Boot Tale

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It’s 2018 and I’m walking down a row of shops at O. R. Tambo International Airport, dragging my carry-on like a reluctant goat, when I feel something pull me. It feels like gravity. Only weaker. Like a strong draught. So I looked over my left shoulder and saw it through the display window. A belt curled into a tight fist, next to some shoes you would see on a guitarist in a Congolese band. It was one of those expensive designer shops that are well lit and have very rangy pale attendants who don’t open their mouths too wide while speaking. The light in the shop shone bright. A heavily bearded white man with a large scarf bundled around his neck held up a watch to inspect it. I stood at the window and stared at the belt through the window.

It was a belt like no other. Woven. It had all these colours running through it. The chrome buckle glowed like something at the very bottom of the sea not accustomed to natural light. It was a good looking belt and the price next to it validated it; USD 190. I threw two zeros against it converting it into Kenyan money; that’s 19K. For a belt. Truth is, I didn’t need another belt in my life. Nobody really needs another belt in their life. You need a good brown belt and a good black belt. I wasn’t ever going to end up at a fashion high-tea event at Zen Gardens. Or Concours d’Elegance. Those are not my ponds. It’s a belt Vinnie O would wear to hold his tight colourful shorts. Last year, when we were standing at the platform of a train station in Cognac, France, for the Remy Martin trip, a lady, white, wandered over to Vinnie and touched his arms while looking him over and said something like, “très très magnifique!” He was in this extravagant colourful Ankara blazer and these equally colourful shorts and designer loafers with a golden nose complete with this thing that looked like a small bag/purse. Everything he wore was deliberate and it matched with something. Even the French in their famed couture threw him appreciative looks. That will never be me. If anybody looks at me appreciatively, it will be to wonder, does a bird live in that man’s hat?

So I didn’t really need this belt. But I was deeply attracted to it. It was my doppelganger belt. The other thing is that I didn’t have loose money to buy this vanity belt. I had spent most of it on things and at this moment, I wished I had that Visa Infinite Credit Card that Stanchart had been convincing me to get. But I didn’t. I still haven’t. Because I fear credit cards. I fear that I might just buy things. Because I love shiny things. They make me thirsty. Then I want them. And this is not an emergency, nobody needs another belt if they already have a black and brown belt.

Inside, the bearded man was having an animated conversation with the attendant who had his right hand behind his back like a sommelier. That’s how you address rich people, like you are pouring them wine. The floor of the store looked like it had diamond shavings. Behind me a parade of very gaunt Arab-looking airline crew marched by in their crisp uniforms, led by the captain hidden behind mysterious aviators. I watched their reflection pass in the store’s mirror. I stood there for a while, staring at this belt while a major debate happened with the white fairy on my left shoulder and the black one on the other shoulder.

White Fairy (WF): You are a responsible person. You make sound decisions.

Black Fairy (BF): Yes, you are also a human being. A person. Reward yourself.

WF: You already did. You bought two pairs of jeans and two pairs of shoes. And socks you don’t need.

BF: Yes. But this belt. You will never find a belt like this anywhere!

WF: Yes, that’s because it’s 19K. Nobody needs a 19K belt. What’s this you’re tying for 19K?!

BF: Life. You will hate yourself if you don’t take it.

WF: There are plenty of reasons to hate yourself if you are looking; like your forehead, for starters.

BF: You can’t do anything about your forehead, but you can do something about this belt.

WF: This is not you. You are not the guy who ties this belt.

BF: And who do you suppose ties this belt?

WF: That bearded man inside – he looks like an explorer. He probably owns a yacht. And a Dachshund.

BF: Buy the damn belt.

WF: Just piss off.

So I walked away. I tore myself from the shop window and ran into the wave of travellers searching for their gates, their way out, their exit, only to be trapped again by the sky like flies on a cobweb. As I waited to board my flight, I couldn’t stop thinking about the belt. I used the free airport Wi-Fi to Google where belts came from and learnt that Ancient Egyptians used belts to tie their tunics and that a Russian inventor born 30,000 years ago on the eastern facing slopes of the Ural Mountains invented straps made of leather buckled together over fat people’s bulging belly buttons. I Googled ‘Ural Mountain’ to get a visual. It looked cold and jagged. A place of wild mountain goats and men who drink milk straight from the udder. I then read an old article written by a Cosmopolitan writer who made an argument about how she can look at a man’s shoes and belt before she starts dating a guy and know exactly how that relationship will end.

Belts are interesting. You can hang yourself with a belt. If you survive, you can discipline your child with a belt across their asses. Still on discipline, use it to tie your woman to the bedpost if she has been naughty. You tell someone, “buckle up,” to warn them of a rough patch ahead. A belt can be a path. You can stand in the bathroom and belt out a Sauti Sol tune that can make your neighbours complain in the Nyumba Kumi WhatsApp group. The divorced guy with two trousers from House 7B will write; “It’s not that we mind Sauti Sol, it’s your voice we mind.” You don’t need friends, not when your belt will be the only thing to tell you when you have added weight.

I thought about the belt every time I was dressing up. I would be validating my parking and suddenly, unprompted by anything, I’d think of it. This is not something you share with someone because they will think you are mad. Or spoilt. So I figured I’d ride the wave alone and it would go. But it didn’t. It was driving me crazy. Haunting me. I wanted that belt. It wasn’t going to change my life in any way. I wasn’t going to be a better person with that belt. My productivity wasn’t going to soar. It wasn’t going to give me immense happiness. But I still wanted it. I wanted it more because now I couldn’t get it. I don’t even remember the name of the store when I started asking people going down to SA to find it. All I remember is the man’s scarf and the attendant who wouldn’t open his mouth wide. That’s not much to go on.

Eventually, like a lover who got in a ship promising to come back and never did, I started forgetting about it. I embarked on a life without it. Surprisingly, you can get over anything. Now I only think about it once in a while in moments of weakness and when I do, it only echoes with a faraway ache.

And so when Tamms told me that she wanted these particular boots and not any other, I knew exactly how she felt. At 12, they must have these little sororities in school, where they discuss fashion and things. Maybe someone has those particular boots. And she wants to have a pair, to know how it feels to wear boots to the end of term school party, where they dress up and pretend they are women.

They are low-cut boots. Black. Wedgy sole. You can’t climb a tree in them, but you can kick in a door in them which is all you need boots for anyway, otherwise you might as well wear Jesus’s sandals. I don’t know the first place to buy female boots. I haven’t travelled anywhere this year where you can buy boots. We went to the usual stores in the usual malls, which had boots but they were not the boots she wanted.

I called my guy (I have a guy) in Westlands, called Mutinda. He’s rail thin and speaks in a slight street drawl so that you don’t ever say you misunderstood what he meant. He sells men’s clothes. He’s big on clothes. He will bring them to your office, in some swanky-ass designer duffle bag – a Gucci or Berluti. He will sit silently, drinking in the reception from behind his sunglasses, legs folded, looking like a jazz pianist. He calls these clothes “mali.” Niko na mali.

He asked around and said the guys who sell shoes don’t have them but they will keep looking around, but “would you like some khakis, I have some really nice ones?” I said, no, I didn’t want khakis. So, anyway, weeks passed, no boots. So, the one place left to look was Toi Market at Adam’s Arcade, in case you are from Runda and you are wondering. It’s what people who go for car boot sales call a “flea market.” Originally, that name was given to markets in Paris which specialized in shabby second-hand goods that might contain fleas. You will get anything from Toy Market. If you want it, someone has it in there. There are hats and sports gear, tights and belts, shoes and scarfs and if this guy doesn’t have it, he will call a guy who might have it. You have to search for things. To walk and ask. To try on. To squeeze through narrow corridors. To haggle. To walk and walk and walk and also to accept to go back home without what you are looking for but get something you thought you didn’t need. There are girls, many girls. Office girls holding skirts and tops up or against their waists. Girls in ngomas and girls with big Erika Badu-like headgear looking for shoes that match tops and tops that match their ambition. Same girls you see in bars and pubs and office boardrooms looking resplendent.

So, I took the kids. It’s hard enough shopping in a store in a mall. It’s harder walking around with a bored/ moody 6-year old and shopping with a 12-year old girl because the first thing you realize is that nobody wears the things you think are cool anymore. Not in 2019. (Or 2020). You quickly realize that your taste counts for very little, that you can only be allowed to pick out things that you can’t botch; like spoons and forks and maybe printing paper.

“Tamms, I think this is a really good shoe.” I say.

“They are not boots.”

“Yes I know, but look, they have this silver thing here.”

“I don’t really like it.”

The “really” here means there is a chance it can change to “like it.”

“What don’t you really like about it?”

“I just don’t.”

“OK. Is there any shoe you like here?”

“No.”

“What about this one?” [A lovely open toe, something that says, I’m chill but I can also be rad].

“No.”

“You don’t like the open toe look?”

“I don’t like the colour.”

“But you like the open toe thing?”

“No.”

Jesus!

Next stall. They sell dresses. The lady-owner in her 50s is friendly. She calls Tamms “sweetie” a lot. She had been having uji in a blue plastic mug. Kim looks at it. I look at it. Kim looks at me. I look at him. We are thinking the same thing; boy, I could use that porridge. The woman has amazing patience, she keeps bringing out dress after dress that Tamms rejects and she’s unaffected, keeps smiling, keeps calling her “sweetie.” I feel sorry for her. I would be so tetchy, I’d snap at someone’s child: “OK, I’ve shown you 23 dresses! What the f*ck do you want? You want a robe like the one Jesus wore? Is that what you want, to walk on water?”

“What about this dress? It’s like a sundress. See, I like all these flowers.” I tell Tamms.

“I don’t like pink.”

“I thought you loved pink?”

“Yes, but this is bright pink. I like pink that isn’t so bright.”

“But we just saw another dress in the other stall that was not bright pink?”

“Yes, but I didn’t like the buttons on the front.”

Right. No buttons on the front and no bright pink.

Next stall. A lady in a headscarf shows us some jeans. I’m seated now. Because I’m tired of standing and I’m bored. And I’m tired of being helpful and encouraging. I’m also trying not to be irritated because surely, is Kim going to break his voice as we search for the damned shoes? From behind a curtain she disappears to try many pairs of jeans. Every time she comes out we look up hopefully, as if finally there is white smoke. She tries about 300 pairs. And she doesn’t like a single one. Kim says, “I’m bored.” I tell him, “Me too. What do we do?” He says, “I want to go home.” I say, “Fine, do you know where to take matatus?” He says, “What?”

“They don’t have white jeans?” Tamms says.

“You wanted white jeans?”

“Yeah.”

I see my son staring at something and when I follow his gaze, he’s looking at some white folks shopping for clothes in the opposite stall. They are also looking at jeans and dresses. Toi Market knows no race. We eventually find some white jeans. They are the distressed type, but obviously not as distressed as I am. Problem is, they are too short because she’s now a tall girl. A tall girl who wants her boots and white jeans. The jeans aren’t so good. Not to her. It’s clear now that we can’t find the boots. Or the type of white jeans. A lady from one of the kiosks we had been to finds us and brings her a dress. I love it but I curb my enthusiasm because I’ve been hurt before. I could wear this dress. I could sit on a balcony in it and read a book and drink wine. Or host a bunch of girls over, opening bottle after bottle of wine and talking about this new foundation I discovered.

She tries it on. It’s a perfect dress that fits her very well. It’s just above her knees but not too tatty. It’s blue and short and has a bare back. I think she looks magnificent.

“You look gorgeous,” I tell her. Kim is resting his head on my lap. I wake his ass up. “She looks gorgeous, right?”

He ignores me and goes back to resting his head on my lap. He doesn’t care. He’s done. This is child abuse, he must think.

I can tell she doesn’t like it but she doesn’t know how to tell me (again) that my taste sucks.

“You don’t like it?”

She grimaces and shakes her head. I swallow hard and say, “it’s okay. You can try another one.”
She tries on another pair of jeans and another top. Kim says, “Can I play YouTube on your phone?” I ask him, “Why didn’t you carry your gadget?” He says he forgot. I shrug. He places his head on my lap. After two hours of this retail musical chairs, I’m irritated. And a bit snappy. And tired. Tamms isn’t one to complain. She isn’t fussy. She communicates with silence. If you don’t watch her body language you will miss her story. She would make a good undercover agent. I can tell she’s disappointed even though we got a few things that she miraculously loves but we don’t get these beloved boots.

A guy tells us to come back the next day. I know I’m not coming back the next day if I have forgotten one of my kidneys here. I’m not doing this again soon. I need therapy. But I recall how that belt made me feel. How I thought about it daily. So, the following week my small sis – June – agrees to accompany us back to Toy Market. On top of being able to negotiate better, she might know a secret language of 12-year old girls and what floats their boats.

Kim and I sit in one of the stalls for children – trying out his own clothes – and wait as they do their rounds. After an hour, they come back with a bagful of clothes that she likes and the boots! The boots were found! I look at them. They have lace ups with a zipper on the side. Rectangle heels tapering at the bottom. They are normal boots to me but to her they must be a statement. I bet she’s planned what to wear them with. I don’t know. But what I know is that I need a long break before I go shopping again because shopping with a 12-year old is like trying to blow air into your car tyre with your mouth.

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82 Comments
  1. There are plenty of reasons to hate yourself if you are looking; like your forehead for a starters,….wow!!!what a read..

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  2. I got tired just from reading this. Shopping for clothes is the worst. God should just extend His Deuteronomy 28:5 grace on us.

    And I have led you forty years in the wilderness. Your clothes have not worn out on you, and your sandals have not worn out on your feet. (NKJV)

    Although, having only one outfit for 40 years sounds tough. Bet they would have wanted those boots too.

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  3. My mans Kim will probably grow up with that memory of her sister making him do rounds at Toy and trying on 1000 pieces of clothing. It may not be a good or bad memory but it will be there regardless. Just sitting in the pile of childhood memories to revisit. My own childhood memories have uncountable tales of my sisters being fixated on a single fashion item and how we moved mountains to get that one thing. Also not a good or bad memory. Maybe just a wonderment of how women could possibly have enough energy to try on 1000 things! (and find nothing that tickles their fancy). If only we could bequeath them the gift of shopping like a man; a one-minute in-and-out of the store trip. Like if I want tissue, as long as it is on the section written tissue then it works.

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    1. You know not what you speak… utamu wa shopping ni kujaribu… hahaha…and this phrase gets thrown around alot… oh, this is nice…

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    2. We also wish we could bequeath you the gift of having such singular focus and determination to get that which you want at whatever cost.

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  4. LOL, Biko I wish someone shared the ‘shopping with a tween’ manual before you embarked on this journey, its a marathon (no actually its like the iron man race it needs aloooot of endurance….Loool) its definitely not a sprint. If you every find yourself in that position again here are a few tips:-

    1. Eat very well before you go, both you and the tween and anyone else accompanying you to the shopping spree, None of you want to be HANGRY during the shopping spree
    2. Plan ahead, what you will buy and plan breaks in between to regroup/rethink and get perspective
    3. Have a list for the items you will buy and if possible look at pictures online of what the tween has in mind this will avoid the disappointed looks
    4. Remember to breathe 🙂

    Interesting read

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  5. LOL, Biko I wish someone shared the ‘shopping with a tween’ manual before you embarked on this journey, its a marathon (no actually its like the iron man race it needs aloooot of endurance….Loool) its definitely not a sprint. If you every find yourself in that position again here are a few tips:-

    1. Eat very well before you go, both you and the tween and anyone else accompanying you to the shopping spree, None of you want to be HANGRY during the shopping spree
    2. Plan ahead, what you will buy and plan breaks in between to regroup/rethink and get perspective
    3. Have a list for the items you will buy and if possible look at pictures online of what the tween has in mind this will avoid the disappointed looks
    4. Remember to breathe

    Interesting read

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  6. very very true…blowing air into a Tyre with your bare mouth… and I stooped buying stuff for my Daugherty….apart from electronics which have S9 S10 names …

  7. Finally… now we can go back to fixing the nation after our dose of Master Biko…. Reminds me of a saying of Plato’s “The best way of training the young is to train yourself at the same time…” Now you have been trained of pink and bright pink….

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  8. You will find anything in Toy. If you want it. Yeey….. That is my all time place of shopping. Glad Tamms found her boots finally….

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  9. Kwani how old am I?Tamms is already 12???I started reading your column in the dailies when you would write about her as a kid waaay before Kim.I was glued to those columns because it fascinated me to read about this proud father and how lucky this kid must be to have a good father that even went on to write about her!Damn!Ilikua uchungu lakini ilibidi nizoee
    #Nodad

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  10. OK, I’ve shown you 23 dresses! What the f*ck do you want? You want a robe like the one Jesus wore? Is that what you want, to walk on water?”

    Don’t I just love these made up conversations!

  11. Woi, one shouldn’t be tormented by a belt or any sort of clothing, regardless of price.. Just “funga macho” and buy it, then compensate by not eating out or drinking out for a while. Life should be lived through, not persevered through. If something is worth it, go for it.
    I always thought ‘Toy market’s was spelt ‘Toi market…my bad.
    It’s great that Tamms finally found the exact boots she wanted, it’s always a good feeling when you find exactly what you’re looking for..a feeling of satisfaction until the next time.

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  12. Tis true! All a man needs is one nice watch, two belts *black and brown(, three pairs of shoes * formal, casual n in/between, four coats, jackets, five pairs of trousers, six pairs of socks, seven boxers *and a twelve pack of Heineken in the refrigerator at any given tyme,,, baaas!

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  13. This is a hilarious read. I am sure my hubs feels the same way when he goes with me shopping on one of those veryyy rare occasions.

  14. Shopping for me is so exhausting. It is draining. For most men shopping is an extreme sport.

    I once saw some really nice leather jacket somewhere. I liked it. I wanted it so bad. It was fitting me perfectly. I them checked the price. Nillisha nguvu literally. My knees felt so weak. I almost fainted in a strange land. I put it back on the shelf pole pole and walked away.

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    1. You men no nothing about shopping… you put down a deposit, ask if you can pay in instalments. We even make calls to have a top up on the cash we have. Yes, shopping is a womans strength

  15. i have been having tiffs with mama watoto before but today she took it a belt too far.she has you
    to thank for.the irony of it it is my subscription copy she keeps reading over my shoulders

  16. I love you for being a hands-on dad. Tamms is a typical woman, we love shopping and we can try hundreds of dresses and leave with a top. Yeah! Imagine that… all you needed was a womans touch.. woop woop to your sister, they are the best.

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  17. I never take my eyes off these stories when I start reading but I have struggled to read this…..
    This should have gone up on another tab called “Shopping Spree or on the Lights on Section.'”
    It never inspired at all- it was too casual and plain- just the normal experience any parent would go through with their teenage kid. It is like writing a composition of your experience in a boarding school…..
    Biko hapa umetucheza lakini issorait.
    We remain loyal and committed to the stories.

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  18. Buckle up Biko , that experience is not ending any time soon . And it gets worse at 14/15 yrs. But, we are only too glad to let the dad’s and their gal’s go shopping .
    Ooh and the mood swings ??

  19. This is how I feel when I go shopping with my friends and/or sister. So much trying on. I am a pick pay and leave kind of girl but not them. They will try on everything. I feel your pain

  20. am literally on the floor. “,am not going back even if I forgot my kidney ”
    U r a rare species………welcome to parenting 101 year 2020.

  21. You have the patience of a saint, I prefer shopping along and yes being picky has its advantages you get what you want not what others think is good on you .

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  22. I understand the frustration and agony one goes through when you don’t get what you really want….
    Today’s tale didn’t move me, I think it was below par not what I am used to from you or is it just me chocolate man

  23. You excite me with Tamm’s tales. Because I have a 12-year old (this Feb) and am yet to find an encyclopedia that will help me understand her. Enjoyed the read

  24. Wait until she turns 14. You will feel like a dinosaur. Then she will be 16 and you will sound eerily like your father (or mother for the moms) because you will be fighting all the time about her fashion choices. Too short, too low on the chest, too tight, too transparent, too ‘screamy’.

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  25. Yes, I’ve had that experience of shopping with a teen at Toi. I will not repeat the treat. I’ve also lost some friends after accompanying them there.

  26. Biko would describe the art of paint drying and I would read it. This man has a way with words. My daughter is almost 3 and I brace myself!

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  27. Tamms could easily be my favorite child that I haven’t met yet.

    I struggled shopping for anything as a child and shopping with dad made it worse. One festive season, I didn’t like any of the shoes I had tried on from the 2 shops we had been too and he threw at me the ugliest pair of shoes and dictated I had to wear that. A shinny grey shoe with a confusing heel. It was far worse than some shoes I had tried on in the shop before but I couldn’t take him back. Needless to say, that is the ugliest shoe I have ever wore, lucky for me it got spoilt after 1 wear.

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  28. I’m chill but I can also be rad and I can get over anything.
    I’m going to write about Biko Zulu’s Tales someday ,well because I can write I’m instead of Am from now henceforth ,like the Kenyan I ‘am!
    The Events ,the Sarcasim,Descriptions are the shinny things that makes me thirsty! And Tamms is already 12.wow!

  29. I thought I was the only one who gets such haunts!

    Then the part………She had been having uji in a blue plastic mug. Kim looks at it. I look at it. Kim looks at me. I look at him. We are thinking the same thing; boy, I could use that porridge……….. this has made my day.

  30. this is why i NEVER shop with men. i bet tammz was more irritated than you were.Boys will never just get the shopping thing. its fine.stop accompanying your women for shopping, that includes daughters, mothers, sisters.aunts.etc unless you are buying diamonds or carrying heavy stuff.

  31. USD 190 is really enough to buy a long term second hand laptop, to ease me read Bikozulu’s latest posts…or rather buy cloths though it is funny but that is the really truth!

  32. when we were standing at the platform of a train station in Cognac, France, for the Remy Martin trip.
    I’m confused,you already has cognac and you choose Remy Martin

    1. Evans, Cognac is a town in South Western France-where chocolate man was among those invited to tour the Remy Martin production base…that is from the blog post he wrote about

  33. Spoons and forks must be stainless steel, heavy and no tacky plastic handles… Printing paper should be of the correct thickness not like the ones at the campus printing bureau.. No worries though.. You can’t botch buying Cadbury Eclairs.

  34. Wow. Amazing article. I love Tamms Stubbornness, I can relate to it in so many ways. I couldn’t stop smiling as I read through. Voila!

  35. I’m stuck on the price of that belt… Are they 5pcs? Or do you get another if it gets misplaced… Wow.

    Oh my goodness…. I could relate so much with that 12yr old… Shopping for me is the same, either yes I love it or no… There can be no maybes.

    I loved reading this one all the way.

  36. I know I’m not coming back the next day if I have forgotten one of my kidneys here. I’m not doing this again soon. I need therapy. This one got me,,,