Uncertain Landings by Caroline Knowles

 IMG_0197  At this a major junction the flip-flop trail splinters in all direction: east to Australasia, south to Singapore and Japan, westward to the African continent, the US, Canada and South America, and north to Europe and Scandinavia, quietly connecting Fuzhou, the major production centre for flip-flops (in SE China) with the world. Staying true to my own rules of the road, intended to bring consistency to an ever-expanding matrix of possible routes, meant following the largest volumes. The same logics had led me to Korean petrochemicals and Middle Eastern oil earlier on the trail. The largest numbers (in container ships) pass through Singapore, then west, navigating the Red Sea and the sudden seizures of Somali pirates, and on to the port of Djibouti. From here they are shipped overland to meet a rising demand for cheap shoes in the East African state of Ethiopia which, with a population of over 84 million and a low GDP, is an ideal market for Chinese goods.

At least, I thought this was the route as I stood on the Ethiopian side of the Somali-Ethiopia border at Dire Dawa waiting for the trucks of flip-flops to arrive. Michael Tan (the photographer) and I had driven all of the previous day from Addis Ababa in an old car with dodgy brakes, avoiding the pilgrims filling the road only to find that they had filled up all of the hotels. This re-routed us to Harar, another border town, late at night and a hotel as dodgy as the car. Conversation with a policeman at the checkpoint the next morning revealed a fork in the trail I had not suspected. Only some flip-flops come through Djibouti and Dire Dawa, the rest land along the Somaliland coast and on to the Somali markets in Hargeisa, crossing the Ethiopian border at its less secure points. Both routes converge on the markets of Addis Ababa where distinctions between contraband and official flip-flops are erased – except in the price.


Intrigued by this development – I thought only drugs and weapons were smuggled – we try to get closer to the ‘unofficial trail’. We failed. It took a ‘contrabandist’, as they refer to themselves, in Addis to explain that as an illegal activity smuggling is inevitably invisible: otherwise smugglers would be caught! We learned from him (while his armed guard sat nearby) that smuggled flip-flops are moved in fast cars driven through checkpoints with false plates; they are hidden under bundles of wood on camels driven by villagers; they are moved by calls from one mobile phone to other; they are moved by a matrix of contrabandists each specialising in a small bit of the route. Trying to plot these routes – I can’t believe I tried to do this – was equally futile: contraband routes are part of a (secret) shifting matrix of back roads that must not settle into a recognised route. In fact, I only managed to find contrabandists to interview because my student-assistant at Addis University had been one himself.


These multiple invisibilities taught me an important lesson. I rely on what I can see and photograph. But what about what I can’t see? What about all the things I don’t know are there, but are nonetheless? Following trails is semi-skilled labour. In terms of geographies, languages, cultures, everyday life and even research methods I thought I had mastered, I was way out of my depth.

Back in Addis things were thankfully more straightforward. We followed flip-flops from the Mercato, the largest open-air market in Africa, through smaller markets and kiosks interviewing merchants and contrabandists, to establish their knowledge of the supply chain. We followed the flip-flops onto the feet of an elderly woman who owned only two pairs of shoes – the other pair were black plastic ballet slippers. We followed her on the routine errands of everyday life: around her home and to her neighbours, to market and to church. We interviewed her around the shoes she had owned and this opened up her biography and those of her grown children. We learned that her move to the city and to work on a building site brought her shoes; that before this time she was barefoot.


Five years later and with additional funding to complete the trail, I arranged to follow the bit I had missed – from Berbera on the Somaliland coast where the contraband flip-flops land, to Hargeisa and over the Ethiopia border through one of the smuggling routes. I booked a flight to Berbera and with help from a Somali student arranged to get a visa from the Somaliland authorities in London. Although Somaliland was peaceful – the infamous jihadists and warlords operate around Mogadishu – I arranged for an armed security escort and a driver to get me to the Ethiopian border. As always when leaving on research trips I filled out the university insurance form. This was when my arrangements began to unravel. The insurance office referred the case to the registrar who warned the Warden. A meeting with Liz Bromley (on maps) and Pat Loughrey followed and ended with the Warden suggesting I find out from the Foreign Office if their travel warning for Somalia covered all of it or if Somaliland was as safe as I claimed. The FCO would not discuss their blanket travel ban: this invalidated the university insurance and worried the Warden. I had no option but to cancel.

Undeterred, I thought I’d check out the Djibouti route instead. But days before I was to travel serious rioting broke out and I had to cancel too. The route through Somaliland is the only part of the trail on which I had to rely on secondary sources. But there were lessons here too. The flip-flop route had revealed some of the geopolitical tensions of our time. Not being able to go there was as important in the story as going there.

Photographs by Michael Tan

Caroline Knowles is Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths based at CUCR. Her research is about circulations of people and objects and, in addition to publishing many books and papers, she is co-author (with Douglas Harper) of Hong Kong: Lives, Landscapes and Journeys published (2009) by University of Chicago Press.

For further information contact C.knowles@gold.ac.uk

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