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Europeans did NOT bring shoes to Africa

It’s a common misconception that Africans tended to go barefoot before the Europeans kindly turned up with shoes. This is far from the truth, and is another microcosm of prejudices about life on the continent before colonialism…

Hide and fur boots, Nigeria 1905. Photo: American Museum of Natural History


Usually when I hear people talking nonsense about the lack of achievement of my African ancestors, I firmly school them. When I start going on about Abyssinia or ancient Ghana and how one too many Africans today have chronic cases of colonial mentality, the ignorant usually have the grace to shut up.

However, last November, I met a fellow Nigerian, a Yoruba lady who caused me to see red. I don’t recall what we were discussing beforehand but I remember her words exactly. She called our African ancestors “heathen” and implied that she was happy that Europeans and missionaries came to free us from our devil-worshipping days with Christianity and Western education. She openly said that she did not believe any Nigerian or African had achieved ANYTHING before the kind Europeans came to save us all. She knew this because her grandmother said so! I was speechless for a second, then I started talking. I talked, kept on talking for about an hour (I just went on the history of people of colour and why colonial mentality has people like that lady thinking that we were/are nothing without Western intervention). She ended up walking out on me, while I was talking, with this repentant look on her face.

Encountering her reminded me that there are people who truly disdain anything African in this world, whether it is our religions, cultures, histories, or customs. I tend to keep myself in safe spaces but I believe that people who view my ancestors as “devil-worshipping heathens” are in the multitude. It is legitimate to worry that any attempt at humanising Africans through our history will always be put down. We must always have been running around in the jungle (never mind that the continent’s geography is diverse, there are Africans that have not seen any damned jungles), sleeping on tree branches, dancing naked around fires and waiting for white-skinned people to come and teach us civilisation.

Efe children playing the Osani game, Ituri forest, DR Congo
Barefoot Efe children playing the Osani game, Ituri forest, DR Congo

Anyway this article is about shoes, or their lack thereof in African history. A lot of people, Africans included, believe that our ancestors never wore shoes, that shoes were introduced to the continent by the British. Now, I’m not trying to argue the case for or against shoes denoting civilisation, but when applied to African history, I view this as another attempt to dehumanise Africans.

Now imagine running a search on ‘footwear in African history’ and coming across this:

“The available evidence about ancient African cultures suggests that most Africans did not wear shoes for much of their early history. Although many northern tribes had contact with people who wore sandals and shoes, including the ancient Egyptians and Greeks, and later Arabs and Persians (from present-day Iran), a complete record of when or how Africans adopted foot coverings does not exist. The most common depictions of Africans from statues, artwork, and examples of traditional dress still worn by groups throughout the continent suggest that bare feet were most common.

Footwear is now worn in Africa. When Europeans established trade routes with Africa in the fifteenth century, European products, including shoes, entered Africa and many Africans began wearing Western style foot coverings. Africans also created their own slippers and leather sandals modeled on Western examples. But whether imported or made nearby, shoes were available mainly to the wealthiest Africans. Although many present-day Africans wear Western style shoes, sandals, and boots, not all Africans wear or can afford shoes and several aid organizations ship shoes, among other things, to Africa.”

This must certainly be the truth, you know, because today people send their old shoes to AFRICA because people over there cannot afford shoes. Why should they have been wearing shoes in the past? Note that the above seems to have academic references, and it’s from a fashion encyclopaedia, so it must be the truth. Also note how ancient Egyptians and Greeks are grouped together, the civilised North.

If you were lucky with that ‘footwear in African history’ search you may come across this:

Shoes from Sudan, late 19th century. Photo: American Museum of National History (African ethnographic collection)
Shoes from Sudan, late 19th century. Photo: American Museum of National History (African ethnographic collection)


“Due to the hot climate, most Africans in the past did not wear shoes. When foot coverings are donned, open sandals are preferred, which allow the circulation of air, as in the bowl-shaped oval sandals from Uganda or the flat, wide sandals worn by the Hausa in Western Africa.

Leather and rawhide are the most common materials used in making footwear, although shoes of other materials are occasionally employed for reasons of status or ceremony, including wooden toe-knob sandals from Zaire, and cast metal shoes from Cameroon.

Ashanti ceremonies abound with references to the shoe. As the king’s feet are never to touch the ground, his footwear is a symbol of his special status. Boots worn by the Yoruban elite provide a wide canvas for dazzling beadwork, which can cover the entire surface of the boot. Thigh-length boots embellished with finely-woven leather strips are worn by the Hausa, and provide protection while riding camels.”

Sandals from Madagascar, 1900. Photo: American Museum of Natural History (African ethnographic collection)
Sandals from Madagascar, 1900. Photo: American Museum of Natural History (African ethnographic collection)

The latter gives a reason for most Africans in the past not wearing shoes, and it was not because they were waiting for the British to introduce the concept. I don’t get why I’m still going on about Africans wearing shoes in the past, before European context. These things should be a given! Instead we’ve argued about whether Africans had two storey buildings before the Europeans showed us how it was done, we’ve argued about whether Africans understood the concept of love before the Europeans came and taught us that there is an emotion called love, and it just goes on. How frustrating.

Hausa horse riding boots, Nigeria 1949. Photo: American Museum of Natural History
Hausa horse riding boots, Nigeria 1949. Photo: American Museum of Natural History

It gets even more frustrating when evidence to the historical achievement of African gets ignored so that people can continue believing nonsense.


Cosmic Yoruba || ThisisAfrica




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