Why One Country Banned Bare Feet

Got shoes? You better, if you want to go to school.

SourceJason R Warren/Getty Images

Why you should care

Going barefoot can be an exquisite pleasure — or a source of national shame. 

When Anjan Sundaram stumbled upon a rural village hidden on a hillside far from Rwanda’s capital, it looked scorched. Empty, destroyed. Like a village annihilated by rebels. But he didn’t find any dead bodies or a mass exodus. Instead, he found huts and huts and huts, stripped of one critical element: a roof.

The journalist describes the scene in his book Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship. The villagers, he writes, were sick with malaria and sleeping on rain-soaked mattresses. They had voluntarily (or so they said) stripped the roofs from their homes at the “suggestion” of President Paul Kagame. It was part of an “upgrade” from thatched to tin. One glitch: These farmers were too poor to pay for tin sheeting, and the government wasn’t sending it. And now their houses were prime mosquito breeding grounds.

This wannabe “upgrading of rural life,” as An Ansoms calls it in her essay in Remaking Rwanda: State Building and Human Rights after Mass Violence, is just one slice of the country’s massive project to address poverty — or at least the appearance of it. In fact, a series of laws means that:

Thatched roofs, going barefoot, sharing straws and street food are all banned in Rwanda.

Since Kagame took power nearly two decades ago, he’s been on a radical mission to make Rwanda a middle-income country by 2020 — a tall order, as 85 percent of its population are currently rural farmers. But in many respects, the ruthless obsession with development and intense focus on self-image is working. Kigali, the capital, is one of the cleanest cities in Africa, and for nearly 15 years, Rwanda saw average annual growth of around 8 percent. Health spending has skyrocketed, education enrollment is over 100 percent and the country is laying fiber cables for high-speed Internet countrywide. Yet for Kagame and the ruling party, hitting development targets isn’t enough. The ruling party’s modernization vision is “part of a general social engineering project” to help Kagame “deliver Rwanda into a new era and break from the past,” says Scott Straus, professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and co-editor of Remaking Rwanda.

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Kigali might have the cleanest roads in East Africa.

Source Peter Stuckings/Getty Images

The official government line is that these environmentally conscious measures promote good health. Thatched roofs trap moisture, grow mold and give refuge to bugs. Public urination, we can all agree, isn’t sanitary. Sharing drinks can spread disease, and street food isn’t regulated by health codes. Plastic bags are bad for the environment. But there’s another piece to the puzzle: There aren’t enough public restrooms, and people can’t always afford to follow the law. Some women are forced to share one pair of sandals to wear to the market, and if they go barefoot, the police will take the money they brought for food and purchase shoes. And the law banning straws might sound like an inconsequential dictum to foreigners, but it effectively bars sharing urwagwa, a locally brewed banana beer, through a common straw — a custom that symbolizes community trust. “Rather than fighting poverty, [these laws] fight signs of poverty,” says Timothy Longman, director of the African studies program at Boston University. The government of Rwanda did not comment.

According a new report by Human Rights Watch, the government rounds up “scores” of poor people, including the homeless and street children, and houses them in so-called “transit centers.” The goal, says the government, is to transfer the people to drug rehabilitation centers or vocational trainings. But Human Rights Watch calls it part of an “unofficial government practice to hide ‘undesirable’ people from view.” Add that to a near total ban on free press and a political environment that doesn’t tolerate dissent, and it “reflects a government that doesn’t trust its own people,” says Longman.

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