The jeep jostled over the uneven terrain. Though the tough tires absorbed most of the shocks, I still jumped around in the back seat, my stomach lurching with every bump.
It was late afternoon, and the sun blazed in the blue sky. A slight breeze stirred the tall grass and scrub brush and stunted trees that provided sparse shade, but it did little to combat the sweltering heat. Little moved on this vast plain, and I had spotted no animal life so far. The driver of the jeep, my parents’ good friend Cecil Dzwowa, explained that many animals escaped the heat of the day by hiding in the shade: the land really only came alive at night.
I sighed, wiping sweat from my forehead. A refrain played over and over again in my mind—why, why, why. It was all I could think about. When I had suggested to my geologist parents that we spend winter vacation at home in Connecticut catching up with old friends and playing in the snow, I had not expected an outright refusal. I had not expected to be told that we were spending Christmas thousands of miles from home. And I had certainly not expected to be dragged along on yet another trip to survey rock formations. But that’s what happened.
I had rebelled, like any self-respecting teenager would, but Dad got this annoyed look in his eyes and told me that I could either tag along or stay home alone for the full three weeks. And that, in my opinion, was not an option. I wanted a Christmas, and staying home alone was not the way to get one.
And so that’s how I ended up on this stupid trip. The end.
* * *
We arrived at the village of Mbamano at sunset. Shadows were lengthening, and the shafts of light that penetrated through the trees above us looked golden. Mom and Dad took several photos, and I leaned against the dusty jeep and took a swig of sun-warmed water from my canteen.
The village itself was small, mostly hidden in shadow. It consisted of about fifteen small huts that were scattered around a wide circle in the dust, like planets orbiting the sun.
Cecil led us to one on the fringe of the circle. It was one of the largest huts, with clean, whitewashed walls and a thatched roof. Small windows punctuated the smooth surface at regular intervals, letting light in.
Three beds, no more than cots, really, lay side by side on the floor. Each one was made up with a soft sheet, a pillow, and a netting of mesh to keep the mosquitoes away at night.
Just past the beds, built into an extended recess in the wall, a small toilet and a washbowl with a water pitcher beside it stood at the ready. It wasn’t much, but the homey little hut was a lot less Spartan than what I expected the dwelling to be like.
“Thank you so much!” Mom exclaimed, beaming at Cecil, who flashed one of his rare smiles at her in return.
Dad pushed his glasses up on the bridge of his nose. “Yes, thank you.” Suddenly his face clouded. “But there are only three beds. Where will you sleep?”
Cecil had a quick answer for that. “Oh, I figured that the third bed was for me. Angela can sleep out with the lions tonight.”
Mom and Dad laughed, and Cecil laughed too. I stretched my lips into a fake grin, trying to act as though it didn’t bother me. It did, though. I hated it when adults spoke as though I wasn’t there or teased me about something. Sometimes I wished that all grown-ups were like my parents’ friend Celia Dwyer. She was a writer blessed with a memory that fell back into the distant past. She remembered what it was like to be thirteen—too old to be considered a kid, but too young to be spoken to like an adult. That was why she always talked to me as an equal, not someone to be looked down upon.
When the laughter died down, Cecil spoke again. “I am only kidding, of course. I have arranged to spend the night with a friend who lives here in Mbamano. He has an extra bed, and it is time we caught up anyway. Good night, good friends.”
“Good night to you too, Cecil,” Mom said. He left with a jaunty wave, and the three of us settled down. By the light of a solar-powered lantern, we brushed our teeth and spit our toothpaste into the dirt, rinsing with the water in the washbowl.
When I finished, I settled down in bed, staring up at the white ceiling above me. Anger still smoldered in my chest. Now I was here, ready to be bored beyond my wildest dreams. But at least I could expect to return home soon. Mom and Dad always misjudged the time it would take them to get their work done. We’d likely have a full week back at home to spend any way we wanted.
“Good night, Angela,” Mom said, rustling sheets as she got into bed.
I didn’t say anything. I crossed my arms and pouted. Dad extinguished the light.
“Good night, An,” he said.
I turned over, facing away from him.
Outside, a soft wind blew. The moon rose, and myriad stars twinkled. Peace reigned over all, but I still burned with anger.
“You sure you’ll be OK?” Mom asked worriedly.
“Of course, Mom!” I replied, rolling my eyes.
“It’s just that…” She trailed off, looking at the steadily rising sun.
“Just go!” I flopped down on my cot, making an irritated sound in the back of my throat. I’d rather stay in the hut than let myself be dragged along on another survey.
“OK, but you better have dropped the attitude by the time I get back,” Mom said. She sighed. “There’s food in the blue bag if you need any. Don’t forget to put on some bug spray. We’ll be back by four.”
“Isabel, come on!” Dad called, and Mom left.
I sighed and turned over on the cot. Rummaging through my bag, I pulled out the bug repellent and sprayed myself liberally. Then I grabbed my book and began to read.
I was in the middle of a chapter when something just outside the window caught my eye. I turned, and in a flash it was gone. I continued reading. A few minutes later it popped up again, but when I turned to look at it, it disappeared. Curious, I stood up to investigate.
Poking my head out the window, I found myself face to face with a girl who appeared to be about my age. Her long dark hair was pulled back from her face, and mischief twinkled in her eyes.
“So Cecil was right! There is an American girl staying here in the haunted hut.” She said it quietly, almost to herself, an impish grin plastered on her face.
“Who are you?” I asked rudely.
The girl seemed unperturbed. “Tiwu,” she said casually. “And there’s a spider on your head.”
I whirled around, jumping into the air. Nothing, of course. The girl was laughing. “Got you!” she squealed, climbing through the window. “Come. I’ll show you around.”
She started to walk to the door. When she noticed I wasn’t following her, she turned around. “Well, what are you waiting for?” she asked.
“You to go away,” I muttered under my breath, but I walked after her all the same.
As we walked, Tiwu told me about herself. Her father was Cecil’s friend; that’s how she learned I was here. She had a brother named Edward who was a year older than her. She spoke both Twi and English (“Most of the people here do,” she had said), and she loved animals.
I didn’t say anything. I was annoyed, yes, but also interested. It was hard keeping up the “way-over-it teenager act.” I was tired of pretending, and so I listened. Soon, a bond between Tiwu and I began to form.
“We go to school over there,” Tiwu continued, pointing to a squat building several hundred feet down the dirt path. “We’re very lucky. Many kids have to walk several miles to get here.”
Suddenly, a boy came running out in front of us, chasing a squawking chicken. It swiftly changed direction, heading back the way it had come, and the boy ran after it.
“What. Was. That.” I said.
Tiwu laughed. “That,” she said, “was Edward. He’s practicing.”
“Practicing for what?” I asked.
“Christmas!” Tiwu said, as though the answer was obvious. My confused look must have said it all, because she quickly elaborated.
“It’s a tradition,” explained Tiwu, “that on Christmas, all the kids in the village get together for a contest. Basically, it’s a race to see who can catch a chicken first. The winner gets to roast the chicken and eat it.”
“Sounds… interesting,” I said.
Tiwu laughed again. “It’s fun. You should do it too.”
We spent the next five days before Christmas practicing together. Tiwu showed me how to pick up a chicken and follow its movements in order to catch it. I was clumsy at first, and on my second attempt I scooped up the chicken upside-down, whereupon my fingers slipped and it ran away clucking at the top of its lungs. But after a few days, I could successfully corner one of the birds and, on most occasions, pick it up as it tried to maneuver around me.
In the interim between practice, when it got too hot to do much else, Tiwu and I sat in the shade beside the well and talked. We had formed a quick and easy friendship and fit together quite nicely. Tiwu had introduced me to the other children living in Mbamano, but with none of them had I created as tight a bond.
I was enjoying myself, that was clear to see, and I almost felt slightly guilty that I had wanted to stay home in Connecticut for winter break instead of discovering a newfound friendship.
Christmas snuck up on me, which was unusual, as I almost always expect it the moment before it happens upon me. I woke up one morning, and Mom and Dad smiled widely and said, “Merry Christmas!”
“I totally forgot about it!” I exclaimed, grinning.
They handed me a present wrapped in blue paper. I tore it open excitedly, pleased to discover several books by my favorite author.
“Thank you so much,” I said, letting myself be enveloped by a hug. “I’m sorry I don’t have anything for you.”
“You’re here, aren’t you?” Dad said. “You’re the only present we could ever want.”
“Even when I’m stubborn and annoying?” I ask.
“Even then,” he said.
I leapt into his arms. “I’m sorry about the way I behaved before.”
The rest of the morning went well. One of the boys had received the gift of a soccer ball, and several of us improvised a game in the dirt.
Then it was time for the competition. We gathered around Cecil, who was to be the referee. Behind him, about fifteen chickens stood in a nervous circle, pecking at the grain scattered in the dirt.
Cecil raised his arm into the air. I took my position beside Tiwu. She gave me a smile, and I grinned, waiting for the whistle. For a tense moment, everything was silent, and then a piercing blast shattered the stillness.
Kids took off. Chickens took off. For one moment, all was complete chaos, and then things spread out. In the midst of it all, I tried to find a target. Tiwu had explained that a chicken could easily outrun a child, and so it was important to catch one quickly. I glanced around, looking for an unsuspecting hen. There was one, standing still in the dust. I snuck up behind it, hands outstretched. I was so close. My fingertips brushed its white feathers. And then it suddenly squawked away.
I stood up, looking around. Tiwu was off chasing a chicken around a bush; Edward was losing ground as he chased one away from the village. No one else looked anywhere close. I whirled around.
In my peripheral vision, I saw a white blur stepping into one of the huts. Here was my chance! I ran towards it, and then entered the empty house. The chicken was there, looking kind of bewildered. I stepped forward, reached out, and… got it! The hen squirmed and squawked in my arms, but I held tight. Happily, I rushed out of the house, holding the chicken above my head like a trophy.
“I caught a chicken!” My gleeful yell rang out above everything, loud and clear. Cecil blew his whistle. The contest had come to an end.
* * *
I decided that Tiwu should get to take my prize. “As my Christmas gift to you,” I explained when she opened her mouth to protest. “You get to eat the chicken; not me. I don’t think I could eat an entire chicken anyway.”
We had laughed and Tiwu said thank you about a million times, and then everything seemed to come to an end. As it turned out, my prophecy that Mom and Dad would finish their work quickly proved correct, and they promised we could leave the next day. We spent much of the afternoon packing but took a break to eat dinner around a fire with the other villagers.
It was a joyful celebration, a hello and goodbye, and many stories were told. Tiwu’s father presented me with a gift—a carved wooden statue of a lion—that he said was a token of friendship and gratitude. I promised Tiwu I would write to her, and she promised she would write back to me, and then as we retired to our hut for the night, we said our final farewells. It was a wistful moment, and I felt sad as I lay in my bed, listening to the howling wind.
We left early the next morning, yawning as we drove away from a sleeping village.
“So did you enjoy yourself after all?” Mom asked with a wry smile.
“I did,” I replied, thinking of my original resistance. How stubborn I was! How silly! I imagined that I had stayed home in Connecticut. I would’ve missed so much—Tiwu, the statue in my backpack, the chicken roasting on the fire.
“Can we come back next year?” I asked Mom.