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It started while I was thinking of gift ideas for my friends here. As I mentioned in my last post, very few people here celebrate Christmas, but there is a handful of people for which I am shopping.

Several of them are locals, and let me tell you something. If you think shopping for that cousin you barely know is a challenge, wait until you try to shop for someone from a completely different culture. Wandering the mud-caked aisles of the African market and looking for Christmas gifts is truly a unique experience.

I began by trying to compile a list of substitutes for things I would purchase as gifts in the States. It looked something like this:

Christmas sweater – African cloth

household appliances – plastic bucket

Whitman’s Sampler – can of sardines

washing machine – plastic bucket

Christmas card – cellphone recharge card

kitchen utensils – plastic bucket


Needless to say, my options are limited.

In the midst of my mad dash to find some way of showing people that I care, I was given a very tangible reminder. It came in the way of an old man from a little village out in the bush. We will call him Marvin. (If for no other reason, because you will not be able to pronounce his name.)

Marvin is a tiny little man who comes just up to my shoulders. He looks to be as old as the dirt under his feet and has a face that resembles a catcher’s mitt. His skin is dark, leathery and full of wrinkles. Despite his lack of teeth in key places, he has an unending smile. But it is not just any smile, it is the contagious kind. Rarely can someone be around him without coming down with a case of laughter or, at minimum, a lightened spirit.

He and my supervisor have known each other for a very long time and they have developed quite a friendship. So, it was no surprise the other day to see him sitting under our mango tree in his little boubou and fez. He comes by here periodically for no other reason than to say hello. What you may find surprising is his method of transportation. This little man rides a bicycle.

To say that his trip into town to see my supervisor is a long one would be an understatement. By four wheel drive truck, it takes me over an hour to get to his village. The dirt roads are indescribably bad, and I think Lance Armstrong would have trouble hoofing himself up and down these rocky paths. Yet, this little man will set out on his bicycle (which is a far cry from Lance’s) around dawn to make the trip.

As I sat there watching Marvin and my supervisor chat away, it finally sank in. Marvin had a gift to give his friend, and it was far more valuable than a bag of oranges or a chicken.

The gift was his time.

In a culture where material things are rare, and the means to get them rarer still, it is often the intangible gifts that are given. Perhaps it is easier to see the real value of ideals like time, respect, honor, and service when your worldview is not clouded with gadgets, gizmos and stocking stuffers.

That day under that mango tree, Marvin gave an expensive gift. However, he did not pay for it in franc, he paid for it with his time.

America is a world where time is money, and often, people would rather part with a dollar than a minute. Could it be that we have replaced the real value of a gift, the sacrifice of the giver, with the convenience of buying some knick-knack?

Look back in life. My guess is the things that you hold most dear probably cannot be wrapped up in a box. It may be the love of a mother who lost sleep because you were sick or a father who sacrificed a position on the corporate ladder to spend his extra time being your ball coach.

All gifts are not created equal. A gift’s true value is measured in its sacrifice.

Take the example of the gift we all celebrate during this season. No greater sacrifice has been given. Be thankful for the real “expensive” gifts and if you want to show someone you care, give them a gift that matters.



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