‘These shoes aren’t made for walking’ – a conversation with curator Thea Skaanes

1 comment

The main-characters of this week’s story are these two fluorescent green plastic sandals from Tanzania. After stumbling upon these on the ethnographic collections’ database, I had a chat with anthropologist and curator at Moesgaard Museum, Thea Skaanes, who collected the shoes during her fieldwork among the semi-nomadic Hadza people in North Tanzania. I was initially interested in knowing how and why these strange looking shoes made it into the collections, but our discussion also and more importantly, revealed the importance and very meaning of shoes for the Hadza.

This week, you are therefore invited into this riveting conversation to learn more about not only an interesting pair of shoes, that on the surface might seem extremely ordinary (apart from their color perhaps), but in reality, tell an important story about change and our understanding of people like the Hadza.

Curator Thea Skaanes has been working with the Hadza since beginning her PhD in anthropology in 2011. She has spent about a year together with the group and has together with the Hadza created a collection for Moesgaard Museum that includes objects of both everyday and ritual life.

The Hadza live in the central part of Northern Tanzania. They are completely surrounded by game reserves and the Serengeti is just north of their territory, as with other savannas. The area has since the 1960s been thought of as being unfit for human settlement because of the seasonal extremes (flooding in rain season and draught in dry season) and because of dangerous animals – the big cats, but also Tsetse flies especially. There is estimated to be around 1200 Hadza in total, but only a small group of these, around 300 people, still live as hunter-gatherers. Thea Skaanes has worked and lived alongside this latter group, which she invites us to learn more about in the following.

“Actually, the shoes are made from a foam material, not plastic. They are almost thrown at you – they’re that cheap! But the problem is that you can’t use them for anything. And still, they are the most used shoes in the bush because they cost nothing. Everyone would much rather have the up-cycled car tire shoes*. These break too easily. But because they are so cheap they tend to flood the market. The Hadza cannot use these shoes – they do, but they break after about a week in the bush because there are so many thorns on the ground from acacia trees and other thorn bearing trees. They actually get pierced through by these incredibly long thorns. The Hadza also move through very rugged terrain – up and down mountainsides and the shoes are extremely poor for that. And therefore you keep finding these kinds of shoes – broken and thrown away somewhere out there.”

But why buy these shoes if they don’t work?

“Because the alternative is to walk bare feet through these areas. And that’s not too much fun. Quite a lot actually walk bare feet, so in that way, there’s really a need for shoes, and actually shoes are very important in other ways to the Hadza. Traditionally, they would make special kinds of shoes for the dry season and different ones for the rainy season. The dry season shoes were made from animal skin, but they would get very slippery and break apart in the rainy season. Therefore, they made shoes out of bark from baobab trees which have really good traction, just like the car tire shoes. In many ways, they were the precursors to the car tire shoes.”

“But there are also many other things connected to having shoes – shoes can do a lot of things. On the one hand they provide massive protection, since being semi-nomadic, the Hadza move around on foot quite a lot. But it is also something the Hadza use ritually – for example, you take your shoes off before speaking to the deity. Or if a hunter has killed an animal but is too far away to bring it back to the rest of the group, and it just has to lie and wait – you would light a fire and take off your shoes and turn the soles towards the fire to ritually remove the scent from them. That way no one can tell where you’ve been. Or at least, other animals, like hyenas won’t find the animal as easily. I mean, the scent is still there from where you’ve been, especially if you have a fresh and bloody arrow with you – but the heat and smoke from the fire in a spiritual way masks the track made with the shoes. Now, the god also takes care of the other animals, so there can be other reasons as to why you don’t get to eat it yourself, but a great effort is put into masking the scent.”

“It is something, I really would have liked to look more into – this taking off the shoes before addressing the god.  It is a way of introducing yourself to the god as firmly ‘present’ – without traces to other places and people – by stating your relation to the dead, that live together with the god. So you introduce yourself a lot – ‘I am related to this one and this one’. But it is not like in other parts of the world – the relationship to the god is a very equal one. You can ‘demand share’ with it.”

With the god?

“Yes. You can approach the god and ask for it to give you a kudu deer and the god is then obligated to share – or give this kudu. In that way it is not as hierarchical as in other places.”

But are there other instances where you take off your shoes – for example when together with the chief?

“There is no chief!”

There are no chiefs?

“No, it is a completely egalitarian society. It is therefore even more special to have these instances with the god, where you take your shoes off – it makes it more special.”

Can you say more about the Hadza? I realize I don’t know as much about them as I thought…

“In hunter-gatherer research there are these different terminologies. Here, the Hadza are ‘small scale, immediate return, semi-nomadic – hunter gatherers’. That is one way of situating them. They are for instance one of the very few groups of ‘immediate returners’ which says a lot about their organization. They only hunt with bows and arrows, they don’t use guns or traps. They use poison on their arrows, which allows them to hunt giraffes! It is a really potent poison they have.”

“It is described as one of the most egalitarian societies by James Woodburn** in 1982. He claimed that there was only about a handful of truly egalitarian societies in the world and the Hadza were among these. There are no chiefs, no one has formal power over others, you can marry who you want, no significant inheritance – except for a few interesting ritual objects, that we might talk about another time. Men and women can freely choose to get divorced or get together. There is a really big degree of pragmatism in that sense.”

“They have to be pragmatic as a semi-nomadic people in an area where the dry period is bone-dry! And when the rainy season is marked by floods. In the rainy season, they live in caves in the mountains and in the dry season, you could stand in the middle of a Hadza camp without knowing it! They build these small grass-thatched huts, and other times a ‘house’ can have a very loose structure – it can be just a bonfire and some mats on the ground with some folded branches over. They always have to be very quick to react to the changes around them and be able to just leave a place behind or staying there.”

What do you mean with ‘immediate returners’? Is that because they always return to their camps?

 “It means that there is no supply reserve. You always have to go out and hunt and then eat immediately – in that sense there is no delay from investment of labour to enjoying the gain from it. When you wake up in the morning, there is no food in the camp and you have to go out and find it. But it also means that you are completely free. There is no store of berries or fruits that you have to protect – you can always move. ‘Immediate return’ means that you are not putting a major investment into a boat or a fishing net for example, before you can start catching fish. As with agriculture, that is a ‘delayed return’. ‘Immediate returners’ get their results immediately.”

“The area they live in is quite harsh and there are many wild animals – such as the big cats, elephants and giraffes, which they have to deal and live with.”

But how does green foam shoes end up out there?

“People are very mobile – people move a lot and everything is always in flux. There is always someone who has been in some village, where you, as I said, can get these shoes very cheap. And if you have some honey or some meat – you can barter or sell it for money and get some shoes. So they are not as isolated as they seem.”

What happened to the shoes for different seasons?

“They don’t make them anymore; the foam shoes are much easier to afford. Not all the Hadza have access to animals anymore, the people I worked with did, but others have had to settle permanently and go into agriculture or tourism. The Hadza that do hunt can easily trade their honey or their game for shoes. But being ‘immediate returners’ also mean that there is no saving up money for a better pair of shoes.”

“But there are also positive and negative sides to the skin and baobab shoes that they used to make. The baobab shoes, the shoes meant for the rainy season, get too slippery in the dry season; and after a while the skin shoes get too worn to use. I totally get why they prefer the foam shoes today – just using what is available.”

“No one had the skin and baobab shoes when I worked with them. Everyone knew they could make them – there was this one really fierce woman in the camp, who needed new shoes, but didn’t make any new ones. She would just borrow someone else’s, if they weren’t going out anyway. So things circulate a lot.”

You did a collection of objects together with the Hadza, right? How did they react to you wanting to collect these foam shoes?

“This idea of the museum made so much sense for the Hadza – having some place to keep stuff for the future. They actually chose me to protect these objects, both the mundane kind and the secret objects.”

“One day we were out in a village and the group I was with wanted to buy some of these shoes, so I thought that I ought to get a pair too for the collection. Because it was these shoes they would choose if they had the option. They told me that ‘You know, there are better shoes than those right?’, but they didn’t oppose it.”

How does a museum make such good sense for the Hadza? They are in a sense a storage facility…

“Yes, of course it is really uncool to store something, just for having it, but the Hadza saw the potential of having this sort of bank of knowledge – about hunting, plants, animals, rituals and what it means to be Hadza. They really saw that urgency because their lives keep changing. It is actually estimated that in 10 years there will be no more hunter gatherer socities in the world.”

“They also feel this urgency, so the museum is not seen as an institution that just accumulates, but as a bank of knowledge.”

*See the blogpost ‘Putting the shoe on the other foot – or putting experience before beauty’ for more on tire shoes from Niger: https://ethnographica.net/2019/09/04/putting-the-shoe-on-the-other-foot-or-putting-experience-before-beauty/#respond

**James Woodburn was a social anthropologist who was one of the first to study the Hadza in the late 1950s.

//Katrine Mandrup Bach

Posted by

putting thought to things

One thought on “‘These shoes aren’t made for walking’ – a conversation with curator Thea Skaanes”

  1. Pingback: EA900-0031 Claydoll | ethnographica

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.