Have you ever had one of those “ah-ha” moments that changed your life forever? One of those moments when, in the blink of an eye, you realize that nothing will ever be the same again and your future is laid out in front of you? I experienced just such a moment a decade-and-a-half ago. To this day, it is as fresh as the day it happened.
It was a hot and dusty July afternoon in 2003, just a few miles north of the equator in Uganda, East Africa. I was there as part of humanitarian team visiting St. Angela Primary School. The air was hot and heavy. My shirt clung to my sweat-soaked back. I was seated just inside a classroom on a wooden bench worn smooth by years of consistent use. Gathered around me were eight, smartly-uniformed, shoe-clad students sponsored by the project. They were recounting their educational exploits from the past semester.
As they were talking, I noticed that just a few paces beyond the classroom where these students were gathered, stood dozens more boys and girls, mostly barefoot wearing shreds of clothing, pressed up against the outside of a barbwire fence that marked the boundary of the school compound.
At first, I thought it was part of what I now understand to be The Mzungu Effect. Literally translated, Mzungu means “someone who roams around” or “wanderer” and was the Bantu word used in East Africa to describe the early European explorers who apparently moved around aimlessly! Today, it commonly used to refer to anyone with white or light-colored skin. Trust me, if you are a Mzungu in Uganda, you will attract attention! I had been the object of that kind of attention on many days during this particular trip. But this instance was different. Their presence preceded my arrival.
I asked the Headmaster if the children gathered outside the fence were there because they had heard that Mzungu was coming to visit the school. He said they did not know I was coming because he did not know I was coming. I then asked him why they were gathered at that fence. His reply is etched in my memory forever. “They are there, Mr. David, because they are poor, many of them orphans. They cannot afford the cost of the shoes required to attend school. They come to listen and learn as much as they can from what they can hear.”
As a former Headmaster myself, his words were like a dagger to my heart. All that stood in the way of these orphans having access to an education was the lack of a pair of shoes.
Wow. I knew I had to do something and what has become Uganda Shoe Trees was born.