UCKAR's barefooted pragmatists

Updated: Mar 2, 2020

By Denzel Nyathi

Many students at the university currently known as Rhodes (UCKAR) have noticed what seems to be a growing number of students walking around campus barefoot. At first, it comes as quite a shock to see these individuals who have chosen to walk the road less travelled. As a first-year student and a non-Makhanda local, I can’t speak to the length of this “barefoot movement”, but I know I am one of many whose interest has been piqued by this phenomenon. One user on the anonymous submission forum, Rhodes Confessions 2019 on Facebook, asked: “Why is no one else talking about the strange creatures that are walking around the campus barefoot?” While strange may be going a bit far, a fair point was raised: a discussion needed to take place.

Photographer: Denzel Nyathi

It was in the Drama Theatre Café when the opportunity for such a discussion presented itself. Liam walked in and went straight to the counter, with flip flops in hand. I had never approached anyone and asked them about their lack of shoes before, but I felt I had to. He was one coffee away from leaving the building, and with him: answers.

When I gathered the courage to ask him why he was barefoot, he simply replied “I’ve had a long day and haven’t showered.”

“So, are you more comfortable barefoot?”

“I guess,” he replied, nonchalantly. “I don’t have any clean socks. I’m not going to wear shoes with no socks. That’s disgusting.”

I had to laugh. For the first time, I was getting into the rationalising process of UCKAR’s barefoot enthusiasts. Or, as it was being revealed to me through my impromptu café interview with Liam, barefooted pragmatists. Liam was barefoot because it was the most practical decision after a tiring and showerless day. I suppose it isn’t very hard to sympathise with him. I personally remove my shoes the moment I’m in the comfort of my room. Barefooted pragmatists simply don’t want to wait to be in their room to be more comfortable. All our drunk individuals who have ever walked from the clubs barefoot with heels in hand can understand.

“I have shoes! Look, they’re right here,” he added in his own defence. “When I go the library, I put them on to look formal.” I mentally noted that the social construct of public respectability and appearance influenced even the bravest among our society.

I noticed one of my classmates was barefoot, too, as he walked out the class in a hurry and I rushed to catch up with him. Duncan walked with a sense of relaxed purpose in his gait. What can be seen of his long blonde hair from under his durag swishes as he walks. It moves with him as he turns back to answer my questions. I needed more perspective.

“How do you know if you’re going to go barefoot or not for the day?”

“It’s usually based on the temperature,” he said, echoing a similar statement of Liam’s.

While talking, I noticed the only thing on his otherwise-bare-foot was a single anklet.

“Sort of fashionable, really,” he said on the mention of the anklet. “All my bracelets were made for me.”

“Is barefoot a fashion statement?”

“Not really, dude. I see it as more practical.”

While I’m not sure of the relationship these two individuals have – if any at all – it was cool to see that they shared so many of the same views. It’s as if there was some unspoken understanding that fuelled the barefoot movement. An air of “if you know, you know”.

Sean, a second-year philosophy student, is most definitely in the know with the culture. He’s been dedicated to the path since halfway through 2018. Even when he started, he never feared being judged about being barefoot. Before I was ever even in connection with Sean, his peers would only ever describe him as “so smart”. His bare feet are just a normal aspect of his brand at this stage. This is a natural consequence of him spending more of his time barefoot than he does wearing shoes.

“I wear shoes for formal events, when saving luggage space, when walking on very hot surfaces and when I have open wounds on my feet,” he expanded on the topic.

Before I was completely satisfied with my findings, I felt I had to get an understanding of the sensation of traveling the grounds of UCKAR barefoot for a day as an outsider to the movement. However, there wasn’t a chance I would be putting myself through the pains of my upper campus walk without the comfort of my sneakers. So, I put a friend up to the challenge.

Photographer: Denzel Nyathi

The challenge, unfortunately, did not last very long. We made it from one building to the next before her growing discomfort had her putting on her flip flops yet again. With each step I watched her face wince. She complained of how “weird” it felt. However, the experiment did conclude with a positive: “I feel more in touch with nature,” she said. Another possible motive for the movement?

Perhaps the next project for this campus is for us all to get in touch with this natural part of ourselves.

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