Ethiopia has, by far, the largest number of shoe shiners per-capita of any country I’ve ever been. Kyrgyzstan was quite obsessed with shoe-shininess, but it was something you did yourself at home before leaving each day. Not so in Ethiopia. There are shoe shiners on nearly every corner and busy streets are lined with dozens of stands offering to wash your sneakers, polish your dress shoes, and replace your laces. Even as you sit crouched low in a coffee stall, boys will wander in with a box of equipment and a block on which to rest your foot to offer their services while you chat and sip your coffee.
It is, sadly, a losing battle. During Ethiopia’s wet season, a lack of paved roads means that even the most beautifully shined dress shoe or scrubbed sneaker quickly disappears behind a thick coat of mud. Perhaps this just means more business for the shiners. After all, at somewhere around $0.25 to $0.50 for a comprehensive cleaning and shine, it is a common luxury rather than something reserved for the wealthy.
Enter my young friend in Axum, Central Tigray. I have been there twice this year managing a ten-year longitudinal study of Save the Children’s programming in the area. This adolescent is one of the more gifted business-minded individual’s I’ve come across in my life. He owns a modest two-seat stall nearby one the tourist hotels in the town (Axum is the alleged home of the Ark of the Covenant and the certain home of some spectacular obelisks from the Axumite empire).
The first time I visited him back in May, this teenager does the most thorough cleaning and shining of my shoes I’ve ever had. The process takes 40 minutes, and my shoes look like new when he is finished. When I ask how much I owe him, he states that (translated through my Ethiopian colleague) he will not accept payment for my first visit and rather hopes that I am satisfied and will return in the future. I am impressed. Later, I drop off another pair of shoes and this time insist on paying an above-average price, his plan undoubtedly paying off. But I remain impressed when he spots me with my suitcase, heading to the airport and insists that I sit down for a complimentary touch up before I depart the region. That’s what I call good customer service.
Coming back again to Axum a few weeks ago, I know I must visit him again. And for me, the utility that I get, both in satisfaction and some really well-shined shoes, certainly makes it a fantastic deal for the both of us. After receiving my shoes back, I inquire as to the price, and he ingeniously says, in English, “As you will, as you wish.” Hook, line, and sinker.
When I discussed the episode with Saori later, she pointed out the child labor dimension of the whole story. No doubt she is right—it is unfortunate to see many of the boys in the shoe-shining trade that should be in school. Am I guilty of contributing to the problem through contributing to the “demand” side? Would I, in the long term, be better serving their interests by refusing these services? I’m not sure. On one hand, the opportunity to education is a fundamental right. On the other hand, they are likely contributing to their family’s well-being through what I would not consider an exploitive form of labor. I was somewhat comforted to learn that Ethiopia offers primary and secondary school evening courses for children who are employed during the day, I’m still not sure the ethics of the situation. But I am sure of one thing—get my friend in Axum a small business loan and he will someday run the entire industry in the region.