Heel gobbler. Lace snapper. Tongue cracker. In the stony, dusty backstreets of Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, shoes took one hell of a daily beating.

Twice in my first three months my shoes needed resoling. The Kigali streets eat up shoes with a clinical assault; abrasive sands rub them down on every tread; rainwater softens the leathers, the sun dries them, tiny cracks open, allowing an infantry of sand grains to creep in and wear them away from the inside. Stones on the backstreets, ridges on the bus floor, bruise them up on every flex; hot exhausts on the moto-taxis seek to melt the right heel. In Kigali, with its unending slopes and climbs, shoes need constant attention and it’s fair to say, she was the nemesis of my sole.
Urbanite Rwandans pay attention to sartorial detail. They tend to dress conservatively for work, whites, and greys, nothing too flash or showy. Shirts are ironed, whites are pure white and trousers are pressed exactly where they should be. It’s rather perplexing that despite the dust of the dry season, their shoes are always immaculate and devoid of a speck of dust. It’s as if they’ve been Teflon coated. And for a reason that was unbeknownst to me (and stared up at me every time I looked at the rows of feet at the bus-stop) my shoes were generally always covered in a sieve-dusting of Ovaltine-like street dust every day. Thus street dust, not content with a brutal assault on innocent shoes, exhibited discrimination against the foreigner.

***

The underminers of shoes are also guardians of the cobblers’ trade. The short walk from the Amohoro stadium takes you past hardware stores, with rows of white sinks on the roadside, weighing scales full of iron nails and men pulling bags of cement off lorries, their faces dusty white looking like ash-smeared Gangetic sadhus.

Half-way up this stadium road from Remera to Kimironko is small wooden shack shop on the left called Cado Shoes. It’s barely three square metres wide with metal bars for windows which lets just enough of the city air through to dilute the smell of glue, soften the nostril-smack and lower the high. Its wooden shelves hold up rows of shoes all sorted in colour order, brown, tan and black, the conservative hues of the urban gentry.

Dominique’s wife sits on a stool by a small flaking table, writing receipts in a carbon-copy pad, rubber stamping each one carefully as she tears its perforations and hands it to customers and takes their money. The sons, both teenagers in blue overalls, one a smaller version of the other, sit beside her on a smaller stool and cut patterns from paper, and copy them on to sheets of rubber with chalk. They repair in silence, cutting and gluing leather with the focus of hawks and the contemplation of monks.
The three speak only Kinyarwanda so as soon as she sees me enter she sends for her husband, Dominique, who speaks French. I part mime, part explain, for my French vocabulary for various parts of shoes is seriously limited. My needs? New sole, new heel, the edge where the upper meets the sole is split and needs stitching and my laces need replacing. He asks me for 3000 Rwandan francs deposit which was then about £3. A bargain which I snap up before my laces can.

***

There were many reasons I loved Cado Shoes, it was one of those well-run hard-working family businesses that give fair prices and excellent quality. My posts never feature product placements and although I am sure the roads have all improved since I was there in 2008, if you’re ever in down-town Kigali and need an excellent shoe repair, this is the place.

I also liked them because of their honesty. Five minutes down the road home to Remera, I was tapped on my shoulder. It was Dominic.
“You don’t know Rwandan currency,” he said in French catching his breath. He held up a fistful of notes. “You pay too much,” he said in mock scorn and handed me back the change.

***

This is part of a novel-length serial blog post called ‘Letters from the Heart of Africa’. A full background and table of contents can be found here