The African sun is hardly over the horizon but my eyes burst open as the familiar tick of the ceiling fan and the chirping crescendo of weaverbirds greet my ears. I peek my head up and peer through the holes in the screen window above my bed – Christmas day has finally arrived and my nine-year-old mind is awash with expectation.

The cool cement floor greets my bare feet as I slip off the covers and tiptoe past the sleeping forms of my sisters. I can hardly hold it in – the anticipation of what awaits me in the living room is almost too much to bear. I let out a little giggle. Shhhhh. I hope no one heard me. As I cross the threshold a gasp escapes my lips.

The living room, with its mismatched porch furniture and rough cement floor is, I am sure, second in beauty only to the Taj Mahal. The circus-like flashing that exudes from the colored lights strung haphazardly around the artificial tree nestled in the corner gives the room an ethereal look. And the pile of presents is so full and huge, the tree is dwarfed in comparison.

Later, joined by the five groggy, stumbling countenances that make up my family, the festivities begin. “Oh, Mom it’s just right!” “That must have taken you forever to make!” Ooohs and Aaahs. Hours of hard labor and determination, proudly, lovingly, given away. Each gift crafted with our own hands: a peg board for hanging spools of thread for mom from my sister, a stuffed shirt with an attached head for my brother labeled “The little brother you can beat up on instead of it being me.”

As the gifts under the tree begin to disappear, I see it! It is wrapped in a panya, a piece of material women use as wraps, of the most beautiful shades of purple and pink, like luscious candy to a little girl’s eyes. And inside is a doll, my doll! It is a newborn, you know the kind with the plastic heads and arms but squishy middles: exactly what I have always hoped for. It is a treasure they have brought with care all the way from America, that land that is so distant and unreal.

As I cradle the doll in my arms, I glance through the front window and see the dark silhouettes of my three friends hanging playfully on the rope swing. Their callous bare feet are barely visible through the dust they stir as they chase each other. I can see Madi pushing her younger sister, Colo in the swing while her small brother nestles close on her back, secured by a faded panya, the colors that were once brilliant are now barely recognizable. Their playful chatter drifts in on the breeze and compels me to join them.

Suddenly, I have a revelation. Eager to share my newfound treasure, I mimic movements I have seen from Madi, flip my precious cargo behind me and reach for my new panya. I want to be just like Madi and the grown-up ladies who carry real babies on their backs. As I look up, I see the deep brown eyes of my sister’s friend, Salome, meet mine.

Her eyes dance with laughter at the ridiculous sight of this small white girl struggling to tie an equally as white plastic doll on her back. “Do you want me to show you how?” She asks, a compassionate grin playing at her lips.

As she demonstrates the exact technique, I grow more and more proud of this new and most precious gift. I will blend in, with my doll on my back; I will look like everyone else.

So I waltz out excitedly bearing my burden, preparing myself for the ready approval that is sure to come. The trio stops playing, Colo and her swing drift slowly to a halt as Madi comes bounding over to me. She smiles. I smile back. She chatters excitedly to me as she turns me around and examines my bundle. I can’t understand her; her language is as foreign to me as mine is to them. But we are still friends; we don’t need language, just smiles and gestures and an ever expanding and stammering vocabulary of the other’s native tongue.

So I crane my neck to watch her, expecting the quiet approval and instant bond that a gesture like this is sure to produce. I watch her as she smiles, watch her as she calls her sister over, watch them as their bright white smiles spread to their eyes and then to their throats as they laugh their vibrant laughs. Then Madi reaches for my doll, for the round plastic ball-head that is the only visible evidence of its presence. It isn’t that she’s mocking me, this I know for certain; she is curious. She feels the plastic hair and the droopy eyelids. She pokes and prods then squeezes its head, forming a dent and causing them to laugh all the harder.

I laugh with them, while inside my heart sinks. It’s a doll – can’t they see the sheer magic that dances in her eyes? Can’t they know how amazing it is to hold and dress and feed this tiny plastic child?

So we laugh and we play and all the while I hope. I hope that somehow these two worlds that seem so far apart, these two worlds that have only recently collided, could somehow fuse. I wish that I could understand them and they could understand me. And then I could kick off my shoes and run through the dusty fields with them while they play with my doll and swing on my swing. And then they would understand what a doll is and I would understand what is so very funny. And as we play together, our worlds would be woven together into a beautiful patchwork quilt of chocolates and creams.

And I can almost see it now in my head – that beautifully colored quilt woven with memories not yet spun, spread out on the grassy African Savannah as the bright orange ball of sun sinks silently out of view.


©2003 Thrive

View the original print magazine where this article was first published.