shoelaces

All Because of Shoelaces

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“Reality can bring more than physical pain. Sometimes, reality can crush the heart.”

Harold dropped his ballpoint pen onto the slightly damp paper that rested on the flat, pitted surface of the ancient desk. In another place, the paper would have been crisp, but not in Sierra Leone. The desk looked like it was a long disused movie prop from when Humphrey Bogart starred in the black and white movie, Casablanca.

Like much of West Africa, humidity was high through the entire year, although there were many months when it never rained. The Sahara Desert played a huge part in the weather patterns, and during the dry season everything would be covered in a fine red dust. The red dust would seep into the very pores of your skin and the simple bucket baths only gave a few minutes of relief.

His shirt, trousers, and even his undergarments were damp from sweat. The sun’s unrelenting heat was never mitigated, and the best you could hope for was a bit of an ocean breeze to bring some relief at night.

Night brought its own terrors. Bugs, mosquitoes, and spiders the size of your hand seemed to double in size when the generator ran out of gas in the middle of the night. Resting on a damp sheet on top of a damp foam mattress, Harold knew the only think that provided some form of protection was the mosquito netting that surrounded his sleeping area. But, he also knew that the African rats scurrying around his room in the pitch blackness could easily chew through the cotton fibers if they so desired.

Yet, the humidity and the lack of modern conveniences were far from the man’s mind as he glanced back down at the paper in front of him. Yesterday’s events had rocked him to the core. The reality of being in a foreign country only brushed the surface of the depth of feelings and emotions that coursed through his body. Harold was certain that his life was forever changed simply by getting on the airplane, but only time would tell how much it had changed.

shoelaces

The taxi driver would be here soon to collect him and deliver him back to Lungi International Airport. It is the only international airport in Sierra Leone, but was not actually in the capital of Freetown. Freetown was across the bay but was a quick ferry ride from the town of Lungi where he was staying at the Mahera Beach Hotel.

Thoughts raced through his brain, but he found there was nothing more that he felt he could write. All he could think of was the lesson young Foday Koroma had taught him.


The last week, Harold had stayed in the small town of Moyamba, which was about a three-hour drive to the east of Freetown. A group of missionaries were teaching local pastors how to teach their own congregations about the Bible, but were also providing much needed services to villages. This included teaching the locals about bee-keeping, better irrigation methods, and improved hygiene.

Apart from a couple of trips to nearby villages, Foday had lived in Moyamba all of his thirteen years. Thirteen was not a clear number though as he had been orphaned during the brutal civil war. He had been passed from house to house but nobody knew exactly how many years had passed. Harold thought the boy might actually be fifteen or sixteen for the lad was the same height as the white man who had become a friend so quickly.

Foday’s schooling had been minimal at best and Harold guessed that the boy might read at a first grade level. Every day, Foday waiting for other youngsters to get off school or come back from the pineapple farms so they could play football, or soccer as Harold liked to call it.

With a little convincing, Foday managed to get Harold to come play with them. Too many years had passed since Harold played sports of any kind, but he had tried to keep up. Blaming it on the extreme heat of the tropical sun, Harold only managed about ten minutes before explaining that he would have to go sit under the tree on the edge of the football pitch.

An hour later, the game finished. Foday and his companions said goodbye to each other, and the young man came to sit with Harold under the tree. His lithe body glistened brightly with sweat as though it had been covered with oil. Grinning widely, Foday was happy for his side had won quite handily. From what Harold could tell, it was not really much of a contest for Foday was quite good with handling the ball at either end of the field.

“Mr. Harold, I will miss you when you go. You are good friend.”

Harold remembered the lump that came to his throat as he thought about his upcoming departure. Each day seemed like an eternity in a tropical torture chamber, but the people had made a huge impression on him. People like Foday were kind, gracious, and eager to learn of new things.

Harold simply nodded to his young friend as they stared across the grassless, dust-covered patch of ground that doubled as a village meeting place and a football field.

Looking back at the lad, he noticed the boy taking quick glances from the man’s tennis shoes and back to his own feet. Harold would not have dared to say anything and poverty was evident everywhere in Sierra Leone.

Foday’s black feet glistened through several holes in what remained of the ragged shoes. The boy’s shoes had probably been passed from person to person until given to Foday. They did not even have any shoelaces. How he managed to keep them on his feet, even while playing football, was amazing. Yet, he did and he was clearly one of the fastest in the village.

Something stirred within Harold’s heart and he asked the boy if there was anything he would like as a gift.

Foday thought for a moment and pointing at his friend’s feet, he responded.

“Mr. Harold, if I had some nice shoelaces like yours, I could run even faster when I play football. Do you think I could have your shoelaces?”

Harold sat stunned into silence. It was obvious both of them wore about the same size shoe, but all the boy wanted was the shoelaces to help hold the rags on his feet together.

Any resistance that may have been harbored in his heart toward the people of Sierra Leone evaporated like the jungle morning mist before the tropical sun. Tears had filled the man’s eyes and without a moment’s hesitation, he reached down and carefully undid the shoelaces on each tennis shoe. Slowly, he took off each shoe and handed it to Foday.

It was Foday’s turn to be stunned. He could not believe the miracle that had just taken place. All he wanted was shoelaces, but now he had a pair of tennis shoes that looked brand new. Putting them on, the grin on his face grew even larger than Harold thought possible. The lad felt prouder than if he had been elected as the next village elder.

From Harold’s perspective, the shoes were an older pair that he had brought at the last minute, but was now glad that he had done so.


Back at his hotel, Harold thought through every moment of the interaction. It was burned into his mind as though seared by the hot African sun. Putting the pen back in his damp pocket, Harold knew that it was not just Foday that had impacted his life. Every person, every smell, every plate of food, everything he had seen had changed the way he would look at life.

The reality of life in Sierra Leone caused physical pain to many, but the reality of what he had experienced had crushed his heart. It was not crushed beyond repair, but was crushed from the hardness that he may have felt toward others. It had crushed his need for the finer things of life and he knew he would forever be grateful for everything he owned, which was so much more than Foday and millions of others would ever own themselves.

All because of shoelaces!


Some aspects have been changed to keep individuals anonymous.