New Internationalist

The shoe-sellers of Bukavu

At the cacophonous intersection of Marche Feu Rouge and Avenue Lumumba in Bukavu, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the asphalt fades into packed earth, which is covered with a blanket of brightly colored women’s shoes.

About twenty women have set up shop here to earn a living and cater to a fashion-conscious city, where people aspire to move out of the shadow of conflict and into better times.

Each pair of shoes on display is different from the next: black leather ankle booties, neon orange stilettos, classic pumps and sandals adorned with delicate bows. They line the sides of the avenue, extending in rows ten pairs deep and carrying the brands of well-known upscale retailers and discount stores. They look new, aside from a few scuff marks on the soles.

The women selling the shoes rest on stools behind their displays, laughing, talking, plucking heels from the wall behind them and chucking them to customers. When there are no customers, they remain seated, sandals kicked off. The evenings are cool during the dry season and the women are bundled up in sweaters and wrapped in yards of colorful fabric.

Antonne Chikwanine has spent half her life working here. She prefers the stability of Feu Rouge intersection to her previous work, when she would pace the city trying to sell what she could carry, with a single exemplar shoe balanced on her head.  

She enjoys selling shoes and speaking with customers in what she calls her ‘office’. Even if, sometimes, after weeks spent traveling to Uganda – where she selects and buys these colourful treasures – she makes just a fraction more than she paid for them. People in Bukavu, well versed in this precarious existence, refer to this daily scraping by as ‘le taux du jour’.

On a bad day, a vendor won’t sell a single pair of shoes. But Clarysse says that there are also days when she can sell five or more.

She picks up a low-heeled sandal and states her preference for flatter shoes over the many stilettos on her stall. ‘They hurt,’ she says. With first a shy glance and then a loud laugh, Clarysse reveals the number of pairs of shoes that she owns herself: TEN.

All photographs by Erin Byrnes. Captions in order of appearance: Feu Rouge vendors,  shoe-seller Clarysse Kungiwa and shoe shopper Francine Mushingo.

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  1. #1 Vicky Lynn Shaw 09 Jul 12

    I found this fascinating and exceptionally well written. Though I will not reveal the number of shoes that I personally own, I will admit to having a bit of a shoe fetish myself.

    I look forward to more articles by Ms. Byrnes.

  2. #3 shoemaven 01 Nov 12

    I wouldn't blame her for liking flats over heels. Those things really hurt! And I think for a place like Bukavu, even though the ladies want to be fashionable, it still makes more sense to walk around in flats than heels. Interesting articles though.

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About the author

Erin Byrnes a New Internationalist contributor

Erin Byrnes is a journalist from Montreal. She is currently filming a documentary about  post-conflict media and women's rights in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. For updates about the film you can follow her at @mariebyrnes.

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