National Geographic

Sole Brothers

Rift Valley, Ethiopia, 11°2'39''N, 40°21'28''E

Footwear is a hallmark of modern identity. How best to glimpse an individual’s core values at the start of the 21st century? Look down at their feet—not into their eyes.

In the affluent global north, where fashion caters to every whim and vanity, shoes announce their wearer’s class, hipness, career choice, sexual availability, even politics (the clog versus the cowboy boot). It is disorienting, then, to be walking through a place where human beings—millions upon millions of women, men, and children—slip on identical-style footwear every morning: the cheap, democratic, versatile, plastic sandal of Ethiopia. Poverty drives demand. The only brand is necessity.

What meager protection plastic sandals offer seems superfluous on feet like these of Mohamed Haota, the cameleer. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Available in a limited palette of chemical hues—black, red, brown, green, blue, purple—the humble, rubbery shoes are a triumph of local inventiveness. They cost a pittance to manufacture. Any pair can be had for the equivalent of day’s field labor. (Perhaps two dollars.) They are cool—permitting the air to circulate about the feet on the Afar Triangle’s blistering desert surface. And home repair is universal: Owners melt and mend the molded-plastic straps over wood fires. The ubiquitous sandals of rural Ethiopia weigh nothing. They are recyclable. Finally, modest as they are—the footwear of Africa’s poorest—few other shoes can claim their own war monument. (Soldiers on both sides of long and tragic conflicts between Ethiopia and Eritrea wore them to their deaths in battle.)

Photograph by John Stanmeyer-VII

Our binary camel caravan—A’urta, or “Traded for a Cow,” and Suma’atuli, “Branded on the Ear”—has been joined at last by its two long-lost cameleers, Mohamed Aidahis and Kader Yarri. These men caught up with us from our departure point at Herto Bouri, crossing gravel pans and rumpled badlands after days of quickstep walking. In the manner of life here, no explanation was asked or given regarding the nature of their weeklong delay. They were late. Now they were with us. Each wore matching lime-green plastic sandals.

Guide Ahmed Alema Hessan (left) wears the “American walking shoes” he requested for the trip. But cameleers Mohamed Aidahis (center) and Kader Yarri eat up miles the way most rural Ethiopians do— wearing an ounce of molded plastic on each foot. Photograph by Paul Salopek

The surface of the Rift Valley is a palimpsest of footprints stamped in the dust by millions of cross-thatched soles of injected plastic. Yet if Ethiopia’s popular sandals are mass-produced, their wearers are not. They drag their left heel. They mar the right shoe’s molding by stepping on an ember.

Imprinted on every footstep: One thing not made in China. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Ahmed Alema Hessan, our guide north through the Rift Valley of Ethiopia, knelt the other day on the trail, examining the shoes’ endless impressions.

“La’ad Howeni will be waiting for us in Dalifagi,” Alema said. He pointed to a single sandal track.  La’ad was waiting in Dalifagi.

There are 53 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Raghu Nathan
    January 31, 2013

    Great blog on the footwear. the sandals remind me of my high school days in India.

  2. lorna
    January 31, 2013

    those sandels must be more comfortable than they look. Following your walk with great interest Paul

  3. Margy
    January 31, 2013

    Jaw dropping insights. Thank you once again. I wonder how many miles Alema will walk before he switches back to the green plastic?

  4. Amy Bucci
    January 31, 2013

    Hey Paul – great stuff here! I love the fact that the group catches up and no one talks about their week long delay! I have been sharing your blog with the Ethiopians I meet here in DC. They get super excited when I show them pictures. I will make sure to check out their shoes next time.

  5. d-cubed
    January 31, 2013

    I love the way you picked out a small detail (peoples’ shoes) to provide insight into peoples’ life. I’ve been enjoying your posts and have recommended to my friends. Thank you for taking us along on your adventure!

  6. kangpokpi
    January 31, 2013

    those plastic shoes let in a constant bed of sharp gravel, stones, slivers and thorns and. no wonder the legs and feet of your companions are so damaged. the shoes provide not a bit of support and comfort but do protect somewhat against the burning sand. and, as you point out, they can be repaired. in my many years in Africa, what people asked me for were my shoes.

  7. carin
    January 31, 2013

    In Nepal it was the rubber flip flop! Not easily repaired though.
    I will watch your walk with great interest, but please don’t make the women invisible in this piece of history, too. So far I’ve only seen what the men are doing. That’s only half of what is going on in the world. thanks

    • Paul Salopek
      February 9, 2013

      Carin—agreed. Gender barriers in storytelling are a hurdle in many
      cultures, including the Afar. I am interviewing more women, though,
      and you’ll be hearing their voices soon.

  8. Samantha Pieper
    February 1, 2013

    Your ability to put things experiences into words….I hope some day to be able to write like you.

  9. Cornelia Ahearn
    February 1, 2013

    Following your walk with great interest. I am 66 years old and look froward to the next instalment. Thank you so much for sharing. All the best.

  10. Mary J.
    February 1, 2013

    In the 1970s whitewater paddlers called the plastic shoes ‘jellies’. Interesting they went from the water to the desert.

  11. LORETTA
    February 1, 2013

    Starting on this walk excites me. As I am seventy five years, my goal is to finish every step. Thank-you for your kindness. This is my dream.

  12. Umar Husseinali
    February 2, 2013

    Greatest event of any on foot adventurer of 21century!Thank you for showing to the modern World the beauty of the land of my ancestors!

  13. Emily
    February 2, 2013

    Thanks for letting an old woman tag along w/ you. Your observations are priceless.

  14. alex e.
    February 2, 2013

    I am completely flabbergasted by this walk.I am only nine but plan to follow and record in a journal all 7 years. I hope it goes through Santa Cruz

    • Paul Salopek
      February 9, 2013

      Alex—if the walk is encouraging you to keep a journal, I will be
      pleased. Some First Americans are now thought to have coast-hopped
      south from the Bering Strait by canoe, so you are living right atop
      the walk’s route.

  15. Chairul Bahri
    February 3, 2013

    What a contrast: plastic sandals and cellular phones! Products of very recent technologies. I am very excited to see next findings on how far we have evolved from our ancestors and brought our goodies home.

  16. Joan ~~ Snoqualmie
    February 4, 2013

    I want a pair of these shoes in lime green!

  17. Amy M.
    February 4, 2013

    What a fascinating journey! I stumbled upon this story while doing research for a college project. I have always been interested in the human race and how and why lifestyles differ. I look forward to following your journey. Safe travels!

  18. Linda
    February 4, 2013

    Great insight into the lives of the people through the shoes…something so remote and yet so important..thank you…am so enjoying your blogs~~

  19. Rebecca Schreiber
    February 5, 2013

    Following your slow, thoughtful journey is wonderfully refreshing amid the steady pace of life here in Durham, North Carolina.

  20. Barry Davidson
    February 9, 2013

    Interesting that you should say it costs ‘only a days labor to buy a pair of Croc quality shoes, probably the cheapest shoe in North America, and it seen as a good thing for these poor people while here the euivilent of a days wage would probably be a shoe in the range of $150 and enjoy good orthopedic support when we hardly walk at all…

  21. Antonio
    February 14, 2013

    Like Alex e, I’ve decided to keep a journal of this trip. I am much older than he is, and though not so old that I could not by any means make it to the end, the chances are fewer. Still, I have made a start of it and hope that perhaps when Alex is 16 and I am 66 we can compare notes somehow.

  22. Brian T. Raven
    February 16, 2013

    Wish I were there. It’s a magnificent adventure you’ve dreamed up…..of benefit to us all.

  23. Desmond Baptiste
    February 25, 2013

    The plastic shoes are hard on the toes and on the feet generally. I wore one once and swore never again..

    And I ask that the Comments be more analytic rather than Paul-Worshiping.
    Especially from the women who ‘are following him’ so diligently.

  24. Lotfi
    June 22, 2013

    My daughters and I stared for an extended time at the deep scars in these feet. Than we looked around our living room for the extras we needlessly collect and pile…. Little ones made commitment to forego few things….

  25. Barbara Eberly
    December 23, 2013

    I am reading this article in your magazine right now. I was very interested in seeing the lime green sandals!! I love them!

  26. Jim Kasper
    December 30, 2013

    Paul,

    I spent some time hiking in the Simien Mountains a few years ago. Our guide, Sheti, set out to steer us to one of Africa’s several rooftops (Ras Dashen). He had just returned from guiding a group on a two-week trudge to the top and back, and had not even checked back in with his wife and children when the park officer yelled something at him in Amharic, and moments later, he was our guide. I think I saw him give a young boy a message to send word home to his family: I won’t be home for dinner, I was sent out again immediately. I protested, but the park officer was in no mood to debate. Sheti would have to wait another week or so to say hello to his family. The silent appearance of Mohamed and Kader after days of absence reminds me of this now. Thanks for sharing all of these thoughts and memories for us, the band of nomads on the couch.

    -Jim

  27. Azucena
    January 15, 2014

    Being able to afford objects that will pile up and won’t be used much – like shoes- while in some places people have to spend a day’s earnings to buy shoes that can be so necessary and uncomfortable (the ones shown in the pictures can get you blisters when worn in very high temperatures) makes you think how we may take many things for granted in “modern” societies.

  28. Kevin H.
    April 17, 2014

    How do they make that palette of colors and why don’t they add more to it?

  29. Brandon knable
    April 17, 2014

    I think these sandals are really cool,one because they are recyclable and two,because for one pair,it costs about two American dollars.

  30. Mario Fitzpatrick
    April 17, 2014

    I think it is awesome to see a story like this. Often times people view Africa as a region that does not produce anything of much value, yet we see the importance of shoes to Ethiopia that are produced and maintained by their own people.

  31. Mariana
    April 17, 2014

    I thinks its neat how the shoes are recyclable, that’s is very good for the environment and also where they live, so they won’t have shoes laying around everywhere.

  32. Mykiel
    April 17, 2014

    I like the idea of the shoes being able to be repaired after they’ve been damaged.

  33. Bryan Aguirre
    April 17, 2014

    It’s nice to know that something is not made in China .This will help out the country in a lot in multiple ways.its also horrible what people have to go through just because they can’t afford shoes.

  34. Christian werner
    April 17, 2014

    The article show extraordinary ways that that the people are being able to have new shoes it is very exciting to know that people care enough to do so.

  35. Ryan
    April 17, 2014

    I thought the article was very interesting. The section it tells you that the sandals are the only shoes they have to wear must be pretty boring wearing the same pair everyday but I’m sure they’re thankful.

  36. Sam
    April 17, 2014

    I think the fact that the shoes are very cheap to make is important. The cost for one is only a days work in the field, which is about two dollars. Only a days work can earn them a pair of shoes that can last them a life time.

  37. Joseph
    April 17, 2014

    The blog was good and made me think how lucky we are

  38. James
    April 17, 2014

    I like that the shoes are recycleable

  39. Victor
    April 17, 2014

    It’s very good to see them not wasting resources. This shows that they are very great full people.

  40. Geavon
    April 17, 2014

    It is sad how these people in Africa don’t have lots of pairs of shoes even though they caused a little.

  41. Alex
    April 17, 2014

    I find it very interesting how the mend and mold the plastic straps, and how the African people can just fix them easily over wood fires

  42. Luis
    April 17, 2014

    I like how the shoes are recycable and cost 2 dollars

  43. Sam
    April 17, 2014

    I find it cool how the shoes are being able to be repaired even after they have been damaged.

  44. Elida
    April 17, 2014

    It’s amazing how these people make their shoes!!

  45. Naomy
    April 17, 2014

    I love how they made their shoes out of plastic because it seems like the only materials they really have . You’ve got to use what you’ve got and make the best out of it , and they sure did .

  46. Omar R.
    April 17, 2014

    I think there should be a easier way to repair the shoes.

  47. Zach
    April 17, 2014

    I think this article shows how some countries are extremely less fortunate than places like the U.S

  48. Iyanna
    April 17, 2014

    I thinks it’s amazing that for how long those people had been hurting they finally got some comfort that can always be reused and can never go to waste.

  49. Maricruz
    April 17, 2014

    I think it is amazing that the shoes are recyclable and that they are not expencive

  50. Marvin
    April 17, 2014

    I think it a very creative that they use there resources that they have to make the shoes that they so desperately need.

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Photographing Neighborhoods as a Catalyst for Learning | Educators' Blog

    […] Paul pays a lot of attention to objects and what they reveal about the people he is writing about. For an example of this, please read his piece about the colorful, plastic footwear he noticed in Ethiopia: http://outofedenwalk.nationalgeographic.com/2013/01/31/sole-brothers/ […]

    June 6, 201414:03 pm

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