One of my most interesting Christmases was in Togo in Africa. I had just begun my service as a volunteer in Africa. I had finished training with other volunteers one month earlier. We had been living in Togo for about four months when it was Christmas.
Christmas came at a good time because I had been feeling very isolated for the last month. During training I was able to talk to other Americans every day, but after training I was the only American in my village. Because it was December, many of the volunteers in nearby villages had gone home. This meant I had not seen any other Americans or spoken English for about a month. I was really starting to feel the stress of living in another country.
We decided to hold a Christmas party at the house of a volunteer who worked in a city. We did this for two reasons. The first is that city volunteers usually had houses with electricity and running water. Volunteers who lived in small villages, like me, usually did not have electricity or running water. The second is that volunteers in cities usually had larger houses than volunteers in the countryside.
We went to a volunteer’s house in the city of Mango. Mango is called Mango because there are many mango farms there. The climate of the region is very dry but Mango has a big lake so it can produce many mangos. The lake is supposed to have hippopotamuses, but I did not see any during my visit.
This Christmas felt very strange. In my hometown we usually have a lot of snow for Christmas, but in Togo there was no snow and the weather was very hot. I think this was the first time I ever experienced Christmas in a warm climate.
We bought a small tree and decorated it to create a makeshift Christmas tree and made our own decorations. Three of the volunteers, including me, were not Christian, we were Jewish. A Jewish holiday near Christmas is Hanukah. For Hanukah we light candles in a special candleholder called a menorah. We did not have a menorah so we made a menorah from a yam.
For Christmas we had a Secret Santa. A Secret Santa is where everybody buys a small gift. For our Secret Santa, everybody bought an inexpensive gift. We put the gifts in the center of the room. Each gift was given a number. Then we wrote the numbers on pieces of paper and put them in a hat. People drew the numbers from the hat at random. Whatever your number was, you got the matching present.
I actually don’t remember what we ate because it was about 15 years ago. I think it was probably goat meat and chicken or guinea fowl, a small African bird. I do remember we sang Christmas carols after dinner and also played drinking games.
The holiday really helped me feel more relaxed after a very stressful month. When living in a culture, which is very different from your own, it is important to find ways to reduce your stress level. Finding a way to do things that you would usually do in your own country is a wonderful way to help you feel more comfortable in another culture.
service (n) – work done for your country, government, etc.
isolated (adj.) – alone and not having help or support from other people
running water (n) – water that comes into a building through pipes
climate (n) – the weather conditions that an area usually has
makeshift (adj.) – temporary; used in the absence of the proper thing
draw (v) – to take something out of somewhere