“Lêkê”, The Poor Man’s Shoes That Have Become A Symbol Of Ivorian Culture

The rainy season has ended in Abidjan, but we haven’t put away our “lêkê”: known as “jellyfish” in France, these open plastic shoes, water-resistant and affordable, have become a symbol of Ivorian culture.

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“Everyone wore +lêkê+,” recalls Rokia Daniogo, a 33-year-old dealer seated on a street corner in Treichville’s massive market, where hundreds of shops are overflowing with goods and various things.

“All children wear (the) lêkê, even babies,” she adds. “They go to play ball with it, they go to school with it,” explains this mother of four children who “all” have been wearing them since they could walk. And “they like it,” she insists.

“We already wore that when we were little,” confirms Patrick Nguessan, wandering between the stands, even if he finds them “uncomfortable” today.

Ousmane Kaba sells them and wears a white pair “every day” a few meters away from Rokia Daniogo. “I feel comfortable in it,” he says, and “it sells well,” particularly to young people “aged 18 to 35” like him, “and during the rainy season.” Between May and September, strong storms can produce heavy rain, rendering certain streets inaccessible.

Ivorian identity

According to Mounir Ben, a trader, “lêkê” – French-designed shoes born after WWII, part of which is made in Ivory Coast and the other imported – have been sold on Ivorian marketplaces “for 30 or 40 years” before the debut of flip-flops in the country.

However, the global triumph of flip-flops has not resulted in the extinction of the “lêkê,” which have become a symbol of the country’s identity.

“In Senegal and Mali, there are flip-flops, but in Côte d’Ivoire they’re very popular,” confirms Samba Basse, a Senegalese shopkeeper.

Ivorian fashion critic Emmanuelle Keïta also traces the origins of “lêkê” back to the 1980s, at the feet of those with “little financial means”.

“People who made zouglou (an urban musical genre whose early singers denounced the precariousness of student life) had +lêkê+ on their feet, and zouglou remains the country’s best-known musical identity”, she says.

“For me, it’s an essential fashion accessory for the +grouilleur+, for the guy who fights, who works a lot”, but who is poor, explains the stylist.

Like the apprentices of the “gbaka”, the minibuses that serve Abidjan and the surrounding area.

These young men, trained by the drivers, spend their journeys clinging to the rear doors of the vehicles, from which they regularly disembark to chase customers at every stop, “lêkê” on their feet.

Luxury “lêkê” 

“Lêkê make everything easier,” says Seydou Sow, who uses them at his workplace, a store where he carries heavy loads.

Their price is the first factor in their success: they cost an average of 1,000 CFA francs, or 1.50 euros.

The models are varied: plain, transparent, patterned, in the national colors (orange, white and green), bearing the names of footballers such as Basile Boli of France or Lionel Messi of Argentina. All social classes wear them.

“When you’re poor, people think that’s all you’ve got”, but “when you’re rich, it makes you look cool and humble”, explains Emmanuelle Keïta.

Mounir Ben’s most expensive “lêkê” costs 2,000 francs (3 euros). These are the “benguistes,” a derogatory term given by Ivorians to Africans who have emigrated to Europe and are assumed to be wealthy. According to him, their soles are thicker, more fitted to the curvature of the foot, “more resistant,” and “do not slip.”

However, luxury labels have gone even further: Gucci sells a pair for 400 euros, while Prada sells a wedge version for 500 euros.

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