In Zimbabwe as we climb out of a canyon, several enterprising businessmen have laid out their wares on blankets. I study their carvings.
“I’ll trade you for your shoes.”
“They’re not in very good shape. They have a hole in the toe.” I wiggle my foot and the part of the canvas not quite glued to the sole anymore gaps slightly.
“That’s not a hole.”
I bend over and push my finger in a little, I can’t quite touch my toe. Okay, not quite a hole.
“They’re really small. And they’re wet.” I rock back and forth and they squelch obligingly.
He looks critically at them. “I really need those shoes. They will be perfect for my sister.”
I wonder if this is true. He’s a little taller than me, leaner, younger. Hair short and tight against his head. Little slicks of sweat on his skin seem to highlight deep purple and royal blue in the sun. He points out the carvings that are his, laid out in the neat rows of a tiny army on the blanket. The trunks on the elephants curl delicately, an ear is frozen mid wave, toenails trace the edge of her foot. It’s stunning.
“This one? For the shoes and five dollars?” He holds a small elephant.
“What about that one?” I point to another carving on the blanket.
“That one is not mine, I cannot make a deal for it.”
“Okay… I think I’m okay.”
He studies my shoes and then the carvings and holds up a mother elephant and a baby, their trunks curling in unison. The mother stands about 8 inches tall, her wooden flanks polished to a high reddish shine.
“Just the carving for the shoes.” He holds out the pair.
“Ummm….” He’s staring at the shoes. I look down at them too. They’re simple, lace-up black Vans. I look harder, searching for the value he sees. Most of it seems to have been walked out for everyone else. Almost, even for me. I’m probably going to toss them in the trash soon, as soon as the little hole finishes opening. The carving is too beautiful for these shoes.
“Please sister, I really need those shoes.”
“Okay.” I slip the shoes off and hand them to him. His smile is huge as he shakes my hand, my arm moves up and down, all the way to my shoulder.
“Aaah, thank you sister!”
“Thank you!” I cradle the carving in my hand and smile back.
I tiptoe all the way back to our camp, walking on the sides of my feet across the hot pavement and watching carefully for the acacia spines littering the ground. I study the carving and sweat slides down my temple, beads on my upper lip. I lick it away, it’s salty and maybe a little sour. I roll it in my mouth trying to taste my privilege in it. I know it’s there. Maybe it’s guilt. I’m not quite sure if I got the better deal.
I will trade some well worn hair ties for a bracelet, a pair of flip flops for a carved bottle opener and some broken headphones for a discount on a chess set. I point out the flaws in each of my items.
“The left side doesn’t really work. Listen to a song on them.” I plug them into my phone. “See?” He only smiles, bobs his head in time with the music and shuffles his feet in a small dance.
“The flip flops are a little twisted.”
“You want the hair ties? I mean I’ve been using them for a while.”
“It’s okay.” They say. I keep trading.4