It was Christmas Eve, 1999, and I was sitting on the porch of my house in a small village in Ivory Coast, West Africa. I was a Peace Corps volunteer, and I'd decided to introduce some of my young Muslim friends to Santa Claus. It simultaneously served the Peace Corps goal of sharing cultures and gave me an excuse to spoil them a little by filling up their stockings -- or, in this case, draw-string bags made from local fabric.
In the spirit of "decking the halls," 10-year-old Aboulaye was drawing lions from a guide to African wildlife and I was making a paper chain when, suddenly, the Ivorian national radio station went off the air. Kids passing by from the village store informed us the national TV station was dark, too. I switched my shortwave radio to France Inter, which informed us that Abidjan, the capital city, had been taken in a military coup, and that President Henri Konan Bedie had fled the country with a large share of the national coffers.
Fortunately, living in a village several hours away from the capital meant that life changed little with the news of the coup. This was a Muslim village in the North, and Bedie was a Christian from the South, so folks were generally optimistic and excited. We stayed tuned to the shortwave throughout the evening, even as I answered the kids' questions about Santa, echoing all the stories I'd been told as a child, with slight modifications.
"How does he get to all the children in one night?" asked Amara.
"He drives a magic wagon pulled by gazelles," I answered.
"Does he have any helpers?" wondered Brahima.
"Yes," I said. "They're like pygmies."
I gave each of the kids a slice of banana bread before bed, leaving one out on the table for Santa, and then shuffled them all into the guest room where they piled in a heap and instantly fell into a deep sleep.
Later that night, as people walked down the moonlit main road chanting "Bedie, Voleur! Bedie Au Revoir!" ("Bedie's a thief! So long, Bedie!") I snuck out of my bedroom with the loot I had gathered to fill the kids' stockings. Each got pencils, a pen, an eraser, toothpaste and a toothbrush, a package of cookies, a little plastic toy, a tin of sardines and a few small coins: a token offering tossed into the well of their need.
That next morning taught me the true meaning of Christmas. When I awoke, I heard excited murmurs. I got out of bed to find all five children lined up on the living room couch, staring at their respective bags, but not daring to touch them until I gave permission.
"Kids!" I said. "This is Christmas! Go crazy!"
As they opened their sacks, their eyes got big and they started jumping up and down, exclaiming over the gifts -- gifts that would have been a disappointment to most any American kid.
"Santa Claus came!" said Soro. "And here we thought you didn't believe in spirits."
They chattered at each other in Andoh -- the local dialect -- so fast I couldn't keep up, so Aboulaye turned to me and asked in French, "would it be OK if we shared these with our families?"
"Of course," I said, "but only if you really want to."
We walked over to Aboulaye's courtyard, where he proudly presented the tin of sardines to his mother, the cookies to his little sister, and the toy to his brother. The school supplies he kept, and told his mom he planned to put the money toward a new shirt. The other kids ran off to repeat the ritual with their families.
I may have brought them Christmas, but they taught me what true generosity means.
Eleven years later my thoughts turn again to Ivory Coast as many of the same political players are once again wreaking havoc with the nation. My young friends are now in their mid-20s, and many of them have moved to Abidjan to find work. With the recent elections, the popular candidate of the Muslim people, Alassane Ouattara, was declared the winner, but incumbent Laurent Gbagbo refuses to relinquish power. He is even cutting off food and access to Ouattara and his supporters, holed up in the Golf Hotel in Abidjan. Close to 200 people -- mainly Muslims -- have died in protests.
This Christmas, I'm thinking of my kids, their generosity, and the hope that shone bright in their faces 11 years ago. And I'm praying they don't lose that hope in these dark days.
Marianne Combs is a reporter and producer who covers arts and culture for MPR News. She writes the State of the Arts blog at MPRNews.org.