Essay: Socks

In cold weather, we usually put socks on to keep our feet and ankles warm. Even when it is warm, many people wear socks, either to protect their feet from getting blisters or to prevent foot odor developing in their shoes.  Washing smelly shoes is not always easy, but we can keep them hygienic by wearing socks, which can be washed as needed.

To a large extent, the way socks are used is universal, yet there are, indeed, some people who employ them in different ways.  In Japan, for example, golf clubs covered by socks are common sight.  Amateur golfers who live in large cities often reach the courses of their choice by taking subways and transferring to trains and buses while carrying their golf bags in their shoulders.  In order to protect their clubs from getting scratched or damaged while being transported from one station to another, golf enthusiasts often protect them with thick socks.

When I was sharing an office with a Belgian colleague in a Geneva-based international organization 25 years ago, she told me with amazement of something she had seen in southern Italy after attending an academic conference there.  She was in a bank when an elderly-looking man came in and took his shoes off.  He then pulled off one of his socks, took out some money hidden in it before going to the deposit window.

Elderly people might often have been the victims of purse-snatching and pickpockets in that area, but I do not imagine that all of them took their money to the bank hidden in their socks.  Had that been the case, it might have been necessary for the bank to literally impose money-laundering of bills before accepting them as deposits from their clients to prevent the whole bank from being filled with foot odor.  The gentleman my colleague had seen may just have been extra careful with his money.  But, in any case, she learned that day that socks were being used as a safe means of transporting cash, although this method might not be feasible if a large sum was involved.

But, I also learned another amazing way of utilizing socks.  Again it was about 25 years ago, when I was on mission to rural areas in Tanzania.  In those days the socialistic policies that the Tanzanian government had implemented after independence were driving national productivity down and depressing the whole economy.  As there was no notable industry in the country and its agricultural production was declining, the amount of foreign exchange the government held was being depleted.  For this reason, there were hardly any imported goods available.  At the same time, there were hardly any goods domestically produced, so foreign visitors could not find much to buy even if they had brought in a plenty of money.

I was engaged in a research activity in the rural areas, using a questionnaire translated into Swahili, but the actual interviews were conducted by eight women local government officials recruited from the municipalities around the rural areas selected for the survey.  Before the interviews began, I was busy with the preparation of the questionnaire and training the interviewers, and while the interviews were being conducted, I had to bustle around to secure food for those who were carrying out the survey.

It had taken some of us a journey of two full days by jeep from Dar es Salaam, the capital of Tanzania, to reach the targeted rural areas.  As we had no idea what kind of food would be available in the local market, we had bought, as staple food, plenty of rice and maize flour (the latter being an important staple for the Tanzanians who made it into something like a maize dumpling, called ugali).  These would last without refrigeration, so we had carried them on our journey all the way from Dar es Salaam.  Subsidiary food items, such as vegetables, fish and meat, to be eaten with the staple food, had to be purchased in the rural areas as required, but finding them turned out to be a difficult task.

Around my waist I carried a pochette filled with the local money I had changed before leaving the capital and so off we went by jeep, from village to village, in search of food, without much luck.  It was nearly impossible to buy anything.  I recall that the bright red tomato I managed to find after much effort was the tastiest one I had ever had.  That shows how desperate I was for fresh vegetables.

One day, when travelling around a village looking for some protein source for our meal, I spotted several chickens running around a farmyard.  A Bangladeshi civil engineer who had lived and worked in the area for a few years was assisting us with the research activity and was driving.  He was fluent in Swahili, so I asked him to stop and negotiate with the farmer on the sale of a few chickens.

Despite our perseverance and showing my willingness to pay more than enough, the farmer totally refused to sell any of his birds.  Eventually, however, he gave way and offered to sell their eggs.  He had 12 available, which was just perfect as there were 12 of us altogether, including the eight women local government employees we had recruited.  This meant we could each have a whole egg without fighting over it.

We waited a while and then the farmer brought out the eggs in a basket.  As I was about to accept the whole thing, including the basket, he pointed out that he was selling only the eggs and I would have to leave the basket there.  Suddenly, I was in trouble as I had nothing that could be used as a bag.  If I had been wearing a flair skirt, I could have wrapped them safely in it.  I could have tried carrying them in my hands, but the maximum number I could manage without breaking any would probably be about six.  If I broke any by putting them in my pants pockets, all the effort of obtaining 12 whole eggs would be ruined.  I was at my wits’ end trying to figure out how to solve the problem.

At that very moment, I noticed the civil engineer taking his shoe off.  I looked at him, wondering what on earth he was doing.  Then he took his sock off and began putting the eggs in it, one by one, very carefully.  I was dumbfounded by his action but also deeply impressed at his wisdom.  I asked him to take the other one off and give it to me, and began putting the rest of the eggs in it with extra care.  While extremely grateful for his inspiration, I was forced to hold a smelly sock, containing six eggs, in each hand on the return journey.  Thanks again to his skillful driving on bumpy roads, we managed to deliver all the eggs safely to the women we had hired for preparing our meals.  Later, we all ate the eggs made into omelets, which tasted like omelets should.

This incident taught me that socks could turn into small shopping bags.  Thus, as we travel around the world, we learn something new unexpectedly in unexpected places and become a bit wiser each time.

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1 Response to Essay: Socks

  1. Mari Jo Clark says:

    Shizue: I really enjoyed your “sock” story. It reminded me of where, as a child, my sister & I would put our money when we did not have pockets or purses. We did not think, at the time, if we were handing over to our teachers “stinky” money for our school lunches!

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