I am not pessimistic but I find it hard to believe that there are people in the towns I live in who save up money over a period of many months in order to buy themselves a new pair of shoes.
The thought first occurred when a few months ago, having saved up what I thought was enough money to buy a pair of my own, I went over to the Bata shop nearest to me and tried to convert my money into leather cladding. I didn’t expect it to be a complicated affair, since I had easily done it before with relative success a number of times – each a few years apart.
For years, Bata has been my first choice of call because they seemed to be Ugandan, having been here through thick and thin – and even when I discovered that the company was Czechoslovakian in origin I stuck with them.
There was a time when their products were drab and depressing, and the butt of our school-day attacks on one another; in our stupid ignorance, we looked down on anyone who wore the canvass cloth, rubber-soled shoes we called ‘Sekatawa’.
The name arose after a legend that told of how the heroic Issa Sekatawa once ripped up his rare soccer boots during a game and opted for a nearby pair of Bata canvass shoes with which he scored a crucial game-winner.
Rather than pour accolades all over the shoes, silly schoolboys regarded them with scorn because they were cheap and easily attainable in the days when imported products were a sign of affluence and importance.
We regarded Safari boots in similarly low, if not lower, stead and woe betided (for real – you can google it) any young man who turned up at school in these boots.
Early into my adulthood, I bought a couple of imported shoes in Kampala then only bought shoes when I travelled to places that offered them affordably in plentiful variety, until somewhere along the way Bata increased their menu offering of shoes. I deliberately changed policy and began buying shoes only from them (the Czech angle aside).
They seemed to always stock the sturdy type of shoes and boots that my feet felt comfortable in, as opposed to the dainty, pointy-toed styles most coxcombs went for, at sensible prices.
Until a couple of months ago, when I found myself in the third Bata shop in a row, in Kampala, before realising a pattern in my failure to spend money on shoes.
Under intense interrogation, a shop attendant in that shop buckled and revealed that the company “no longer” stocked shoes larger than a regular size 10. Feeling guilty of having feet larger than necessary, I slunk off to a nearby shoe shop and tried to dispose of my earnings there, but failed to find the style of shoes I needed.
Pointing at a pair closest to my preferred style, I asked to try them on and as the attendant retreated to the stock room to find my size I enquired about the cost and was rattled.
Eight Hundred Thousand Shillings?!
“Not the entire shelf,” I attempted to joke, “just this one pair!”
The remaining shop attendant didn’t get it, and the indignation in my voice raised the attention of a lady at the high table who could only have been the imperious shop owner.
“What’s the problem?”
“These shoes are too expensive! Eight Hundred Thousand Shillings?!” I charged.
“Hmmm! People buy them,” she said, and turned back to her business. I left the shop at that pace one does when expecting that bargaining callback but none came my way.
For the next three hours I visited a number of clothing (and shoe) shops in malls and arcades through the city just to confirm that, indeed, people were buying shoes at these prices and by closing time in the evening I was soundly flabbergasted.
I even found shoes going for one and a half million shillings! And the shop attendants were incredulous over my astonishment.
“What was the big deal?” they generally retorted, “People buy them!”
I was licked. The mathematics involved in spending Ushs1million on a pair of shoes required one to earn much more money than I considered to be ’normal’.
And the number of shops comfortably selling shoes at these rates seemed to be much more in number than the people that I expected to be earning such amounts.
I have made many enquiries into the matter and have found very few people willing to confess that they spend so much on shoes in Kampala, so who is buying these shoes? How much do they earn per month, and how much of that do they save up before making their purchases? Do they also invest in things like pre-processing plants in rural Uganda? Is the money spent on shoes the left-overs of their purchases of stocks on the Securities Exchange? How does it work, this economic cycle, and why am I shoeless in all of this?
The investigation continues, but in the time being the people at Bata are losing out in not bringing in shoes in my foot size at prices that people like me can comfortably afford and fit our feet into using our normal monthly earnings.
But everybody else is losing out on a major opportunity to make massive profits turning hides and skins into shoes. The market out there is rich!