Once I gave a man my shoes

(This post is a contribution to the Day Without Dignity.)

Once upon a time I met a man named Albert, and I gave him my shoes.

But let’s start at the beginning.

Thousands of years ago, Albert’s ancestors made their home on a big island on the cusp of the Pacific Ocean. Then, suddenly! In 1969! A series of incidents in places near and far – world wars, colonialism, all that jazz – meant that the High Court of Australia was in a position to adjudicate over an issue of great importantance to Albert’s family. The High Court of Australia decided that in accordance with a legal tradition from the other side of the planet, that while Albert’s family, and friends, and relations, and neighbours, might have lived on this land since long before that legal tradition was invented, they didn’t own anything more than a foot beneath the topsoil. And they didn’t have to be compensated if anyone else wanted what was there.  By a curious coincidence, not five years earlier surveyors for the company CRA had found that just near Albert’s village there was a mountain of copper. Literally. An entire mountain, a really, really big mountain, made of millions upon millions of tons of copper ore. In many ways the fuse of the Bougainville Crisis was lit right there and then, by those deeply earnest and principled gentlemen on the bench of the Court.

Once upon a time I met a man named Albert, and I gave him my shoes.

But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Years passed. Workers were imported. A great road and a mine-works were built. The mountain was gashed open, made an open-cut wound in the spirit of the immemorial traditional landowners. A river despoiled. And 98% of the resulting revenues were spirited from the island. No, really: 98%. By 1989 this toxic tropical brew of ecological damage, ethnic tensions, rank appropriation and separatist ideology had exploded into a war of secession. A civil war. Crisis Blong Bogenvil. Seperatists. Loyalists. Blockade. Atrocities. South African mercenaries. Toppling Governments. Failed negotiations. More negotiations. And at long last, a truce.

Once upon a time I met a man named Albert, and I gave him my shoes.

But there were a few things I needed to learn first.

A multinational truce monitoring group set foot in Bougainville in 1997. Slowly the truce moved forward with a peace treaty.  I came to Bougainville a couple of years later as a civilian attached to the multinational military/police mission in 2002. The peace process had reached a critical juncture: containment of weapons by the ex-combatant factions, and development of a constitution for the to-be-autonomous province. I had the best job in the world: village level peace-building and army dudes on tap to sort the logistics. I had the worst job in the world: a dry mission, and sitreps out the wazoo.

For all the faults of omission and commission, for all the force-protection-obsession and the gung-ho dramas of a military-run mission, there was a powerful organisational culture in that peace monitoring group by the time I arrived, and embedded in that culture I learned a lot. For all that we had a timetable dictated by the willingness of government departments in foreign capitals to go on trickling money into the island, for all the frustrations of ‘Melanesian time’, for all the campfire banter about driving a tank to the Panguna mine to sort it all out… in all seriousness there were a couple of really clear beliefs instilled in people rotating in and passed on by people rotating out.

This was not your crisis.

This is not your peace.

You are not the hero of this story.

We were there to facilitate their peace process, and it was guys like Albert who were the hero of this story. Albert lived in one of the villages that was as close to the edge of exclusion zone around the ruined Panguna mine as we could go. We’d landcruiser or helicopter into his village from time to time and as the months rolled along we developed a bit of a rapport. He was no player, no big shot, just a former platoon leader in the Bougainville Revolutionary Army. The village he lived in was one third of what had once been a much larger village. But the political conflict had become very personal, with cousins and brothers on different sides of a divide, and there was still much to heal and reconcile. And always, the tinderbox of weapons kept under the bed.

Well, at the instigation of Albert, his village chief, the paramount chief in the village a few miles away, and a few other local serious blokes and the odd serious woman as well, we were setting up a grand old get district together to try to short-cut a lot of rumours and worries and a few genuine security concerns in their neck of the woods, and try to shift a stalemate in the weapons containment. A lot of the relevant people hadn’t sat down together since the 1980s. We were about a week or two away, and Albert had become a critical influencer in talking some of the more recalcitrant and hence essential ex-combatants into coming along.

Except Albert had been working in his bush garden (cocoa plantation) one day with his machete – everyone in Bougainville over the age of 6 carries a four-foot-long machete with them everywhere like a Leatherman – and accidentally just about hacked his foot off. Of course Albert wasn’t wearing any shoes while he was pruning away with a razor sharp blade. No one really gave a toss about shoes.

No one really gave a toss about shoes when there were frightful malaria infection rates in every lowland village. No one gave a toss about shoes, when the sparsely situated health clinics had medicines on the shelves one week in six, or sixteen. Or when there were still drunken young fellas riding around with weapons. Or when the only income generation for a lot of women was brewing homebrew, even knowing it was contributing to the lawlessness and insecurity. Or when there were school fees to pay. Or when there was one goddamned doctor for several hundred thousand people.

Bloody hell Albert, whatinhell have you gorn and done to yourself maaate? I asked him when I finally tracked him down in the medical centre in the main township. Bilong wanem ol foot i bagarap, nambawan pren bilong mi?

He smiled sheepishly. Now I’m not saying I was best buds or schlocky soulmates with Albert here. Jesus no. He was one of many contacts in many villages we were trying understand and help. And there’s no doubt we facipulated some people into moving farther or faster than they wanted to, because of our mission’s timeframe. But I sat listening that day and all Albert wanted to talk about was how he’d fought before, but he was ready to step up and bring peace to his community. And how he was upset because he knew he’d put his district meeting in jeopardy. You want to talk about dignity? I can’t even begin to find the words to express that kind of purpose and direction and dignity.

And before we knew it the next morning he had disappeared from the medical centre, hitched a ride back to his village and was cadging and crutching about the jungle covered mountainsides to get all the ducks in a row.

Because it wasn’t my conflict. It wasn’t my peace. I wasn’t the hero of this story. I didn’t have to take off my shoes and go barefoot like Albert to make a contribution. It wasn’t my place to make empty gestures, or pretend that I wasn’t an incomprehensibly rich foreigner with perplexing motives, or pretend to walk in his shoes (or his lack of shoes, as it were). I just had to make sure that what we did – the facilitators, the foreigners – created the space for the people of Bougainville to do what they wanted to do, and do what they knew how to do.

In the end we got the district confab together. Outcomes were pretty damn hazy from where all us yellow-sleeved, white-skinned numpties sat. (And only slightly less hazy for the yellow-sleeved, brown skinned Fijian and ni-Vanuatu on the mission too). But something clicked and not long after, reconciliation and joint weapons containment took place between the ex-combatants from both sides in the area.

All too soon it was my time to rotate out and leave. The last time I was in his village, I took Albert aside and gave him a pair of the army boots I’d been issued with. To help you with your peace building, mate. We laughed and shook hands for a long time and said goodbye.  I’m not even sure they fit. I doubted he’d wear them much, if at all. But then, I knew my shoes were the last thing he needed.


7 Comments on “Once I gave a man my shoes”

  1. […] Once I gave a man my shoes – La vidaid loca – Fairly powerful story about one man’s life and the likely unnecessary gift of a pair of boots. […]

  2. Soledad says:

    Wonderful post!

  3. Classic NYer says:

    You’re absolutely right… westerners do have a tendency to stick our thumbs into other people’s pies without even really knowing the recipe… and as such, I’m a little ashamed that I walked around all day with no shoes. I’m glad you posted this, and I’m glad I read it.

  4. ilchwl says:

    Fantastic post…

  5. […] Once I gave a man my shoes (the best Day Without Dignity/counter-TOMS campaign blog post I’ve read) […]

  6. […] over 12 months, the most popular posts were The asterisk is everything, The circle(s) of life, and Once I gave a man my shoes. I promise to continue providing some absurdly intermittent blogging in 2012; indeed blogging so […]

  7. […] 5. Once I gave a man my shoes – la vidaid loca – An entry from last year that still resonates with this year’s theme. A powerful story about one man’s life and the unnecessary gift of a pair of boots. […]

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