Christianity which is sometimes painful to watch.

    Also, that lady you met is sadly not in the minority. You should hear half the crap my Nigerian colleagues tell my White colleagues. They paint us as being inferior in most respects to the white man.

    Thanks for being an ambassador for our culture! C’est tres important.

    • Thank you!

      I have always thought that our progress as a people was rudely interrupted by the imposition of the teachings of the white man.

      I agree with this! Also Europeans like to take credit for change that happened while they were on African soil. For example, Mary Slessor is credited with putting an end to the practice of killing twins in parts of Southeastern Nigeria. I accepted this when I was younger but for a while now I’m beginning to seriously question this. Who says that people in that region would not have stopped killing or banishing twins without the influence of the kind white woman, after all they lived pretty close to other cultures that venerated and worshiped twins.

      We could have found Christianity too without the influence of Western missionaries who were backed by colonial powers. Places like South Korea and parts of Uganda adopted Christianity without those players. Let’s not forget the Orthodox Churches in Ethiopia. Apparently the current hybrid Christianity practiced in parts of Africa started out in protest to colonial rule.

      It is such a pity that we continue to put ourselves down in the name of white people. A lot of us are suffering from white supremacist thought.

      Thanks for being an ambassador for our culture! C’est tres important.

      Merci!

  6. Wow that is sad but black hold the European religion which it is very dearly. Some will go as far as trying to shut you down when you tell them the religious beliefs they hold was introduced through slavery.

  7. When I hear African people talk this way I really want to punch them in the throat badly. I mean how can yo believe such blatant lies. African need to break free of the colonialist shackles they have on their minds.

    • The most annoying thing is that I keep on seeing things like this almost every damn day! I don’t know how long I can take before I become apathetic. Getting angry so often cannot be good for me.

  8. I wonder of any of this woman’s recent ancestors were repatriated slaves from the Americas. A lot of them brought that kind of thinking to the continent. Many served as missionaries and were given positions of authority over native, “less civilized” (by European standards), Africans. Even though many intermarried into other indigenous families, and their posterity carry the names indigenous to the land – this is the kind of thinking they brought to Africa. This is the kind of influence they brought, also, as upwardly mobile blacks living and evolving in Africa.

    • I’ve heard of this! In my post on Madame Tinubu, I wrote that she was not fond of the Brazilian and Sierra Leonean immigrants in Lagos due to the way they looked down upon local customs. It does make sense that some of these people were used as part of a colonial strategy, typical ‘divide and conquer’.

  9. This is a fantastic post, eccentricyoruba. I certainly share your annoyance with the attitude that everything ‘post-colonisation’ is great and everything ‘pre-colonisation’ is bad. Which is partly why I refuse to write ‘post-colonisation’ historical stories.

    I’m no historian but I want to preserve the traditions of Africa through my stories without the tint of colonisation. African history has certainly being warped by it.

    • Thank you Kiru! I think you’re doing a great work writing historical romances set in Igboland. This is important as it helps in encouraging positive views on African history. Can you imagine I’ve come across people arguing that love never existed in the African continent until the Europeans came an taught us how to love? It’s amazing how even human emotions are being denied to our ancestors.

      I think you’re doing a great job! Please keep it up, maybe I should take the leap and start writing historical romances in Yorubaland ;)

  10. Thanks for this Eccentric, it’s bad enough that other people think this way, but to feel like that about your own culture… shame really.

    I got into a similar discussion a ways back with someone who thought she was doing Africans justice I guess. She implied that it wasn’t the fault of Africans that they we had to no great ancient civilizations. sigh, Needless to say, I had to school her right then and there.

    p.s. Happy B-day in advance!

  11. @ Amina, I wish, she’s Chinese. She was certainly talking about Africa as whole. It was awkward business, bashing European imperialism, while (wrongfully) perpetuating the stereotype that Africans have never achieved anything… sigh.

  12. I thouroughly enjoyed your thinking and I m glad you schooled that lady on one or two things. 6 months late but I was referred to this blog by a friend. Loved this post, I ll be back!

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