Child poverty is one of those issues that greatly excites the leadership of many of our churches. And perhaps understandably so. No one likes to think of anyone, but children in particular for whom there is no element of personal choice, in poverty. Of course, what one person means by poverty is quite different from what someone else means, especially in a relatively well-off country like New Zealand. I’ve occasionally been surprised to see lists of characteristics of people in poverty – sometimes around heating – only to say to myself “but I do that. Call me abstemious if you like, but it isn’t a reflection of poverty”. Footwear is another attention-grabbing aspect of some of the measures of child poverty.
What prompted this post was a story in today’s Herald, “Barefoot walk for good cause”, recounting a fundraising effort being undertaken by a young Wellington woman, “to raise awareness and funds for the thousands of children in Cambodia whose lack of footwear remains a barrier to education”. She is planning to walk 33 kms barefoot in Wellington – along the banks of the Hutt River, and then along the cycleway into town. I know nothing about the Cambodian school system, but it did bring back memories.
Back when I was almost 7 we moved from comfortable genteel Christchurch to the mill town of Kawerau – my father took up a role as part-time Baptist minister. I think the town must have been quite a cultural adjustment. Kawerau then wasn’t the welfare and gang sinkhole it seems to be today. Instead, it was pretty prosperous place – high wages for often not-terribly-demanding work in the papers mills established as part of the 1950s (equivalent of) Think Big strategy. But it certainly wasn’t Christchurch. I don’t think my mother was overly impressed at us moving to wearing Roman sandals (my school uniform in Christchurch included proper closed-toe sandals). But she drew the line at the local custom: barefoot schooling. And so I left home each morning with my sandals on, got to the corner 20 yards away, and took them off, only to put them back on as I got home again in the afternoon. It was just the way we did things. I’m pretty sure none of my friends’ parents were poor – housing was cheap, wages were high. It didn’t harm our schooling, or induce any sense of lack of well-being. Let alone poverty. Apart perhaps from church, I doubt we put shoes or sandals on all summer long.
It didn’t necessarily look that way to other people. After a couple of years in Kawerau we went back to Christchurch for a holiday, staying with my grandparents in their large house in the heart of Fendalton. One morning I went out walking – I must have been 9 or 10 – doing some sort of circuit of some of the better streets of Fendalton, barefoot. Imagine my surprise – bemusement – at being waylaid by one local matron, very concerned at my lack of footwear, and worried that my parents might not have been able to cloth me adequately. Somehow I made my excuses – she probably wasn’t convinced – and got back to my grandparents’ place, where Mum had to explain that not many locals, child or not, walked the streets of Fendalton barefoot.
Which is not to suggest that I’m indifferent to genuine childhood poverty. But I do sometimes wonder about the footwear dimension – perhaps especially when the real price of footwear is so much lower than it used to be, due to the removal of (most) protection. 33 kilometres is longer than I would walk barefoot these days, but when I go back to the Bay of Plenty on holiday, whole days – and reasonable length walks – go by without even a jandal afoot. Some people – not me – even go shopping in Whakatane, the local commercial centre, barefoot. If I don’t follow their example, it brings back happy memories.
Perhaps the issue in Cambodia is uniform requirements. Whatever the case, I wish the young woman well in her fundraising, but it isn’t the cause for me.
There are, after all, quite some biblical examples of people going barefoot.