Tomorrow, at the crack of dawn, I’m going to Lusaka International Airport, where I will board a British Airways flight to London, spend two nights in London, then board a second BA flight out of Heathrow to Washington D.C. Today marks the end of a complicated month in Africa. The first time I’d been home in two and a half years. My feelings about Zambia are always complicated, on one hand I grew up here, my parents live here, I have a tremendous history here, on the other – this isn’t my home anymore. I don’t feel any nationalistic attachment to Zambia beyond a sort of fondness (but then I don’t feel any nationalistic attachement at all.
It is 12:24pm Central African Time, I have put nothing in my suitcase and made no moves to sort anything out. I am a notoriously last minute packer. (I packed for a month in Africa in about 20 minutes, the night before we left.) However, as I was peering into my closet (I should say, the closet in the dressing room, in the bedroom I lived in from the age of 16 to 18 – at the age of 16, I moved bedrooms across the house.) I noticed a pair of sneakers. A pair of classic, black and white, Converse All-Star high-tops, with brightly colored (yellow, tattoo print) laces, they have holes in the outer, babytoe region, the plastic is discolored, they are littered with the scribbles of sharpies, hi-lighters and ballpoint.
I fished the sneakers off the floor of the closet and realized upon closer inspection that they are the first pair of Converse All-Star sneakers I ever owned. Now, despite the fact that they are ubiquitous now, it was not always so (particularly not in sub-Saharan Africa), and they do have some significant cultural value and meaning and they did for me when I got them, when I was 15. The year 2000, I was a sophomore at The American International School of Lusaka. I had never been to America, and the world was, by all accounts, a very different place.
I don’t remember very much about being 15, as my brain seems to cleanse itself of unimportant, and usually painful or difficult memories every 2 or 3 years. I suspect I was heartbroken in some way, shape or form (as this was the case until my early 20s), disillusioned and felt profoundly out of sorts (as this is still the case). However, I do remember wanting these sneakers with a fiery passion. They signified things I wanted for my future, the kind of low-key, rebellious coolness that wearing such sneakers would ensure, (reterospectively, any low-key, rebellious coolness I now possess can probably be directly attributed to these sneakers.)
They have writing all around the soles, most of it illegible, but I don’t doubt it was scrawled there during the course of a school day, my mind, obviously elsewhere. Peering into the closet, I can reconstruct other elements of my personality at the time. Everything is black, unless it’s red. Thinking back on it, I remember all I wanted was to leave Zambia, I just wanted something else. I don’t think I even knew what it was at the time. (I figured it out a year later on holiday in America, and that’s when I started picking colleges).
A truly interesting thing about these sneakers is that this is not the first time I’ve revisited them. I must have taken them with me to college, because they weren’t readily available in Lusaka and so in the three years prior to going to George Mason they were not replaced. They look like they were worn for three passionate years. I am sure I brought them home with me in December 2004 (after my first semester), and was forced to leave them behind because the night before I returned to University I fell in the shower and broke four of my toes (I wish I were kidding, this injury is a whole other horrible narrative, one that haunts me to this day – both emotionally and physically.) and I would not have been able to get them on because of how swollen my foot became. I know that I wore them in Lusaka on that trip though because they have novelty shoelaces in them, which I do not doubt I got at Hot Topic (Hot Topic was indescribably relevant and valuable to me in college.)
The last time I wore these sneakers, I had finished taking English 202, Spanish 101, Biology 101 and a ridiculous course called University 100. I had (boy, did I hustle that first semester) gotten four tattoos, and my lip peirced (not the peircing you see today, that came later). Nicole had also dyed my hair, the top part of it was bleach blonde and the bottom was neon blue. These sneakers signified a lot for me, most of which has drifted into the obscurity of growing up.
It’s a strange thought, I was probably wearing these sneakers on my last day of high school, during my IB exams, on the first day of college, the first time I stepped foot on GMU’s Fairfax campus. I was likely wearing them when I said goodbye to Nicole at the airport in 2002 (a particularly powerful memory.) The first time I went to the 930 Club and Black Cat, Merriweather and the Nissan Pavillion and probably Sonar in Baltimore. (All places which strongly informed my first year of college).
Somehow, it seems easier to remember the sort of person I wanted to be, before real broken hearts, serious tattoos, really hard work (really trying to explain to people what I wanted to study) – before life was somehow “real” with graduate school, jobs, living by myself, paying bills and making really hard choices.
I think I’ll bring them home with me – if anything because I don’t have a black and white pair of high-tops right now (I have an oh-so-cool pair of all-black low-tops), because I don’t even know if Hot Topic still sells shoelaces and I wouldn’t go in there to find out, but perhaps mostly because you can’t go back.