My Running Away Shoes

Renuka Jiwa (+Video)


Prepared to follow her heart, a young woman makes a choice that is forbidden by family tradition. Three continents later, love surprises her.


Life in Kenya was beautiful for us. My dad had a clothing store. Once a year, he would order all kinds of shoes. One year, I chose a beautiful pair of white flats decorated with hearts. I called them my “running away shoes”.

It was 1976. I was going to turn nineteen that year. The day before my birthday, we attended special all-night prayers at the temple. Before going, I packed a small suitcase with my clothes. Next to the suitcase were my running away shoes.

My plan was to come home with everyone at 4:30 a.m. and then sneak out of the house, leaving a note on the dining table: “I am truly very sorry, Mom and Dad. I am eloping with my high school sweetheart Mahmood. Forgive me.”

A month earlier, I had asked my parents’ permission to marry and was told by my father that marrying a Muslim was not going to happen. Mahmood had gotten visas to move to Canada and wanted me to go as his spouse.

On the morning of my escape, I crept out of my room only to find both my parents waiting. My legs turned to jelly as my dad yelled, “Go back to your room before I say or do something I may regret later!”

My running away shoes walked me back to my room. My eyes filled with tears. My body was burning with rage.

Mahmood went off to Canada without me. I was locked in my room for a month. Then three months later, my family immigrated, first to London, England, and later to Charlotte, North Carolina. I had no forwarding contact information for Mahmood. I believed I would never see my first love again.

In 1981, on a sunny July morning, Mom and I were in the kitchen making a typical Indian breakfast of puri and potato curry. The phone rang. Mom answered. It was for me.

Someone named Anne was on the other line. I said, “Anne? The only Anne I knew is the lady from Payless Shoes. The red sandals I ordered must have arrived.”

I went to the living room to take the call. The person at the other end wasn’t Anne.

“Hi, Mareli. How are you?” Mareli was Mahmood’s pet name for me.

I screamed, and Mom came running. “What happened?”

I waved her away. “Give me your number,” I whispered. “I’ll call you from a phone booth.”

Three months later, I was waiting anxiously to board my flight to Seattle. From there we would drive to Vancouver. How fast the days had passed by since that call in early July. Even after all those years, we never stopped loving each other.

Once again, Mahmood asked my dad for permission to marry me. He was flat out denied.

“You’re a Muslim,” Dad said and hung up.

Mahmood and I made our plans to marry anyway. Nobody would keep us apart this time. My flight arrived in Seattle at 9:00 p.m. Entering the terminal, I saw Mahmood holding a bouquet of red roses. We hugged and cried. It was unbelievable.

We crossed the Canadian border at midnight. The orange street lights brought back memories of my little town in Kenya where we first met. I looked down at my red sandals. When I ordered them, I had no idea they would be my new running away shoes.

In September 1982, we were blessed with a beautiful daughter. A year and a half later, when I was pregnant with our second daughter, Mahmood was diagnosed with a brain tumour. Four years later, he passed away. Although my running away shoes are long gone, too, these memories will last forever.

Renuka Jiwa raised two daughters who are happily married now and have blessed her with three beautiful grandchildren. She remarried 13 years ago and recently retired after 35 years of service in the business solutions industry. The Shoe Project has inspired her to write a book.

Watch the Performance

More Stories from Vancouver 2022