Why I kicked off my sandals in West Africa!

As you may have no doubt noticed by now, I have a slight ‘quirk’ – my footwear, or apparent lack of it. I’ll confess that this is more of a branding exercise than a lifestyle choice; although I prefer to be barefoot when I can, generally I do at least wear sandals. (I’ll grant you my sandals of preference are ‘minimalist’, very thin soles and barely more than a couple of cords of rope on the top; this makes them easy to slip on/off where appropriate).

The Barefoot Backpacker in Accra.
On the streets of Accra, Ghana – the archetypal ‘Barefoot Backpacker’ in full flow.

They were the only footwear I took with me on my adventures around West Africa, and despite their thinness, they prove comfortable across pretty much all terrain – and in parts of Ghana, this was generally very hot and littered with very small stones; not particularly barefoot-friendly conditions, although I’d pass by locals (usually children) who were often walking/jogging with their shoes in hand. However, the pair I’d had for most of my recent adventures pretty much fell apart part-way round West Africa, so by the time I reached Benin, the holes below the balls of the foot were large enough to stick a couple of thumbs through. By this point, the roads had turned to sand-covered rock and I’d got much more used to the heat, so for the remaining two weeks of my trip I was barefoot far more often than not.

Broken sandals.
I’m sure sandals aren’t supposed to look like that…

You would have thought that the sight of a tall, hairy, white man strolling the streets of Africa barefoot would raise a few eyebrows. In actual fact I had far fewer comments than I expected. I think it’s partly because for some reason, when barefoot, I tend to walk slightly taller and with more apparent confidence. Maybe it’s also because when I walk anyway I’m more focussed on where I’m going and don’t tend to look around me as much.
I did see a few weird stares, but it’s hard to tell if they were directed at my feet or my foot decoration. I’ve had people openly stare and giggle at both my toe rings and my bright nail varnish, even when I’ve been wearing sandals.

The most comments came, unsurprisingly enough, from shoe salesmen. African shops tend to be more like street stalls; people sitting by the road with their wares displayed on the floor in front of them. When I walked past them, I was invariably (and unsurprisingly) greeted by ‘you want shoes, look, here good shoes’. This especially happened in Togo, where I also had several offers to repair my sandals (they’re made of a rubber-type material, a typical cobbler would have no chance). They seemed a little surprised, but accepting, that I preferred to not wear shoes.

I had no comments that being barefoot was a ‘bad’ thing. Maybe I should be surprised at this – but I guess maybe barefootedness is more common there, and thus more accepted. No-one ever told me to put my sandals back on, even in the suburban restaurants in Cotonou and Lome (including the one in my hotel, although it was mostly outdoor seating). And travelling was a breeze – I crossed two international borders barefoot with no comments whatsoever, no-one cared on the minibuses or waiting at the bus stations, and riding on the back of motorbikes felt so free and refreshing.

Barefoot on a motorbike in Benin.
Freedom – the wind between your toes!

I wasn’t barefoot the whole time – climbing hills and walking through forests is usually best done with some foot protection if you’re not used to it (although saying that I’ll post about my barefoot experiences in Australia in a future entry!) – but the more I did it the more comfortable I felt doing it more. Walking on sandy roads doesn’t feel much different to walking on hard beaches, and with a light enough step the small stones don’t really bother you. The ground also wasn’t ‘ikky’ – sure it was a bit grubby but outside usually is. I never worried about stepping on anything sharp or too dirty – that’s what eyes are for.

Barefoot on a road in Ghana.
This is when it starts to feel a tad uncomfortable … 🙂

It’s one of those things that I do more when I’m feeling self-confident; I always worry about it beforehand but once I do, it feels the most natural thing in the world – even though my sandals are pretty minimalist, it feels a bit weird to have them on my feet again after a prolonged time walking barefoot, almost as if they’re ‘in the way’.

I’m not going to backpack barefoot around the UK in the height of winter though. That said, I know a man who does …

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Why I kicked off my shoes and travelled barefoot in West Africa - how it felt, and what reactions I got from the locals for doing it.

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4 thoughts on “Why I kicked off my sandals in West Africa!

  1. (Oh sure, your “test” would be math! )
    I enjoyed (as usual) your blog. If we ever had to locate you we could just follow your trail of spent sandals. Although, walking on the warm sandy roads sounds good to me right about now. My only negative comments would have to be I’d truly hate to be your podiatrist and hematologist when you get home! Love your pictures. A.

  2. The thing that bugs me most about walking barefoot is that I AM always watching where I step… which means I have my eyes glued to the ground, rather than being to look at my surroundings (or keep an eye out for the sake of safety).

    1. Ah, you learn to spot weird stuff, and when you relax (and walk more on the balls than the heel of the foot), you barely notice or feel what you’re walking on anyway.

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