It was Christmas Eve of 1970, and it was looking like this was going to be my first Christmas alone. I was in Togo, a small country in West Africa, doing a two-year stint in the Peace Corps. More precisely, I was in the far northern reaches of Togo, in a small village called Dapango (now called Dapaong), just below the border of Burkina-Faso, which was at that time called Upper Volta.
And even more precisely, I was sitting on a bamboo stool in Chez Mamadou, a ramshackle, little tin-roofed bar in Dapango, sipping on my second lukewarm Biere Benin. Biere Benin, known affectionately to the locals as BBs (pronounced Bay-Bay), was the national beer of Togo, the only bottled beer available in the country, and came in full liter bottles.
It was a holdover, as I understood it, from the old German colonial days. The Germans had built the brewery because they couldn’t stand the native beer which was made from sorghum or millet and was sold in the local markets. It was kind of sweet and as thick as thin soup, but I personally grew to like it. Called tchoukoutou, the market ladies carried it many kilometers into town in huge clay pots balanced on their heads, and they ladled it out generously into cut-in-half gourds. The serving cost less than a nickel, was a great thirst quencher and could give a pretty decent beer buzz—particularly in the morning. And I always heard it was nutritious too. Or maybe I made that up.
But back to my barstool at Chez Mamadou’s and the Biere Benin. It was a respectable lager and pretty darned good beer its own self when it was cold, but at Chez Mamadou, it never was. Mamadou had an old kerosene refrigerator that made a lot of noise and belched a lot of fumes but never did much to lower the temperature of the beer. Although he took some little pride in the fact that his beer was ‘jamais chaud’—never hot. I could grudgingly allow that that was true. The fridge was at least always in the shade, so that helped. It was colder than at Madame Fahti’s establishment, his only saloon rival. And I never failed to compliment him on that.
But I was, as I say, on my second Biere Benin and rounding a hard corner towards the third on account of I was indulging in some pretty monumental self-pity. The sad story was that I had not been in country long and my French was still a little rudimentary at the time, so I really did not have many friends or allies with whom I could hang. My only real friend, Connie, the other American in the village, a nurse at the local ‘hospital’, had gone down to the capital, Lomé, to pick up her mother and try to usher her back up country. It was an arduous trip of a little over 300 miles, a full two-day adventure that required a day on a rickety train and then another full day in an open bus. But she had left Dapango over a week ago and the deal was that she and her mother were due back tonight. And I had all my Christmas eggs in that basket.
Well, I had met the bus that night, and they weren’t on it! And it wasn’t like there would be another bus later. Or even tomorrow. This bus only came twice a week, and it was pretty much the only way to get to Dapango.
And it wasn’t like they could call and tell me where they were as there was only one telephone in the whole blasted village. That was in the post office, and you needed to make an appointment weeks in advance to get to use it. And exactly what number would I call??
And it wasn’t as if they could send me a letter to adjust our plan as the bus was also the mail truck. And I had already checked and there wasn’t no mail for me.
No, there was no getting around it. I was alone for Christmas. The only living white boy in Dapango. And it was HOT. And DRY. The Sahara isn’t too far to the north, and the desert had been working its way south for decades now. Its winds blew down and kicked up the dust and spread it all around. I had never been in a place that was this HOT and this DRY, certainly not in late December. And to tell you the truth, I’m not sure I knew that there was such a place on Earth.
Additionally, I had never contemplated being alone on Christmas Eve. Never crossed my mind. The fact that it had never happened before was justification enough to assume that it could not happen. There was a certain sense of entitlement, I suppose, that made me believe that there would always be friends and family, people I knew and loved, around me at this time of year. No matter how reckless I was.
I guess I knew that some people were perhaps alone on Christmas, but those ‘some people’ were never ‘me’. Could never be ‘me’. One could perhaps call it arrogance or egotism or an overblown sense of self. One certainly could have called it that, and one certainly wouldn’t have been wrong.
So that’s how I came to be a forlorn and depressed country boy on the edge of the Sahara, drinking lukewarm BBs, crying silently in my beer and staring at Mamadou’s weather-beaten, vacant face on the night before Christmas in 1970. The sole lantern over the bar was flickering, he was looking to close soon, and I was kind of in the way of that. So I was drinking as fast as I could. Just trying to help out.
It’s a little funny how and where you have moments of realization in Life. Little awakenings, soul stirrings. Epiphanies. Humility, up to that point, had not been my strongest suit, and I was learning that it was an uncomfortable lesson to learn. It was a bitter pill, particularly teamed with loneliness such as it was. It was a crash course, and I was thus far getting a failing grade.
And there’s never a ‘good’ time or place to learn these things, but I reckon Chez Mamadou’s in my 22nd year was as good a time and place as any to start the learning. To my credit, I realized there was nothing more to understand there, so I passed on that third beer, bid my patient innkeeper ‘bon nuit’ and wobbled on out to my motorcycle. And as there was no urgency to get anywhere, I took a long ride on a moonless night.
Now the African Savanna night sky is unlike any other. There is no ground light to compete with the stars and not many trees to get in the way of the horizon, so everything from the waist up is pretty much a sparkling part of the Heavens. Constellations are visible, distances are immense, shooting stars, one after the other, race across the sky, and the silence is deafening. I was starting to feel a flash of insight coming on. Maybe even full enlightenment.
But I was a little drunk, I guess, and I was still mad about that whole ‘alone at Christmas’ thing. So I was probably going too fast and looking up at the stars instead of the road. And there happened to be a sizeable and perhaps problematic rock in the middle of the road. This happened all the time on roads made of rock. One adjusted and went around them. But on this night, of all nights, I didn’t adjust so well.
I recall my bike going one way and me going another. And then there was a period of time in which I don’t recall anything. This probably wasn’t very long, but when I woke up, I was on my back in the middle of the road, staring up at the immense African sky and wondering, as the French so aptly say—“Où suis-je?”
I laid there for a while until my situation came into focus. I recall thinking that even for Christmas Eve, the night of O Holy Night and all, this was an impressive sky. And for me, even though I didn’t know it at the time, it was a portentous moment.
I kind of felt like I’d been sucker punched by the Universe. Slapped silly. I wiggled my fingers and toes, bent my arms and legs and decided nothing was broken. My body itself was battered and bruised but seemed more-or-less functional.
I walked over to my bike and picked it up. The poor thing was also battered and bruised. The handlebars were pretty seriously misaligned, and the headlight didn’t work anymore. But I kicked the starter, and she came right to life. So I got on and we made our slow way back to my little hut on the edge of the village.
The next day, and for several days thereafter, I slept the sleep of the concussed. There was a high-pitched ringing in my left ear that had not been there before. This was troubling, but not debilitating. And as it turned out, it has never gone away. As I say, troubling but not debilitating.
Ah, humility! It is deeply connected to mortality, I think. Things come apart, and we can come apart too. And a lot of the time, it’s our own damn fault.
But humility can be a kind of birth or rebirth also for some of us. The birth of a self not so much in the Center of the Universe. The birth of a self who is a much smaller part of a larger whole. I can say the African Sky taught me a little of that. None of us are very big in comparison to that.
And Christmas is all about rebirth, I reckon. New beginnings. Short days getting longer, that which was diminishing reemerging. A return to more familiar and comfortable rhythms.
And that’s the way it turned out. About the time I had recuperated enough to get out of bed, Connie and her mother showed up on the next bus. We put up a little tree with real candles and exchanged a few presents. We had a nice meal together and celebrated a very nice Christmas. Just a few days late.
And I would wish all of you the same. Sometime during the season.
Warm regards, Uncle Duke