As a college student I spent a year in Senegal, West Africa teaching ESL. After two months I was sure the worst of my homesickness had dissipated. But as the holidays drew near and I contemplated celebrating Christmas – Jesus’ birthday – in a Muslim country, the heaviness in the pit of my stomach returned. It was to be my first Christmas away from home.
My solitary celebration had a rocky start. Outside my window, a sad little string of white lights hung in a baobab tree. In the attic of the teacher’s quarters, I found a tired old plastic tree. It had a depressing layer of dust, which I cleaned by putting the whole thing in the bathtub and stomping the branches like grapes in a wine vat. Someone had dropped the bag of ornaments and shattered them, so I strung up some popcorn and paper chains.
Once the tree was up, I went to the Supermarche to pick up ingredients for cookie baking: Someone had hanged a plastic Father Christmas by the neck over the store’s entrance. Fa-la-la-la-la.
Wandering the aisles, I tried not to think about the holiday feast my mother was preparing. What am I going to make for Christmas this year? I spotted large sacks of oranges in one corner of the store, and grabbed one, not quite knowing what I was going to do with it. Christmas tree ornaments, maybe?
On the steps outside the store I found “Smiley Joe,” one of the beggars I regularly encountered. Leprosy had deprived him of his feet and most of his fingers, but his smile radiated genuine warmth. We always greeted one another, though we were unable to communicate further. I had only recently started French lessons, and he spoke no English at all.
Joe’s greeting was always the same – “Cadeau, madame?” (Got a gift for me, lady?) As I reached into my handbag for some change, I noticed his gaze wander to the oranges, then back at me. “Would you like an orange, Joe?” I asked him. Handing him a whole orange wouldn’t work – without fingers, he couldn’t peel the fruit. So I sat next to him on the steps, intending to peel the fruit and hand him segments one at a time.
Joe had other ideas. He pulled his arms up inside his sleeves, then pointed his chin at me. Me first.
“Okay.” I put a bit of orange in my mouth, smiled, and then handed him a piece. His eyes closed blissfully as the fruit hit his tongue. “Mmmmm.”
I gave him another piece. “Mmmmmmmm,” he said again.
I was so focused with what I was doing that I hadn’t noticed the swarm of children gathering around us. On Saturdays the streets of Dakar are full of school-age children waiting for cars to stop at the lights, to beg for small coins. Now a dozen street urchins had gathered around Joe and me, watching intently as each segment disappeared into Joe’s mouth.
Finally, one small boy worked up his nerve to approach me directly. “Cadeau, Madame?” he said, pointing to the oranges. “Cadeau por moi?” I reached inside the bag and handed the boy an orange.
Bingo. The other children pounced. “Cadeau? … Cadeau? … Cadeau?” Each child grabbed an orange out of my hand then ran up the street to yell about his good fortune, sending still more kids scurrying toward us for their own prize. In minutes the entire bag of oranges was gone, and a sea of little hands continued to reach toward me. “Cadeau? Cadeau?”
There were no more oranges, and I was a bit nervous that a riot might break out, so I pushed my way to the car, putting small coins in a few hands as I pulled out onto the street.
All the way home, I couldn’t get the image of Joe and the children out of my head. I had been feeling sorry for myself. Not anymore. Back at school, I got out a sheet of air mail stationary and wrote a Christmas letter home.
This Christmas has been nothing like Christmases past. No tinsel or lights on the tree. Mom’s gingerbread will have to wait till next year (they don’t sell shortening here). You can go for miles without hearing a single rendition of “Jingle Bells” or “Silent Night.”
Even so, I am thankful. I had anticipated that this year was going to be about my working with kids and sharing music with other people. But I am taking away much more than I could possibly have given. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for your love and support. This year I have been given the greatest gift imaginable – the chance to learn what’s really important.
I wish I could say that with each passing year, my African Christmas gave me an unshakable sense of gratitude for all the people in my life. Sadly, that wouldn’t be true. There are always one or two people I find difficult to love, people that quite frankly I’d be only too happy to give a one-way ticket to Senegal. It certainly would make my Christmas a whole lot brighter.
And yet, that encounter with Smiley Joe taught me that the secret to a happy life is in the ability to find joy, even despite our immediate circumstances, despite the individuals who seem determined to make us miserable. However, no one – no matter how difficult, rude, or broken – can steal our joy without our permission.
This year, how are you going to extend a “peace orange” to a broken person in your life?
Copyright 2010 Heidi Hess Saxton