Walking a mile in someone’s shoes is tough. When Joe South sang those famed lyrics, I doubt he meant it to be easy, but instead something that one should try their best to do. After all, those shoes have walked many miles on a path traced only by their prints. It is hard to walk that mile because the shoes have a different fit; spots worn that feel foreign; extra rigidity in places you once felt free; and most importantly, seams and glue that hold them together different from those you know. Nevertheless, it can’t hurt to put them on for a while and try to walk that mile. It is a short distance compared to the whole journey, and one over which you might stumble a couple times, but it is ever more revealing than simply looking in from afar.
Meet my friend Mark Mulenga. A vendor of shoes on Cairo Road in downtown Lusaka. A new husband and father. A genuine and friendly Zambian who likes to dream big about his future.
Mark and I together near where he sells his shoes each day.
Being part of the first inspiration to do some urban learning, there is a bit of a back story to meeting Mark. I first ran into him one day when trying to find someone in the shops in front of which he sells his array of shoes. He helped me search around the place for the back room where the person had moved while their office was under renovations. Throughout the day I passed by Mark a few more times and smiled and waved knowing the familiar face. About a week later while passing again I figured, why not get to know Mark a little better? And so we hit it off – phone numbers exchanged and off and chatting about the two of us. We had talked about where he stayed and his work briefly and so I proposed that we meet one day and have him show me some more of his daily life. Mark, being forever happy to share with a friend, was up for it right away.
Mark is a street vendor among many fellow salespeople who line the main roads of Lusaka. He sells shoes in an array of styles, ranging from casual to formal. He sells his shoes at prices ranging from about K40,000-70,000, which is about a K20,000-30,000 mark up from what he buys them at, pair by pair, at Soweto Market (the biggest and cheapest market in Lusaka). He picked Cairo Road because the higher wealth traffic can add an extra K10,000 on the average sale. On a good week, he sells one to two, or if doing well, three pairs total.
Sometimes I go two…three…four days with no sales. Business can be slow, very slow, my friend.
While business if often tough, it is growing slowly. Starting with just a few pairs Mark now has over fifteen pairs out at any time. It is a brighter time in contrast to when, just over a year prior, a federal ban on street vending had police chasing away people like Mark. While now lifted by the current presidency, it is still a hard balance between those calling for a clearer, cleaner city and pitting the livelihoods of many against the law.
Mark lives on the southwestern side of Lusaka in John Liang Compound, a K2,000 bus ride from his work, with his recently wed wife, Brenda, and their five month old daughter, Paula. Their home is a one room, brick and tin roof building without utilities. The compound was built as a project by the government and so it rents at a lower rate – K585,000 per year. Mark draws water from a nearby borehole for K300 per 24L bucket and uses charcoal to cook. Food is purchased from Soweto as well, but sometimes when business is low and the costs of keeping the home are high, meals lose either the vegetables or the relish. Brenda, since moving here from Livingstone after their marriage, has not been able to find work and must take care of Paula, so Mark supports the home alone. Brenda has said that without any personal connections, finding a job can be very hard in Lusaka.
Mark’s neighbourhood to on the left, the commute into downtown, and the area in which he sells his shoes to the right. You can also explore the map in detail.
John Liang also faces challenges with poor grading causing water stagnation in the wet season and has no infrastructure outside of the main roads that border the compound. Mark also says that at night it is not so safe since drunks and some criminal activity lead to danger after sunset.
The compound also only has one school for far more children than it can hold, forcing residents to try and fund private education, which in the case of Mark’s brother, forces parents to choose only one or two children that will attend. Mark was only able to finish up to his grade nine in his youth while living in a family of seven in Kitwe. His father was unable to continue his sponsorship and so Mark was forced to find work instead, without any further support from home. He has begun attending night classes to try and complete his grade twelve level and hopefully open doors to college and better job prospects. At K500 per class and jumping straight to grade twelve (he has a sharp mind and is picking things up fast), he thinks it won’t be long before he can complete it.
Mark also really enjoys speaking about his future plans – and they aren’t short sighted in the least. He hopes to raise enough funds to begin importing jeans from South Africa and sell them to street vendors, eventually opening a boutique where he can expand his selection of clothes. From this income he will move his family out of John Liang to the nearby and improved Kamwala neighbourhood. Of course, this is continuously stymied by the challenges of a volatile and slow income that in many cases must be stretched just to be sustained. In spite of this, Mark hopes that either his education or continuing to grow his sales will bring the tipping point he needs. Because of the slow business, Mark thinks he needs to hurry his business switch, but has no certainty of where to find the funds. Mark also has a plan that if he finds himself with more wealth, that he will return to improve John Liang.
I see kids running around here without parents – it isn’t good. They grow up too fast, taking drugs, and don’t have the same chance as kids with a home and a school. I want to give them that place and improve this neighbourhood. If I can do so, I should.
In all of this, it is clear that Mark values his home and community highly and tries with what he has to support and grow them both. He beams about his daughter and speaks with an earnest sadness about the lives of the compound’s street children. His business is slow moving, but his restlessness and desire to move on leave him looking forward always. It is just a question of whether he can find a strategy or means to break out of a cycle not so different than that of the subsistence farming so often highlighted in rural areas. I do have confidence though that when the first chance does come along, Mark’s plans, mulled over a countless number of times in his head, will show fruit for his efforts.
Things move slow, slow – but they can get better I think if there is time.
Walking a mile in Mark’s shoes isn’t easy, and may not give the complete picture of the many miles since passed, but it is certain that this pair is uniquely his and walk a path leading up the slope to his life’s tall summit. I’m glad I could try to lace them up for a moment.
*Featured image from shootingannabellee.blogspot.com. The names used in this post have been changed and I have received consent by Mark to post what we had discussed when we met. The mapped areas are kept general minding his privacy, but hoping to help give some context to what I have shared.