It was the night before Christmas in Ghana and I was very sad because my family life had been severely disrupted and I was sure that Christmas would never come. There was none of the usual joy and anticipation that I always felt during the Christmas season. I was eight years old, but in the past few months, I had grown a great deal.
Before this year, I thought Christmas in my Ghanaian village came with many things. Christmas had always been for me one of the joyous religious festivals. It was the time for beautiful Christmas music on the streets, on radio, on television and everywhere. Christmas had always been a religious celebration and the church started preparing way back in November. We really felt that we were preparing for the birth of the baby Jesus. Christmas was the time when relatives and friends visited each other so there were always people travelling and visiting with great joy from all the different ethnic groups. I always thought that was what Christmas was all about. Oh, how I wished I had some of the traditional food consumed at the Christmas Eve dinner and the Christmas Day dinner. I remembered the taste of rice, chicken, goat, lamb, and fruits of various kinds. The houses were always decorated with beautiful paper ornaments. The children and all the young people loved to make and decorate their homes and schools with colourful crepe paper.
All of us looked forward to the Christmas Eve Service at our church. After the service, there would be a joyous possession through the streets. Everyone would be in a gala mood with local musicians in a Mardi Gras mood. Then on Christmas Day, we all went back to church to read the scriptures and sing carols to remind us of the meaning of the blessed birth of the baby Jesus. We always thought that these were the things that meant Christmas. After the Christmas service young people received gifts of special chocolate, special cookies and special crackers. Young people were told that the gifts come from Father Christmas, and this always meant Christmas for us. They also received new clothes and perhaps new pairs of shoes. Meanwhile, throughout the celebration, everyone was greeted with the special greeting, “Afishapa,” the Akan word meaning “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.” Oh, how I wish that those memories were real tonight in order to bring us Christmas.
However, this Christmas Eve things were different and I knew Christmas would never come. Everyone was sad and desperate because of what happened last April when the so-called Army of Liberation attacked our village and took all the young boys and girls away. Families were separated and some were murdered. We were forced to march and walk for many miles without food. We were often hungry and we were given very little food. The soldiers burned everything in our village and during our forced march we lost all sense of time and place.
Miraculously, we were able to get away from the soldiers during one rainy night. After several weeks in the tropical forest, we made our way back to our burned-out village. Most of us were sick, exhausted, and depressed. Most of the members of our families were nowhere to be found. We had no idea what day or time it was.
This was the situation until my sick grandmother noticed the reddish and yellow flower we call “Fire on the Mountain” blooming in the middle of the marketplace where the tree had stood for generations and had bloomed for generations at Christmas time. For some reason it had survived the fire that had engulfed the marketplace. I remembered how the nectar from this beautiful flower had always attracted insects making them drowsy enough to fall to the ground to become food for crows and lizards. We were surprised that the fire that the soldiers had started to burn the marketplace and the village did not destroy the “Fire on the Mountain” tree. What a miracle it was. Grandmother told us that it was almost Christmas because the flower was blooming. As far as she could remember, this only occurred at Christmas time. My spirits were lifted perhaps for a few minutes as I saw the flower. Soon I became sad again. How could Christmas come without my parents and my village?
How could this be Christmas time when we celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace because since April we have not known any peace, only war and suffering? How could we celebrate as grandmother instructed us to do before she died? Those were the last words she spoke before she died last night. As I continued to think about past joyous Christmases and the present suffering, we heard the horn of a car and not just one horn but several cars approaching our village. At first, we thought they were cars full of men with machine guns so we hid in the forest. To our surprise, they were not soldiers and they did not have guns. They were just ordinary travellers. It seemed the bridge over the river near our village had been destroyed last April as the soldiers left our village. Since it was almost dusk and there were rumours that there were land mines on the roads, they did not want to take any chances. Their detour had led them straight to our village.
When they saw us they were shocked and horrified at the suffering and the devastation all around us. Many of these travellers began to cry. They confirmed that tonight was really Christmas Eve. All of them were on their way to their villages to celebrate Christmas with family and friends. Now circumstances had brought them to our village at this time on this night before Christmas. They shared the little food they had with us. They even helped us to build a fire in the centre of the marketplace to keep us warm. In the middle of all this, my oldest sister became ill and could not stand up. A short time after we returned to our village my grandmother told me that my oldest sister was expecting a baby. My sister had been in a state of shock and speechless since we all escaped from the soldiers.
I was so afraid for my sister because we did not have any medical supplies and we were not near a hospital. Some of the travellers and the villagers removed their shirts and clothes to make a bed for my sister to lie near the fire we had made. On that fateful night, my sister gave birth to a beautiful baby boy. This called for a celebration, war or no war. Africans have to dance and we celebrated until the rooster crowed at 6 a.m. We sang Christmas songs. Everyone sang in his or her own language. For the first time, all the pain and agony of the past few months went away. When morning finally came my sister was asked, “What are you going to name the baby?” Would you believe for the first time since our village was burned and all the young girls and boys were taken away, she spoke? She said, “His name is “Gye Nyame,” which means “Except God, I fear none.”
And so we celebrated Christmas that night. Christmas really did come to our village that night, but it did not come in the cars or with the travellers. It came in the birth of my nephew in the midst of our suffering. We saw hope in what this little child could do. This birth turned out to be the universal story of how bad things turned into universal hope, the hope we found in the Baby Jesus. A miracle occurred that night before Christmas and all of a sudden I knew we were not alone any more. Now I knew there was hope and I had learned that Christmas comes in spite of all circumstances. Christmas is always within us all. Christmas came even to our Ghanaian village that night.
This story was adapted from Peter E. Adotey Addo’s A Night Before Christmas.