It was my son who first asked the question.
“Can I give them my shoes?”
I stopped and looked at him. “What, honey? Your shoes?”
“Yeah, mom. They don’t have any shoes. If I give them mine, can I borrow your flip-flops for the rest of the trip?”
We were walking the streets of Addis Ababa, searching for a taxi large enough to hold our family of eight, and we had gathered quite an entourage of street children. They followed us first with outstretched hands and then with laughter as we stumbled through our very limited Amharic.
They were hungry: it was obvious from the hollow of their cheeks and the way they snatched at the granola bars we offered. They were dirty: they lived on the streets, after all. Almost all of them were shoeless.
They followed us for almost a mile as we wound through the trash, the goats, and the street vendors. Chattering as they walked, the children called loudly to each other and seemed oblivious to the mud squashing between their toes. The recent rain left puddles of dirty water and soft ground between the broken concrete.
One little girl in particular stayed close to my elbow, staring at me intently as she walked barefoot over the rough terrain. Her head-scarf had been bright and colorful at one time but was now a dingy brown with tattered edges. Her dress sagged from one shoulder. Her face, hands and feet were dirty, colored by her surroundings. Using one of the few Amharic phrases I have perfected, I asked her name.
“Kidist,” she said with a wide smile, happy to have someone interested in who she was.
The farther we walked, the more our numbers grew. A few adults joined the parade, laughing and pointing at the amount of children we had attracted. I began snapping pictures, amused at the spectacle we were creating.
We had given out all of our snacks. The granola bars had long since disappeared into empty stomachs. I wished we had more to offer them.
Then my son asked this question.
“Can I give them my shoes?”
I looked down at his Nikes, splattered with mud but sturdy and new.
“Yeah, mom. That’s a good idea. Can I give them mine, too?” My other children chimed in.
I surveyed the people around me. A mother holding her infant. A grandmother in a make-shift wheelchair. A young woman, not more than 16, one eye milky-white and unseeing, the other dark and imploring. My own children. Street children. Kidist. All walking along side by side.
There were too many bare feet. We did not have enough shoes to go around. We would not be able to help them all.
“Absolutely. Let’s give them our shoes.” I said.
We climbed into a mini-bus and removed the shoes from our feet. We each chose one person in the crowd and reached our hands out to them, passing our shoes to someone who needed them more than we did.
I handed my sneakers to the young mother with a baby in her arms. I recognized myself in her eyes.
Kidist now wears my daughter’s shoes.
Closing the door to the mini-bus, we waved goodbye as we drove away.
No, we could not help them all. We will never be able to help them all. But we can not let this be our excuse for not helping one.