They are feared by many people in Rwanda mainly due to the myths, fear and misconceptions around them but that is not Lt. Col Vianney Higiro, the interim head of the Rwanda Defence Force (RDF) Reserve Force in the Northern Province district of Musanze, who has urged residents to report the marauding Maasai shoe vendors, describing them as ‘delinquents’.
In a video that surfaced on social media on Monday, Lt. Col Higiro is seen addressing residents of Musanze, calling upon them to report the renowned Maasai street hawkers who move around the country selling ‘Maasai’ sandals, mainly made in Kenya and Tanzania.
The shoe vending Maasais are known to move around the country on foot, selling the beaded traditional slippers made out of car tires and leather, which have become prominently known as ‘Maasai’ sandals in East Africa.
Rwanda prohibits unregulated street vending or hawking and those caught engaging in informal street businesses are often removed and fined by City authorities in a bid to promote legal trade.
However, the Maasai shoe hawkers have over the years been left to move around selling shoes uninterrupted, even allowed to enter other business premises, including supermarkets, bars and restaurants, enticing buyers to purchase the open shoes synonymous with the Maasai tribe of Kenya and Tanzania.
But in a rare turn of events, Lt. Col Higiro told residents of Musanze that the shoe vending is a cover up for other illegal businesses by the Maasai hawkers, including selling unregulated concoctions under the pretext of boosting the sexual prowess of men and portions that cure infertility.
Lt. Col Higiro said that the shoe business is a decoy for them to distribute unregulated drugs and false promises of child birth, urging residents to report them on sight.
“In recent days we’ve been meeting some people from different countries, marauding around with a bunch of shoes on their shoulders, but in reality they sell to you herbs supposedly to boost your manhood and give you childbirth. You know them,”
“They carry shoes but when you count them you find that it is the same number of shoes. Those people are not good people. You know them? Those people who wear a piece of cloth,” Lt. Col Higiro asked the locals without mentioning the word ‘Aba Maasai’ as they are commonly known.
He urged residents and locals to report them, reiterating that security organs will deal with them, pointing out that they cannot be allowed to hawk goods freely when Rwandans are not allowed to do the same. The army official said that the Maasai hawkers will require proper travel and trade documents to operate legally in the country.
Lt. Col Higiro said that security organs are aware that the shoe vending is a cover up for other illegal businesses mainly relating to sexual enhancement and fertility drugs, emphasizing that in doing so they rip off their unsuspecting customers by selling them the said portions.
Rwanda also tightly regulates the sale and advertisement of herbal or traditional medicine which have to be approved by the Rwanda Food and Drug Authority (Rwanda FDA) before they are allowed on the market.
The video which was first posted by a local media house has drawn a social media debate on the issue, with many indeed asking why the Maasai hawkers seem to have ‘immunity’ to hawk goods, something the majority attributed to stereotypes and misconceptions around the renowned Maasai shoe sellers.
In one of the restaurants in town frequented by Maasai hawkers, a waiter told KT Press that they are feared, which is why they can easily walk into any premises without any implications.
“They say when you chase them, they can bewitch you or send bad omen towards you. They normally don’t talk. They just walk in and go around looking for clients and they go out,” Bonaventure Iyamuremye, a waiter in the said restaurant said, adding that in some cases people buy out of fear so that they don’t cast a spell on them.
The stereotype is reinforced by several unverifiable stories around the Maasai shoe hawkers, including an alleged incident in downtown Nyabugogo, where a Maasai hawker was reportedly arrested and put in a Police truck and it could not move due to witchcraft. It is alleged when he was set free, the Police pick up moved again.
A video that surfaced on social media at the time showed a police vehicle surrounded by a noisy crowd with a Maasai shoe hawker on top. Some disputed the story.