By Theodore Hodge
|Dr. Togba-Nah Tipoteh|
Something has puzzled me for a very long time, and perhaps the time has come to share my thoughts with you in this very public manner. Let’s pose some relevant questions: Is it acceptable for a man to build a popular and grandiose legacy on an outright falsehood? Is it worth the deception, just to receive the accolades and praise, knowing that what is attributed to one is in fact a lie? How far must one be willing to go in encouraging the praise singers who call him a “great hero” over and over again? When we bask in glory while others sing and dance in false honor, ignoring the substance of reality, there lurks a danger… the danger of building a false legacy.
Such is the case with Dr. Togbah Nah Tipoteh and his claim to being the inventor or creator (perhaps designer is a better word), of the so-called “Tipoteh Shoes”. Before going any further, for the sake of truth and earnestness, I must admit that I have never heard Dr. Tipoteh himself make such a claim directly. But the claim has been made over and over by his mentees, cronies and praise singers. Over the last several weeks, as Dr. Tipoteh has reached the milestone of his 75th birth anniversary, the false claim has grown louder and bolder. What is striking to me is that I have yet to hear or read any correction, or disclaimer, by Dr. Tipoteh or anybody else, to set the record straight. Here, I shall attempt to do so; bear with me.
What many erroneously refer to as the “Tipoteh Shoes” is a North Vietnamese invention. Commonly called the “dep lop”, roughly translated as “tire rubber sandals”. We shall trace its history a bit more fully as the article continues.
There is a familiar saying: “Necessity is the mother of invention”. This truism could not be more applicable to the scenario under discussion. Here’s the story of the dep lop: During the Indochina and later the Vietnam War… (Vietnam used to be part of a land mass referred to as Indochina; it included Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, West Malaysia and Burma… They fought the French and won in the 1950s before the USA started a war against North Vietnam, commonly referred to as the Vietnam War)).
During these wars, there arose a great and practical need for army boots for the soldiers and shoes for the North Vietnamese peasants. In substitution for army boots and regular shoes, they began to wear sandals made from old car and truck tires. According to the story, these sandals were “cheap, easy to make, water-resistant and super durable.”
The footwear scored high on the practical scale: affordability, effectiveness and simplicity. The soldiers found the sandals most useful because they allowed the feet to stay dry, thereby preventing jungle rot, as is the case with Western-styled boots worn in terrain where a there is a lot of rainfall.
Here is the kicker: The sandals were made even more popular and appealing because they were worn by Ho Chi Minh, iconic guerilla leader who later became President of North Vietnam. The Americans who observed the amazing phenomenon in the making, took to referring to the sandals as Ho Chi Minh Sandals, hence its popular name in Vietnam and abroad. Two points are essential here; first the timeline: This phenomenon, the wearing of these popular sandals occurred from the late 1940s, during the French-Indochina War, straight on through the 1950s when the Vietnam War began, through the 1960s and early 1970s when the Vietnam War finally ended.
The second essential point is a brief history of the iconic figure known as Ho Chi Minh. He was born in 1890 and died September 2, 1969. Originally known as Nguyen Sinh Cung, he was the founder of the Indo-China Communist Party, during the French Indo-China War. Eventually, North Vietnam declared its independence and officially became the Democratic Republic of Vietnam; Ho Chi Minh became its first president from 1945 until his death in 1969.
Here is what Encyclopedia Britannica had to say about him: “As the leader of the Vietnamese nationalist movement for nearly three decades, Ho Chi Minh was one of the prime movers of the post-World War II anticolonial movement in Asia and one of the most influential communist leaders of the 20th century…”
The reason I stress the timeline of the Vietnam War and the history of Ho Chi Minh is to demonstrate that it is impossible for Dr. Togbah Nah Tipoteh to claim he had never heard of this iconic Communist and world leader. Commonsense will tell us that he was aware of the Vietnam War which was the most important topic of political discourse during the time of his studies in the United States.
It would also be farfetched to conclude that Dr. Tipoteh did not have admiration for this great Third World and communist leader. After all, was Dr. Tipoteh himself not once branded a communist in Liberia, especially during the trial of H. B. Fahnbulleh, Sr? We will recall from history that he and his erstwhile academic colleagues were known openly to be communist sympathizers. Fair to say?
Then how come he didn’t know that the rubber tire sandals existed someplace else, and served practical national purposes before he adopted the fashion in Liberia? This raises a lot of ethical questions and exposes the insecurities of this phantom economist. This great man, in my opinion, imagines and embraces greatness but fails to demonstrate it when the occasion calls for it.
Why didn’t he state for the public record: “Look, I did not invent or design this footwear; Ho Chi Minh gets that credit… The Vietnamese used these sandals for practical purposes… And I only adopted them to make a fashion statement; no more, no less…” Instead, he accepted the false glory to have the sandals named in his honor. That’s disingenuous at best.
There are those who will consider me obnoxious for even raising this question; I owe no apologies because this is not a personal attack. I did not simply wake up and decided to rain on Dr. Tpoteh’s parade. I do not know him personally and have not met him, therefore, I have no reason to bear a personal grudge. As a matter of fact, I used to have great admiration and respect for him. As I’ve already stated elsewhere, this is a matter of setting the record straight and challenging false claims.
Right now as I compose this article, these sandals, referred to as dep lop or Ho Chi Minh sandals are considered a national cultural treasure in Vietnam and are proudly displayed in a museum dedicated to Ho Chi Minh. Additionally, there are craftsmen who still work hard to keep producing these sandals on a daily basis. There is a gentleman, perhaps in his mid-seventies now, who has dedicated his life to making these sandals available. They even have a website where the sandals could be ordered by anyone who desires a pair.
Now, can we say the same about Liberia? Is there such an industry or factory, or any dedicated craftsmen as is the case in Vietnam? Is there a museum in Liberia for this product? The obvious answer is no, and we know the reason why. Let’s quit kidding ourselves, folks.
For the record, we have a due responsibility to check and expose such intellectual dishonesty. In this era of intellectual property wars, full disclosure is necessary, to protect one’s own integrity. To treat such matters with reckless abandon is to risk exposure and costly backtracking and late disclaimers.
What I’ll like to see, going forth, is a credible explanation as to why we should continue to buy into this bogus claim to fame. If, on the other hand, Dr. Tipoteh could put up a statement, or a disclaimer, renouncing this unfounded claim, I shall be content; but I’m not holding my breath. Perhaps he’s content to have this grandiose legacy bestowed on him. After all, every great hero deserves great legacy; if you haven’t lived one, make one up; that seems to be the underlying motive here.