066: Christmas Stories 5: A Christmas Tree in Africa

MERRY CHRISTMAS! This is the 5th of 7 Christmas stories. Click here to read: Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5. Part 6. Part 7.

AND — if in the year-end rush you missed our earlier Hanukkah Week series, you can jump back to enjoy that here: Part 1 of 5 for Hanukkah.

    On our 5th Day of Christmas, we travel far from the United States for a story by writer Joel Thurtell.

    For several decades, Joel has written in many formats — although he is best known as a regional, roving feature writer for the Detroit Free Press. Joel got hooked on traveling and meeting people, many years ago, during a Peace Corps tour in Africa, which is the setting of today’s Christmas story. His interests now range from restoring antique wooden boats to repairing and operating vintage ham-radio equipment. He also is the author of the definitive book on southeast Michigan’s most important waterway, the Rouge River, due out next year from Wayne State University Press.
    After retiring from the Free Press this autumn, Joel’s love of writing, people and places is spilling over into the online world. He’s just launching a new online series of stories and essays at www.JoelontheRoad.com
    Yes, he’s still married to Karen, now Dr. Karen Fonde, a family physician in southeast Michigan.
    And, yes, this photograph — at right — does show Joel and Karen at the time of this story with Seydou, the young man in the lower left corner of the photo. The woman behind Karen is Seydou’s mother and the two little girls are Seydou’s sisters.

    AND NOW, this holiday gift from writer Joel Thurtell …

A Christmas Tree in Africa

    I think of Seydou’s tree every year in the final countdown to December 25.
    The story is true—as real as the Christmas tree we found in the dry savannah of Africa during Advent, 1973. It was the extraordinary gift of a Muslim boy to his two Christian friends.
    Recently, I was remembering Seydou while my wife, two sons and I were frantically executing our annual quest at the local nursery. You know what I mean—the  perfect-Christmas-tree-at-a-price-we-can-afford search.
    As we checked this year’s stock, straightening trees, standing back to gauge their bare spots, I noticed that many of these all-natural trees had a uniformly dark cast to them. Looking closer, I could see why. The blue-green color wasn’t just confined to the needles, but had been painted onto twigs, branches and trunks.
    I stared at the dark patina of paint and declared, “This is NOT a Christmas tree!”
    The statement, once out of my mouth, had a familiar sound to it. Where had I heard — no, where had I said that before?

    IT WAS ONCE upon a time, quite a few years ago in a country far, far from the chill evergreen farms and Christmas tree sales lots of Michigan. We — my wife, Karen Fonde, and I — were Peace Corps volunteers in Togo, a tiny West African country, a narrow sliver, from the Atlantic to the incredibly hot, dry, windy savannahs that blend into the nation then known as Upper Volta.
    Karen and I were stationed in a big market town called Dapango, in the far north of Togo. She taught health education in public schools and hospitals. I was building a three-room school in an outlying village.
    Seydou Boukari was 13, an amazingly adaptable, inventive kid who was nevertheless flunking out of the rigid, French-style Togolese elementary school he attended.
    In all matters that fell outside the classroom, however, Seydou was an expert. At the height of the dry season, for example, when there had been no rain for six or seven months and most of the residential wells were dry, local authorities occasionally, without announcement, allowed families in our neighborhood to tap water from municipal pumps.
    The faucets were never open long, because the city wells were nearly dry. So, if you missed it, you were out of luck — no water for cooking, bathing, drinking.
    Somehow, Seydou always found out when the pumps were open. He’d come bounding up to our door, rubbing his hand over his head and face slowly in his unique mannerism of pubescent self-consciousness, and proclaim that, if we gave him our buckets, he’d get them filled.

… …


    Joel Thurtell’s story of Seydou has been published and now is available on Amazon. To aid in promotion of the book, we have taken down the full version of Seydou’s Christmas Tree, which readers have enjoyed here since 2007. A fuller version with an array of wonderful photographs now is for sale—in time for the holiday season.

COME BACK on MONDAY for our final Christmas stories.

TELL US WHAT YOU THINK, please. Click on the “Comment” link at the end
of this story online to leave a comment for other readers. Or, you can
always Email me, ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm, by clicking here.

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