‘Are you on strike?’ a man called after us, making us laugh.
Philo, her young writer friend Renée, and myself had arrived in the village of Kiambu by car, clutching at mobile phones which linked us to faster worlds in Nairobi and beyond. Now our shoes were off and we were walking gingerly, exposing ourselves to good-humoured curiosity.
Walking barefoot can have multiple meanings—from penance to pilgrimage to protest and empowerment to poverty and powerlessness.
‘When you have your shoes on you’re one station removed from being yourself,’ Philo had said that morning, while we talked about our walking experiences. She compared it to separation from the land when we travel by car. ‘When you walk barefoot it’s like you’re talking. There’s something that goes on between your body and the earth.’
We’d met in 2007 at a conference of the international organisation, PEN, which unites writers concerned with freedom of expression, and discovered common ground as each of us took our morning walks. We planned then to walk together around the village where Philo grew up, but decided only that day to go barefoot, for simple pleasure, and to draw meaning from the sensations.
The bare feet of city visitors to these lush-leafed, peopled ridges just to the north of Nairobi might well have seemed to speak a political language in January 2009. Exactly a year before, disastrous elections had left a trail of tribal violence. The growing of maize was disrupted leading to a famine, and now a major scandal was erupting as maize imported to alleviate the situation had reportedly been sold to South Sudan. A shaky coalition government was setting the streets murmuring with discontent, and all secondary teachers were on strike—we’d seen them marching barefoot in several places on our travels, waving branches above their heads.
It was a long time since I’d walked barefoot anywhere except on a beach, but I was willing to try. The rainy season here transforms hard red earth into a clogging swamp, and shoes are completely impractical. Women and girls all go barefoot on these paths and yet it was obvious that for me and my friends used to wearing shoes, it was strange and difficult.
We weren’t going far, simply teasing out some paths around the village to celebrate a web of journeys made over sixty years by Philo, her siblings and mother, and to chart changes with our feet. Our small sisterly procession was soon provoking interest. Philo was well-known to the village people. She not only grew up here but stood for parliament in this constituency the previous year. She was famous for her grass-roots activism, for hard-hitting journalism, for addressing basic needs, especially for women. During the worst days of unrest in 2008, she’d worn a sackcloth in the streets of Nairobi to draw attention to the plight of her beloved country.
The people of Kiambu knew Philo had promised miracles if she was elected: an education that would allow them to stand on their own two feet and thereby ensure access to shelter, food, clothing and medicine.
‘But,’ they said as they smiled us past. ‘Look at her powers now. She can even make a white woman walk without shoes!’
We tackled the steep, stony path down to the river cautiously, until reaching some large water-worn rocks over which our soles curled and lingered for their smoothness and warmth. Philo told us how the river used to reach here. She recalled the excitement of crossing it on stepping stones, how its rapid fall made it seem a great fountain, alive with beetles, she said, frog spawn, even once a large green snake that dashed across the surface. She finds it diminished now by global warming, by planting of the wrong trees, by damming upstream and the discharge of chemical waste.
A small stretch of our legs, and we had stepped over it, saw it trickle greyly away downstream through heart-shaped leaves of taro root.
A little upstream was the pipe where the girls of Philo’s family came to collect water, and where a small gang were now doing the same. Philo stopped to talk, always a story-gatherer, always wanting to know about the lives of ordinary people. She took a full canister from a small girl and carried it, panting under its weight, up the steep red hill ahead.
‘This is the shopping centre’, Philo said as we reached the village of Ndumberi. Just near the corrugated iron kiosks selling bundles of charcoal and onions, an old woman in a bright orange pleated skirt stopped to talk to us. I didn’t understand the words between her and Philo in Kikuyu and passed the minutes hopping from one foot to the other as my soles were scorched by the baked soil of the afternoon road.
‘She says she walks from Nairobi to here barefoot,’ Philo said, of the thirty or so kilometres we had just driven. The woman’s feet were dark grey in colour with thickened heels. She was standing still, not seeming to feel the heat.
‘She says she can perfectly well afford to buy shoes, but why would she not want to walk barefoot?’ Philo signalled the smooth red earth, the maize and coffee plants lifting in the breeze, the absence of vehicles.
I wondered about the woman’s walk in Nairobi where as Philo had said, ‘the city ways are hostile to barefoot travellers’. Would people read poverty rather than pleasure in her steps?
The woman gave us a final greeting and then walked away at an even, stately pace. My progress after her was slow, my head bent as I concentrated on the next footfall.
We crossed onto a wide road, busy with a tide of people carrying their loads from the fields. My feet sought the highest, most polished humps from which pebbles had been swept, and my toes stretched upwards from the ball of my foot, seeking air, moving in a way they don’t in shoes. It was as if they’d developed a new articulacy, and had come alive.
Children followed us, giggling and chatting quietly between themselves.
Philo was leading us across a high plateau now. Ahead of us a drop in the road revealed an expanse of forest rising to the misty heights of the Ngong Hills. An acacia tree was silhouetted on the horizon, its distinctive curved canopy like a portion of cartwheel. A few raised islands of ageing tarmac met our feet. Its frog-spawn lumpiness touched a memory on my sole. Was it of a long-ago primary school playground? As if in answer a small boy ran ahead of us goading a wheel with a stick.
We left the road for a narrow path to our left, dropping steeply into a valley through a high corridor of foliage. Our feet padded silently on the soil still damp and cool with the memory of last week’s rain. The path opened out to reveal a mosaic of small plots, whose colours and textures were determined by their crops: maize, banana and the wide blades of fast-growing Napier grass for cattle. A ridge rose beyond the valley and a spire peeked through a gap between trees.
A gateway opened into the primary school where Philo’s mother had worked. I picked my way through dumped rubble, discarded piles of bricks. I looked around at the single storey brick-built classrooms, grills at the windows clinging on to shards of broken glass, the doors swinging open. Philo wanted to know what had happened since she had last come, why one of the classrooms was condemned, what should be done.
Looking into the next valley, she pointed to what she called the ‘circumcision river’. When she was young, pubescent girls were brought here to sit in the water, anaesthetising their genitals prior to cutting, a custom which was rejected by Philo’s parents. It’s a rite of passage which is far less commonly marked by knives now, more often with words. Two women were washing clothes there, the flow of a remembered river barely visible amidst green meadows.
We moved through another gate and met the plain face of Riara Church, where all ten children of Philo’s family had been baptised. Solid, tall and white, the alcoves of its circular and arched windows were edged in pale turquoise. Despite the complaints of our feet, a celebration was suggested as the sun sank lower, flushing up deep colours and casting long shadows from an umbrella tree. A journey was complete; a ritual fulfilled.
We rested in a gazebo amidst ornamental shrubs and the scent of rosemary. In turn the three of us washed our feet under the garden tap. The red soil streamed away, the water cooled hot soles, gilding and glossing our feet in the sunlight. We put on our shoes again. My soles tingled, and as we started back, my gait was shifted by the elevation from the ground. A new perspective, a sense perhaps closed off, but eyes open and up. I felt deeply refreshed.
It had taken us two and a half hours to get to the church, slowed by our soft soles, detours and conversations, pauses for reflection. Our return took little more than thirty minutes, the valley half kissed by golden light and half leaned over by shadows, its sides cupping the cries and small startled journeys of weaver birds.
We found Philo’s mother sitting on her sofa, hands folded, strong feet firmly planted on the floor. I wondered if in the grain of the skin, the contours and cracks, her soles would reveal a map in miniature of the ways we had just taken, the well-worn routes between home and river; home and workplace; home and church?
Philo was excited when we met the next day. Having seen how our walk attracted attention, and how we’d responded, she’d made some phone calls. A group of writers and activists would walk barefoot through Nairobi. Their feet would write a protest at this important time in Kenya’s history.
I came home to Scotland before this happened, in mid February. There was a ferocious cold snap. Footprints radiated out from the town, etching into deep snow an archive of journeys made over several days. Even after an aggressive thaw, the raised islands of impacted boot-prints remained, stamped in lines across the grass. I thought of the red dust paths of Kiambu, worn by successive generations.
Then an urgent email arrived from a fellow member of PEN. Philo had been arrested during a peaceful protest outside Parliament. Her hands had been raised in empty maize packets to highlight the hunger of ordinary Kenyans brought about through corruption. News trickled in over the hours. She was in a police cell. She was in court. She was in hospital following her brutal treatment by the police. Then she was home and safe.
Immediately after release and before sleep, she wrote a blog about her experience including the stories of women she met in the cells who had less leverage to be fairly treated; raising her voice for the voiceless.
One detail particularly saddened me. As she was moved by the police from station to cell to court, provoked with punches, verbal abuse, threats; as she was walked between cars, cells and interview rooms, with keys shaken, heavy bolts drawn on dark rooms with light bulbs that didn’t work; she was barefoot. The police had taken away her shoes.
‘It’s one thing to love to walk village paths barefoot,’ she wrote in an email afterwards, ‘another to be forced to step on cold cement… Our feet celebrations turned into tears’. She compared it to the humiliation of being stripped.
The police released her with only one shoe. The day after leaving hospital she walked back across the City, barefoot and defiant, carrying the one remaining shoe to demand its pair at the police station. Showing shock in their faces, people stopped to ask her if she was protesting about something.
This time she was.