Albert Nyembwe has found himself with big shoes to fill.
Last September, Nyembwe's nonprofit, the Cilongo Foundation of Blaine, held its first shoe drive with great success. Minnesotans donated 900 pairs of shoes, new and gently used, and 140 pairs of socks, for children in Africa.
The total was far more than Nyembwe expected which, it turns out, became a bit of problem. Twin Cities church groups with African connections added about 400 pairs of shoes to containers heading to Kenya, Liberia and Sierra Leone, at no cost to Nyembwe's organization. He is tremendously grateful to them.
But Nyembwe, 62, grew up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and has strong emotional ties to his home country in Central Africa. He reserved the other 500 pairs for schoolchildren there who must walk many miles to school, often in bare feet.
Because Nyembwe has no local church connection to the Congo, he sent his son, Jimmy, on a flight there last summer with four suitcases stuffed with more than 100 pairs of shoes. It was exhilarating for Jimmy, 34, and expensive and exhausting, and Jimmy isn't planning to go back anytime soon.
So about 400 pairs of shoes sit in five large drums in a locked storage unit. The drums, once emptied in the Congo, can be used to hold water.
Jimmy and his father laugh when asked the first thing that comes to an American's mind. Um, what about the post office?
"They are going to tell you that those shoes are not going to make it," Jimmy said. "The Congolese postal system doesn't work so well. You could pay $300 or $400 a box, but they won't guarantee it. There are cases that never get there."
They're hoping for a miracle — or maybe an Air Force intervention.
"I heard about a Belgian group that sent supplies to the Congo in an Air Force plane," said Nyembwe, a soft-spoken French teacher at Alliance Française in Minneapolis. He founded Cilongo (www.cilon gofoundation.org) in 2006 to support educational initiatives in Africa.
"If we could have the U.S. Air Force, why not?"
Readers, I have a lot to be thankful for, but I want to be thankful for one more thing this week, which is a church group or other kind entity contacting me with a way to get those shoes to those children, because my kids have so many shoes I keep tripping over them.
The son of a teacher and the oldest of 11 children, Nyembwe attended high school and college in the Congo, then taught French and Latin to high school students. He, his wife and six sons, now all grown, came to Minnesota to join family about 20 years ago. They are all involved in the foundation, whose creation was inspired, he said, by the uniquely giving nature of Americans.
"Seeing Americans who were wondering about the lives of people they don't know, that prompted us to be a part of that philanthropy," Nyembwe said. "My wife and my sons said, 'We need to do something.' "
The foundation collects computers and books, bikes and school supplies, in addition to shoes. Nyembwe is particularly grateful to Associate Pastor Lyndy Zabel of United Methodist Church of Anoka.
"Every year, he would ask us, 'Do you have something to ship to Africa?' And it was always yes," Nyembwe said.
As much fun as a bike is to receive, shoes are a priority. "You have students who are clever and motivated and they want to go to school," Nyembwe said. "Their parents don't have enough resources to buy shoes for them."
"Shoes sold on the African market are not as durable as those made here," Jimmy added. "Kids can use them for a long time. Dr. Martens? Those last through the rainy season and the dry season and they will still last, through currents of water, mud and ticks. Do you want a kid to go to school with a tick in his foot? By protecting their feet, we're protecting their bodies."
Jimmy's trip was bittersweet. "I brought 120 pairs for 120 kids," said Jimmy, who works for Anoka Middle School. "But, as you realize, every kid in the neighborhood follows a car that is arriving. I wished I'd had more pairs of shoes. We had to turn kids away. It was sad."
Both father and son are optimistic that a happy surprise is ahead for them, too.
"Four hundred pairs are really nothing to someone who wants to help," Nyembwe said. "I'm expecting someone to say, 'Give me those shoes. Tell me where you want them to go.' "