Spurred on by shoes

My life in the last few months has been punctuated by bitter-sweet emotions. But I live to tell it all. I live to share experiences of my increased sensitivity to my environment, and surprise at finding joy in the mundane acts like admiring a pair of shoes.

I must make this disclaimer before I continue: I had never, ever, imagined that a pair of shoes—aesthetics aside—could, for a moment, arouse imagery that fills me with glee. But they did.

A couple of weeks ago, following the return of my principal supervisor from his home country, he walks into our group meeting wearing a new pair of suede shoes—or at least new to my eyes, for I too had had to go home shortly after his return. The shoes were top-capped, laced and olive green in colour. In Lesotho, when these shoes are dual toned in black and white, we affectionately call them phele-phatsoa.

Although I have knew that the design was actually Italian by origin, in that moment, with phele-phatsoa in mind, I just wanted to claim it solely as part of my African heritage. For me, that was but a classic design that is worn by litjaka, men who care about their appearances full-stop, class is a non-issue.

In fact, when I saw the shoes, I was reminded specifically of the blue and white collar professional men that put on these shoes with great panache.

The visualisation of these men actually made me giggle mid way through complimenting my supervisor on the shoes. Thus, out of politeness, I felt rather compelled to explain myself. Explain the possible irony embedded in my realisation that liclever tsa Hlotse (the clevers from Hlotse) and likoata tsa limmaneng (the supposedly unsophisticated men from the mines) can easily be qualified as men with the same good taste when it came to specific Italian shoe designs.

So, here I was in a somewhat awkward position of having to paint a picture that is very representative of these guys, who some may regard as different.

I described Hlotse guys/clevers, especially those born in the pre-80s, as men who believe they were born with a refined fashion sense, the kind that makes them equals to the Sicilian Godfathers. Except, instead of suiting up, they put on Italian shoes, chino pants and collared shirts—preferably Pringle, but the Thomas Pink and others will do. This look, although one may regard it a norm for many white collar professionals, the Hlotse guy carries it with some subtle Jazzy confidence that has a slight Sophiatown feel. Here I am not describing the type of guy who might respond to a compliment with a puffed up line like: “ke nare, ke tsoa Hlotse habo semate”–which really, in my opinion, I find very wanting or problematic for how can someone practically respond to compliment with “what do you expect? I am from Hlotse where folks understand smartness”.

Moving on. In contrast to the Hlotse guys, my description of the dressing sense of the miners was abuzz with sexual energy. I guess partly because I am in awe of the ability of these men to have sexualised conversations in public using idiomatic language. Being on any long queues with them, especially border queues on entry into Lesotho, is such a delight. The pent-up energy from working deep under the earth’s surface is given expression. And, suddenly it becomes clear why the first question to their kids when they come running to greet them is/will be, “mma-lona o kae?”, where is your mother?

I have digressed, back to what I call an apt description of how a miner that qualifies as tjaka may dress. If at all they wear a blanket, it is a design fit for kings and worn with a level of cheekiness that says, “I am someone’s king and could be yours if you so desire”! When it comes to Italian shoes, moccasins, loafers or the likes are just not their style; they limit themselves mostly to top-capped laced leather designs, polished and made to shine with a lot of TLC. The pants are the formal suit type, trimmed just slightly above the ankle, and sometimes with a hem deliberately turned up: the idea here is to reveal their clean socks—for they understand that cleanliness enhances sex appeal, as no woman appreciates smelly feet. To complete the whole look, they infuse an attitude of “I sweat to earn a living—interpret this however way you like—but I certainly know cleanliness is next to godliness”.


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