Without snow, Em insisted on a green Christmas. She laced her hiking boots, left her family at the city hotel and followed her guidebook's thumbnail map to the bus station.
A wavering finger pointed her to a strip of pavement on the far side of the parking lot. She sat on her daypack reading Aldo Leopold as the sun climbed the horizon. A pool of sweat formed in the small of her back. She thought of Mercy's parting words: "You're camping on X-Mas? Such a white thing to do."
It was afternoon when the bus arrived. Dozens of women and children had gathered around her. It was unmarked and stopped on the other side of the lot, where she'd received direction. She ran after the charging crowd and clambered aboard behind them. It was big as an Acadian Liner, but the air conditioning was broken and people stood in the aisles once the seats filled. Still the bus idled, awaiting more bodies.
Em arrived at Xofa Eco-Village, a 60- minute walk through the forest from the main road, in the dark. The moon illuminated scattered clay huts. "Hello?" her voice cracked. She'd read Leopold's entire landscape and barely spoken all day.
"Hello!" someone shouted from inside a hut. A boy emerged and saluted, scout-style. "You are welcome. I'm Prince."
A younger girl and slightly older dreadlocked boy joined them: Julia and Bongo. They led Em to the empty camping area. The boys played her local beats on a hand-carved drum. Bongo sang raspy off-key Ewe melodies and banged a cowbell with little resonance. He occasionally shouted, "Shake your bot-tles!"
"You try," Prince barked. He gave her a demo of the complicated 10-beat borborbor.
She hopelessly went through the motions. Prince and Julia slapped their knees and fell off their benches while Bongo clapped her on the shoulders. "You're trying!"
She surrendered the drum, sang "Silent Night" and winced back tears when she reached the "sleep in heavenly peace" refrain. Uncle Logan's voice possessed her as it had last year, when they sang together on Christmas Day, on his deathbed.
Julia looked bored but the boys wailed, "More!" Longing to swim naked under African stars, Em yawned them away.
Prince woke her at sunrise. "X-Mas Feast! Tonight!" he shouted.
She dressed and followed him to a nearby village. Two old men saw the Christmas white and stumbled to her. She smelled the palm wine as they shook her and pulled at her, grinning and shouting, "Dance!"
She shook her head and smiled, inwardly cursing her parents for this foolish African Christmas. Fleeing tradition was no response to tragedy.
She sat on a bench and watched drunken men jerking their bodies like horny roosters. "It's X-Mas yeah mon! Dance!"
Why did Ghanaians always pronounce it X-Mas? She felt something slip into her hand: a gourd of palm wine. It tasted like sweetened vinegar. A young man poured some on the ground for the ancestors. She thanked him.
Another old man brought a Sprite bottle of hard spirits and poured her a glass. "You are welcome!" he said.
Em wondered where the women were. She downed a shot, which sucked the mucous from her brain and throat.
A small boy brought her European beer. She refused; their herding and farming didn't even afford them basic medicines. They insisted. She sipped at the bottle until the most wrinkled man yet, shakily supported by his cane, joined the growing circle. Em offered him the beer.
"Oh!" he cried, holding it aloft. "Allelujah-amen!" He quaffed it in a gulp. "It's X-Mas! This is how we celebrate, yeah mon!"
Prince took her hand and they waved goodbye. He led her through another forest path toward deafening music and shouting. Five hundred children welcomed her, chanting, "White man give me money!"
Em danced for them instead. They became a bubbling mass of jumping screaming joy. "Yes! Rock star," she said.
A sharp hand dragged her toward a giant circle of dancing adults. "You are doing a wonderful thing," the woman said, grinning.
"We should go; getting dark," Prince cautioned.
The children followed them to the village edge, still asking for money. "You give me money!" Em joked.
They pouted, having none to give.
Em frowned and waved. She returned to her tent and settled in to wait for her X-Mas Feast: rice and tomatoes.
Chris Benjamin is The Coast's Sustainable City columnist and author of Canada Reads longlisted Drive-by Saviours, which looks great under your tree or nightlight.
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