Open for Business


Z likes to keep his clothes and shoes until they wear out. I don’t mean, until they have a spot on them or a little pull in the material under the arm and end up in the Goodwill bag. He brings a whole new meaning to threadbare. Right now his favorite shirt in the whole world—after these three weeks of Eunice’s vigorous hand washing—will be lucky if the collar is still attached. It’s just a mass of strings at this point. When we first got together, he was sleeping in a holey T-shirt that was more hole than shirt.

I tell you this so you will understand how overjoyed I was that Z decided he was willing to take his main pair of “teaching shoes” to the cobbler while we are in Zimbabwe. He is already a man of few shoes, and his two other options involve a pair of off-white veldskoens (sort of like southern African Hushpuppies) that don’t agree with the Seattle weather and a pair of black lace-ups that I suspect he has had since college and that he has taken both Gorilla Glue and a Magic Marker to, and to which he always declares, “They’re fine!” when I suggest that perhaps it is time to retire them. Let’s just say that I knew it was true love–and a good case of dimples–that kept me from judging Z by his shoes when I first met him. I’m not a complete shoe snob, but I’ve judged other men for less than globs of glue and a toe box that has clearly been colored in with marker.  These shoes he reluctantly agreed to take to the cobbler are my favorite ones because they are the least tatty, and so I was pleased that they might be saved from some of his own cobbling handiwork.

When I’m in my hometown, I invent reasons to go to the Greek cobbler who has been in business since the dawn of time. His shop smells of polish and leather and always seems like a place where life happens. He’s friendly and studies a shoe carefully before agreeing to fix it, so I get a certain jolt of pride when he declares that a shoe I’ve brought in is well made and worth saving. I once made a tiny hole in a pair of slippers bigger so I’d feel justified in taking slippers to him, and once there, I beamed with pride when he complimented their German construction and said it would be a shame to throw them out because of such a small tear.  So I was looking forward to seeing the Zimbabwean version of Mr. Marinakes, seeing if his shop smelled the same, if the energy was similar. Not to mention, I can only imagine how busy a cobbler in Zimbabwe might be given how much people walk there (though a lot of the walking is barefoot, which probably does cut into the shoe-repair trade).

So day before yesterday, Z put his shoes In a plastic bag, and we drove to “the shops” in his hometown, which kind of looks like a American strip mall in shape only, but which ultimately seems random. As in, I’m not convinced that during the three weeks I was there some of the businesses didn’t change over night.  I’ve noticed in Zimbabwe that things often seem more temporary than what I am used to. What there is at the shops is a big TM supermarket, a smaller grocery run by friends of Z’s family (who have a cat with kittens mousing inside, which seems genius and cozy and makes them way better than the chain store by default), a bank, a post office, a fruit and veg stall, a medical testing center and copy shop (where Z got a million copies for about $8 for some research he is doing, and where, I feel certain, the women who work there might be running a detective agency on the side), and a mattress store. It reminds me a little of the Fisher Price village I had as a kid in that exactly what you need is there, but not much of anything else. On my first trip to Zimbabwe, the shops were decorated for Christmas—it was a single strand of colored bulbs and half of the bulbs were burned out or broken.

Also, the moment you park your car, someone—often a young man in a red vest—appears at your car window and tries to sell you airtime for your cell phone. At the bigger shops in Harare, the airtime salesman compete with people wandering around trying to sell produce, despite the fact that you are either growing some in your own garden or you just bought some at TM. But in Z’s hometown, it’s all about airtime. Z-ma seems to be a favorite of the airtime salemsen. They call her gogo (granny), and at the nearby petrol station, one guy yells Gogo, Gogo as soon as he sees her coming, and he has huge smile on his face, which kind of makes us want to buy more airtime than we need.

Also, in the parking lot, there is a man in a truck with a big wire cage who is selling chickens.

As we parked the car, I was looking around for the cobbler’s shop, to no avail.

Z confidently walked along a wall and then behind a wall, and then around a little half wall. And there, at the back of the shops where I was expecting to see, I don’t know, trash dumpsters, sat a man with a sort of card table and a few tools. On the ground beside him were maybe six shoes, some singles, some pairs. That’s it. No walls, no roof, no rows of unclaimed shoes, no excess leather or shoelaces, not even an “open” or “closed” sign. Just a guy with a table, a few tools, and apparently, if Z-ma is to be believed, some talent.

Z’s cobbler looked at the shoe in question and listened as Z explained that he only needed to have the rubber sole glued back on. The cobbler shook his head and demonstrated how he’d stitch it up so it would be stronger, and suggested that the other shoe should be stitched too since it would probably come unglued at some point. We weren’t sure what the timeframe was for Zimbabwean cobbling and we knew we had a plane to catch in less than a week, but we were assured that the shoes could be ready later in the afternoon.

Z told the man that he wouldn’t be back that afternoon but would pick them up in a couple of days. I’m anxious to see this guy’s handiwork to see how it compares to Mr. Marinakes’s. The cost: $3, which is way cheaper than the new pair of shoes I’ve been hounding Z to buy for the last six months.  I fear this is only going to strengthen his view that no piece of clothing or footwear is ever beyond salvageable.

For a week when we drive into Harare to visit the extended family, I’ve been puzzled by the graffiti painted on a bridge in Harare. It says SHOES, and it is only after meeting this cobbler that I realize the word is not the work of some hooligan with a can of spray paint slapping random nouns on concrete in the dark of the night, but is instead the open-for-business sign of the guy sitting next to the bridge with his crate and a few tools.

It is exactly this sort of thing that leaves me astounded here. There is this lack of the concrete that seems to surprise no one here but me. For instance, some of the streets have names, but no one seems to know or use those names. I listen to Z and Z-ma discuss driving routes, and they say things like, “You turn by the big tree” and then we get there to the turning place and there will be a load of trees, though one will be bigger than the others. I hadn’t noticed that it was a “big tree” at all. When I ask what the road is called that goes from Harare to Z’s hometown, he and his mother kind of look at me like it is an insane question. Why does a road need a name? It’s just the road that gets from one place to another. Before I came here, I never understood why, when I asked Z how big his hometown was, he could never give me a ballpark number. Now I understand because I can’t even tell where the town ends and the rural area begins. On our trip to Kariba, we were still in town even though to me it felt as if we were deep in the bush. It annoys but doesn’t rattle them that half the “traffic robots” (stoplights) don’t work. I think in the US, if there were regular stoplight outages, our whole society would break down. We need concrete markers so we know when to stop and when to go.

The best analogy I can come up for this thing I’m having trouble describing is this: in the U.S. it’s like everything has been drawn in a coloring book with bold outside lines, so you know what’s what and where to color and what the picture is and will be when you are done. In Zimbabwe—and maybe it is this way in Africa in general, I can’t say—it’s more like there are no outside lines; there are, instead, vague colors and shapes that form a different sort of tableau than the one I am used to. For instance, you don’t have to have walls to have a business and you don’t have to have a cobbler who has a front door.  These are things I would never have guessed.

6 responses »

  1. I am not even sure how I stumbled on your blog but I wanted to comment and say that I love your writing! Really good stuff. Looking forward to reading more and sharing it with my husband (he loves to write too and always appreciates good writing). Incidentally, I am from another country (albeit a Western one) and find myself transplanted to the Midwest in the USA. That comes with its own culture shock oddly enough. 🙂

    • Thank you, Catherine. I imagine there is all manner of culture shocking happening in the Midwest. Z has given me a few reports of things he had to get used to when he first came to the US for university. (A class of his was stopped mid-lecture just so he could see snow for the first time!), and I admit, since moving to Seattle three and a half years ago I’m discovering that some of my personal quirks are gifts from the Midwest.

      P.S. Love the name of your blog!

  2. I’m eager to know how the shoes turned out after the cobbler’s work. At the reception for my friend Tom’s wedding, at which I was one of two “best men,” the sole of one of my shoes suddenly peeled off all the way from the toe to the mid-arch. I went through the rest of the reception, including my toast to the newlyweds, with several circuits of cellophane packing tape wrapped around the toe and sole. Gorilla Glue would have been a great improvement!

    • Hilarious. Though completely different, I am reminded of the giant tuxedo pants Z ended up with at our wedding, which required huge safety pins and were in danger of falling off during the hula hooping session at the reception. Stay tuned for a full report on the shoes!

  3. Thanks for swinging by my blog! I’m so glad you commented so I could find your writing. I absolutely love travel writing, and I’m enjoying reading about your adventures! I know Mr. Marinakes’ shoe shop too- and I’ve had to convince him to fix flimsy, pretty shoes in spite of the fact that they probably weren’t worth saving except for sentiments attached to certain, impractical pairs! Also, the first time I flew, after spending some time admiring the marshmallow-y tops of clouds, I noticed how box shaped everything looked below on the ground. It seems as if our country squares everything in- and despite our easy grids I’m still good at getting lost. You’re in my bookmarks now! Keep writing! 🙂

    • Thank you for your comments and for bookmarking my blog. Now I’ll have to tell the absolute truth about Richmond! I’m still adjusting to how gridless things can be in Seattle, where various bodies of water and some cantankerous city founders plotting make things “interesting.” I’ll continue to look to you to keep me properly homesick.

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