African Footwear: What Was Our Shoe Game Pre-colonialism?

We’re not going to lie. Trying to figure out just what footwear African ancestors could have worn before the scramble for Africa hasn’t been easy. It’s commonly believed that Africans roamed around barefoot before European intervention. And for civilizations found to have some semblance of shoes, it’s explained as the result of Arab or Greek influence. We’re surprised Alien conspiracy didn’t pop up as in the case with the pyramids in Egypt and Sudan.

Could the lack of readily available information be a confirmation of this barefoot belief or is this the case of historical whitewashing? After all, some Europeans during the colonial periods forbid Africans who were subservient to them to wear shoes. It was recently discovered that the Roman and Greek ancient status were purposefully stripped down to the whiteness of the marble in the 18th and 19th century to hide the colourful and combination of races they originally portrayed. Who’s to say that African shoes suffered the same fate?

 

Finding a timeline or archaeological evidence of footwear or shoes prior to external influence is difficult to say the least. What most online articles agree on is that shoes were considered a status symbol in Africa. They were often reserved for ceremonial functions and for royalty. Traditional materials to make shoes, as discerned by anthropologists, were rawhide, leather and metal; to mention a few.  There are blog posts, such as ‘Europeans did NOT bring shoes to Africa’, that argue that shoes had been on the continent prior to European influence. However, due to hot climate or the cost of shoes, many preferred to go barefoot. With that debate in mind, we’ll look at some of the footwear findings from the continent:

The Pharaoh Rameses III wearing sandals

 

EGYPT

Early Egyptians have been known to wear sandals made from leather or straw, often worn by the elite when venturing outdoors. These status symbol were seldom worn indoor. When King Tut’s tomb was opened, Howard Carter discovered 93 fragments of footwear which included flip-flops that were extravagantly adorned. Interestingly, archaeologists have discovered that Ancient Egyptians made shoes for the right and left foot; unlike earlier European shoes.

 

 

SOUTHERN AFRICA

The Khoisan, one of the first communities to inhabit the sub-Saharan African bush, made footwear to survive the arid land and high grass. When Europeans arrived and settled in the area, they took the shoe’s construction and combined it with their simple shoe design to create the ‘Veldtschoen’. The shoe was made from a soft rawhide or tanned leather with a rubber sole. This Afrikaans word translates to bush shoe and is simply called the Vellies today.

When Europeans arrived and settled in the area, they took the shoe’s construction and combined it with their simple shoe design to create the ‘Veldtschoen’.

WEST AFRICA

The Hausa seem to have the most documented shoe history of the continent. Their leatherwork is considered legendary throughout West Africa and their intrinsic work has constructed the likes of boots and sandals. They were known to dye their leather with natural pigments like henna to create the striking appearance. Camel-riding boots from the early 20th century has seen the Hausa incorporate woven leather as decoration. The boots, used to protect their legs from sand, chafing and sun, had toe dividers allowed the wearer to grip a knotted strap. To complement their royal cloaks and gowns, the Hausa emirs in Northern Nigeria would line the insets of their footwear with ostrich feathers.

Hausa Riding boot early 20th c

Benin, on the other hand, had slippers covered with coral beads while Cameroon opted for cast metal shoes. The Bamun of Cameroon believe that one of their kings discovered metal in rocks at the Mambe village. From this, the realised bronze could be made. Using the Traditional African metal casting known as Lost Wax Method, the casting mould is made from wax which melts when molten metal is poured into it. You can see the cast bronze mule shoes here.

Riding boot from Nigeria 1940s [Image: American Museum of Natural History]
Ghana, in particular the Akans community, had the Ahenema which is a local slipper that commands respect, majesty and authority in society. The shoes were made using plant material, with climbing plants making the upper. Before they used tree back as the soles, they originally used leaves. They gradually started to use leather in the shoes which were referred to as ‘chawchaw’ which were for the kings and a few queens in the kingdom. You can also find sandals made for the chiefs that had strips of gold and silver ornaments on the upper.

[Image: Source]
Asante ruler’s sandals, gold ornaments, Ghana, 20th century – [Image: Bata Museum]
Republic of the Congo

The carving skills of The Luba of Zaire spread into footwear with the wooden toe-knob sandals. With their culture centre in the lineage of the kings, the shoes were made for status or ceremony. Most of the shoes that have been discovered carry evident wear which is evidence of the Luba’s tradition of handing down royal footwear across generations.

Men’s Toe Knob Sandals [Image: Pinterest]

With Africa being the second largest continent, there must be more stories around footwear from different African countries that haven’t been fleshed out. Or perhaps are yet to be shared. Know of any that should have been incorporated in this article? Perchance there’s a history showcase or museum on the continent that has all this information but isn’t mainstream… share it with us in the comments below. But in the meantime, tell us what YOU believe is the history of shoes in Africa.

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