Reflections:The costly smartness of the 1950s,’60s

I’ve seen pointed shoes on young feet lately. But, being no fashion buff, I wouldn’t tell if they are back in fashion or if these ones I’ve seen are from these “Shake-off-the-dust” markets, those markets that nostalgically cling to the beauty of the past and are determined not to be influenced by the inferior quality of modernity, even if it means going for hand-me-downs.
Ingina y’Igihanga
Ingina y’Igihanga

I’ve seen pointed shoes on young feet lately. But, being no fashion buff, I wouldn’t tell if they are back in fashion or if these ones I’ve seen are from these “Shake-off-the-dust” markets, those markets that nostalgically cling to the beauty of the past and are determined not to be influenced by the inferior quality of modernity, even if it means going for hand-me-downs.

I wouldn’t be surprised if they were back, though. After all, it was said as early as 1849 by the French novelist and journalist, Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr: “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” (The more things change, the more they remain the same).

But God forbid and I’ll tell you why! In the 1950s and early 1960s, skin-tight was the word. If you were not wearing clothes that you seemed to have been poured into, you didn’t appear among Abasilimu, the select civilised elite of the time. And they were not many, Africa having been largely peasant-based. This meant that 90% of Africans, if not more, lived on the land and most times never ventured beyond their neighbouring village, which in turn meant they’d never seen modern clothing. Shirts, blouses, trousers, skirts and shoes belonged to a tiny group who’d gone to school.  It’s this group that preferred to look as if they were bursting out of their clothes.

And burst they did, many a time. After all, to wear these trousers demanded a laborious negotiation. You had to lie down first before a number of strong arms could pull your trousers onto you, after which you did not sit down in a hurry. To sit down, you first had to test if you could bend. After bending successfully, you did a test of how you could half-sit, after succeeding which you now tried to carefully go all the way down, making sure your chair was not too low.  Shirts and blouses were equally tight, such that the buttons looked like they were at a point of bursting free any time.

As for shoes, Rochereau provides the most vivid demonstration of how skin-tight was taken to heart. The name Rochereau may not ring a bell to many below the age of sixty but there may be a few in their fifties to whom the name Tabu Ley, adopted later, could be familiar. It belongs to a Congolese singer who gave us such songs as the ever-green “Indenpendence Cha Cha”, “Africa Mokili Mobimba”, “Sorozo” and many other beauties. We, the elderly horses, shall for ever be content to lend an appreciative ear and shake an old bone to his voice in these old tunes that we so cherish.

So, Tabu Ley, being the music maestro of the ’50s, 60s and early ‘70s, had his clothes as his second skin. His shoes were so pointed as to prick those in front of him who did not hasten their pace. But, for having been born in 1940 when there were no shoes for the colonised, otherwise known as ‘ingigenes’, he had no way of having had feet that had gone through ‘controlled’ growth. In short, his toes enjoyed the uninhibited growth that allowed them to face in any direction. And we know how it was, we who identify with his time and conditions, as we lived in Congo around that time. Then it was known as Congo Kinshasa, having just shed its Belgian moniker of Belgian Congo at independence.

The life that we led, which must be the same that he led, was like this. In the morning we woke up early to trek to the water well. After getting the water for morning use, we went to the fields to till the land till lunch time. After lunch it was time to go to the forest to get firewood for cooking dinner and lunch the following day. Before it got dark, we rushed to the water well again to get water for evening use.

But Sunday was celebration day. In the morning we dressed in our Sunday best (though not exactly in the sense of ‘best’!) and went to church, where we exercised our cords in the church choir. After church we went to the market to sell whatever harvest we’d carried. After that we accompanied our parents to the village bar, where some strong maize brew for the elders and soft brew for children was sold. The celebration involved listening to the village crooner as he belted out popular tunes of the time, to the accompaniment of an improvised guitar and taps at an empty bottle. And, after warming up to our drink of ‘amarwa’, hitting the floor in a lively dance.

For doing all this on bare feet and for the feet having hosted uncountable lice that laid eggs that became jiggers, none of our toes faced in the same direction. While the big toes faced sideways to the right or left, the small, last toe usually faced up.

Which is how Tabu Ley comes in, for his toes met the same fate. In order to wear those tight, pointed shoes, he had to sacrifice his two small toes – he had them chopped off.

As they say, smartness knows no comfort.

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