Dutch Boy in Belgium: Reflections on Shoes

Figure 1.--

A Dutch reader has provided us some of his boyhood experiences, both in the Congo, at the time still a Belgian colony, and in Belgium itself. He writes, "It strikes me that going barefoot is associated with poverty in the minds of so many people. For me as a child shoes were a bone of contention but for a different reason ...

The Congo

You know I spent part of my childhood on an estate in the Congo. My mother was inordinately afraid of spiders, scorpions, snakes and all kinds of vermin. Moreover she was convinced that we would hurt our feet at scraps of glass and the like that were lying around everywere just to hit her offspring with blood poisoning, infections etc. Therefore she forbade us to go barefoot. She was succesful as long as I stayed in the immediate vicinity of the house were my nanny kept a watchful eye on me.

The only boys my age were the children of the cook and of the workers and as I grew older increasingly I found ways to slip away with them and range about the bushveld between our home and the river that marked the estate's boundary to the west. These boys never wore shoes, probably did'n even own footwear. Soon enough they'd taught me to find the trails and I got to know that ! snakes and most other animals are as much afraid of us as we are of them. They taught me to swim while crocodile were basking in the sun on the opposite banks of the river.

Of course my mother would do what she could to keep me within reach but in this she was not very succesful. A turning point was when she promised me a new toy train with a set of Swiss locomotives - on condition that I would promise to always wear shoes and stay with Nanny all the time. It was a terrible dilemma. I feared to lose her love if I refused and at the same time I felt that she was trying to "buy" me. I feared that I was never going to escape her anxiousness which I had come to find increasingly oppressive. I threw a terrible tantrum and smashed the train she had given me for my last birthday. She didn't press the subject thereafter and we lived by the understanding that I would wear shoes in and around the house and she never again spoke about my roving through the bushveld and to the watering hole.


When we had moved to Antwerp it became a non-issue as I noticed that all the other boys (cousins, school mates) wore shoes most of the time and the environment was now safe even to mum's neurotic mind. We never associated going barefoot with poverty. We were free to do so as long as we were within our own grounds - or those of family or friends of the family. Now rules were different - and for different reasons. We were expected to wear shoes on the street, while visiting and of course to school and to church, but spent long summer afternoons roaming about the garden or climbing the walnut trees barefooted. There was a dress code for dinner, geared to the formalness of the occasion, but involving shoes even for a family meal on a hot summer evening. Yes, your oxfords (black), no, not your scout shoes (boots) nor those brown ones. Why? Because we always wear black shoes after six. But why? Because that's how we do it. This became the ultimate argument to teach us how to behave. "We" was the family and the people we associated with. Because we've always done so. Because dad and your uncles do it that way and your granddad did so too. Amazingly -we're in the sixties now! - we did comply, most of the time anyway.


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Created: July 5, 2003
Last updated: July 5, 2003