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Issue 8-06

Walking in Another Man’s Crocs®: Mombasa

“Here,” said the beach boys, “wear our shoes.” The tide was out, and the Indian Ocean had receded a mile or so eastward toward the horizon from the Mombasa shore. We had hired two young men to guide us toward the coral reefs—now mostly dead or still dying, an ecological tragedy.

Walking on the beach was not a simple pleasure. With the unemployment rate at 70% in Kenya, the gaggle of young men who gathered every day just beyond the perimeters of the time-share resort where David and I were staying made venturing out not dangerous but exhausting. When America’s economy collapses, the world suffers in ways we can’t possibly imagine. These young men were hungry, eager for work, and tourists were the best possible way to make some quick shillings. As much as a toe placed on the beach made you fair game for the importunities of five to ten smiling but insistent beach boys.

My husband is a soft-touch, to say the least, so he hired two young men, Moses and Victor, to take us on a morning walk. The mud flats were sucking stretches that trapped unsuspecting strollers; we thought it the better part of wisdom to hire guides. “Here,” said Victor, the eldest of this twosome, when we approached the sharp-edged coral reef. “Take our shoes—our feet are hardened with calluses—if you walk barefoot out there, you’ll slice your feet. And watch out for sea urchins.”

“Yes,” said Moses. “If you step on one, we’ll just say the walk turned into an adventure.” A little grim humor here; we learned that “paw-paw” or papaya mash was the local cure. But we didn’t step on disaster—our guides’ sharp eyes helped us to wend our way around the hundreds of sea urchins we saw that morning. They carried David’s leather sandals and my stretch-strap open-toed flats—both of which would have been ruined by the salt water—so we could concentrate on carefully marking our footsteps.

We slipped into their plastic Crocs®, literally walking in these African men’s shoes. We wound our way, following closely behind them, out onto the reefs. Even in a degraded environment, we found sea cucumbers and the dreaded spiny urchins and various starfish and scurrying crabs. Little puddles with small neon-colored fish amazed us and a few large crevasses, where the receding tide had left deep ponds stocked with gorgeous salt-water fish, invited diving—which Moses did, taking a quick morning plunge to emerge smiling. Our guides pointed out the sea birds, and we talked about the economy and why they had not been able to complete their educations. Moses was a practicing Christian, taking care of his widowed mother and the younger brothers still at home in the village behind our resort. He hoped one day to study to be a carpenter. They had opinions about the failure of the Kenyan government, and the absence of American tourists since the post-election violence in 2008, and Somali pirates—the raid on the Maersk Alabama and the hostage-taking of its captain were happening offshore Mombasa even as we walked on the beach.

Certain kindnesses slipped into their conversation. We discussed the other beach boys. One, an alcoholic, had given the rest a bad name. Then Moses said, “Well, you do what you have to do.” No criticism, just a gentle understanding.

It felt as though, for a short while, that these young African men had become our sons. David hired them to take us to see the dolphins (at a price better than what our hotel offered), he ordered ebony keychains carved with grandchildren’s names and African game animals for gifts. One afternoon, Moses brought us a typical dish—a pot of sweet potatoes cooked in coconut sauce. “A gift,” he said, indicating that we were not to pay. They procured a driver and went with us to the Crocodile Farm, where 10,000 crocodiles were being bred for meat and commercial skins. If we sampled crocodile meat, they were going to sample crocodile meat with us. “How can you be good guides if you don’t do what your clients do?”

For a short while, walking in their Crocs®, laughing about the “plastic” (their term) Massai warriors who danced one evening at dinner—the “warriors” were obviously Mombasa workers, several were particularly short while the Massai are typically tall. David suggested they had lied about their height, an impossibility of course—my husband’s joke. We talked about the differences in our lives, and of course, the conversation led inevitably to President Obama (who doesn’t even need to do a good job since his election has already elevated the feeling of potential in black man and women around the world). When we left, David emptied his suitcase so they could sell his clothes or give them away; not quite the clothes off his back, but pretty close.

This is what happens when you walk in another man’s Crocs®—you begin to live in a kind of commonality, to strike a kind of kinship.

This, of course, also happened when we walked in the slums of Nairobi—Kibera, the second largest slum in African—where over one million people live in a one-mile square area. Here, Hungry Souls is setting up sewing projects with HIV/AIDS widows. Here we visited the women, walked on slippery paths beside open sewage trenches, back into the 7-foot-wide mud-and wattle-sided, corrugated tin roofed home of Consueleta, who sews in this dark place and where seven children sleep with her at night, her children and the orphans of relatives. David and I demurred about making the second visit, to the home of Lynette, another seamstress; we sent along the younger and more agile members of our team instead. We’d been spared broken bones on the first jaunt into the back alleys of Kibera. Why risk the rest of the trip for one misstep in the heat and on the sloppy paths?

There are few white-haired men and women in Nairobi; death comes early to the aging. Our ages brought frequent comments as well as the phrase, which we heard again and again, “And you’re so healthy still!”

When you see the Kibera slum from a distance (Kibera is the native word for “jungle”), it looks rather quaint, thousands and thousands of small rusted tin shacks. Think of the scenes from the film The Constant Gardner starring Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weiss, who won an Academy Award for leading actress. However, most of the shots of Kibera were taken on the outskirts of the slum. David Mains writes of his impressions, “But when you actually walk the zigzag, uneven, narrow paths of this place, go back into the three-foot wide lanes, jump over trenches and cross land bridges, you’re quickly made aware that these living conditions are deplorable.”

“Picture your town or city with decades of no functional garbage pickup. Everything is just tossed, and it piles up. Well, the ground of Kibera is literally composed of refuse and rubbish. The makeshift dwellings are built on this unstable base, so when flooding is experienced in the rainy season, structures often collapse. Complicating everything is the fact that the population density is so cramped, in most areas there is no access for cars or trucks, so materials for rebuilding have to be hauled in by hand.

“‘Flying toilets’ was a phrase I had not heard before. What it means is that the people use the ubiquitous plastic bags to relieve themselves. When finished, they tie up the feces and toss it—but what else can they do?’”

We walked in Pipeline, a “middle-class” neighborhood we were told in the Embakasi neighborhood in Eastlands in Nairobi. We visited Korogosho slum and sat in a little tin corrugated church while a coalition of pastors made plans to train Community Health Evangelists. David and our video producer, Doug Timberlake, interviewed, filmed and recorded the stories of the African men and women who are becoming involved in the initial phases of the Global Bag Project.

As much as were able to, in this short amount of time, but with the intense focus of the lens of a camera, which always concentrates the attention, we walked in these people’s shoes. They were beautiful to us, courageous to us, hopeful for meaningful work that could provide a sustainable income—and all eager to help others in their communities.

Arriving home, all of a sudden, I realized that my husband, David Mains (whom I have been nagging—yes, nagging—to remember to carry cloth reusable grocery bags) has taken over my Global Bag Project! He’s planning to go back next September to film three more stories. (“Every Bag Has a Story”—each bag will have a DVD in the pocket telling about the amazing women who are becoming bag-makers!) He already has the dates on the calendar. He has set a goal of selling one million bags! He is sitting on top of the production schedules. He’s talking about us needing additional staff to ramp up the marketing of cloth shopping bags.

You know what?—I’m thrilled! This is what happens when you walk in another man’s Crocs®. Some incarnational reality swoops you up, bonds you with kin you have never met before, gives you a feeling of solidarity.

“Probably,” my husband said to me, “if we hadn’t gone through such bad times ourselves, we would never know how important—how meaningful—it is for someone to come beside you and say, ‘We care. Let us give you just a little boost.’” With just a modicum of help, bright, enterprising, hard-working folk can help themselves.

David will be filming in Kenya in September, but he and I are planning to go back in March of 2010. We would love to have some of you come with us. Are you aware that only 20% of Americans have passports? How can we have a love for God’s world if we never walk in another man (or woman’s) Crocs®?

Let us know ( ) if you, your husband, your friends, your offspring, or your neighbors would like to come with us. We will need to know by November 2009 in order to make reservations.

Karen Mains

Last-Minute Room on the Stratford Festival Tour

Our annual Stratford Tour to the Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, Canada was all filled for this summer so we have not done any advertising. However, we have had some late cancellations and now have room for six more folk.

If you are interested, contact David Mains at You can also phone him at the office at 630-293-4500. The dates are the second week of July 2009, from Monday, July 6 – Saturday, July 11.

This experience is so wonderful that David and I have returned every summer for the last 35 years.


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Karen Mains

Karen Mains

"This is what happens when you walk in another man’s Crocs®—you begin to live in a kind of commonality, to strike a kind of kinship."



"There is hunger for ordinary bread, and there is hunger for love, for kindness, for thoughtfulness; and this is the great poverty that makes people suffer so much."
-- Mother Teresa

"Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice."
-- Nelson Mandela

"My major problem with the world is a problem of scarcity in the midst of plenty ... of people starving while there are unused resources ... people having skills which are not being used."
-- Milton Friedman

"Every morning our newspapers could read, 'More than 20,000 people perished yesterday of extreme poverty.' How? The poor die in hospital wards that lack drugs, in villages that lack antimalarial bed nets, in houses that lack safe drinking water. They die namelessly, without public comment. Sadly, sad stories rarely get written."
-- Jeffrey Sachs

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