“Peace Corps Christmas” by Jeanne D‘Haem (Somalia)

 

by Jeanne D’Haem (Somalia 1968-70)

On Christmas Eve my family gathered at my grandmother’s house on Jane Street in Detroit, Michigan. Her Christmas tree glittered with multicolored bubble lights. The uncles sat in the small living room, my aunts and grandmother tasted and talked in the kitchen. Cousins played with the wooden blocks and the Indian doll in the wooden toy box in the den. Sometimes there were new babies to hold.

Jeanne with friends in Somalia

I was 22 the first time I could not attend, as I was a Peace Corps volunteer serving in Somalia, and  I wanted to at least send a Christmas gift to Grandma Carter. Newspaper cones of tea, alcohol for the tilly lamps, or the blue and green patterned cloth for sale in my village did not seem worth sending across two oceans. However, when my neighbor showed me what she gathered from distant trees, I realized I could send something special from the ancient Land of Punt.

The Bible says that three kings gave the baby Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  Myrrh has been used for centuries as a perfume, incense and medicine, and it is harvested from commiphora myrrha, a thorny tree that grows in Somalia. Frankincense comes from the boswellia sacra tree that is noted for its ability to thrive in difficult environments and also grows in Somalia.  These trees are carefully slashed, and resin drips out making fine resin nuggets that were gathered by my neighbor, Howa, to sell in the village market.

And then there was gold. Grandma would not wear a fancy ring, or earrings, however, she often wore a necklace. There were gold shops in the second larges city, Hargesia, only a day’s trade truck trip away from my town, and there I found a pendant of filigreed gold, with the Arabic word, Allah dancing in royal blue enamel. I hesitated to buy it since my grandmother was a devout Christian, but decided that the name of God is said in many languages — Allah in Arabic is the same as Dieu in French or Gott in German.

I was back home in Michigan for Christmas Eve after Peace Corps, and my grandmother told me a story. She had been in the kitchen when she heard the doorbell ring. Wiping her hands on her apron, she saw the mailman standing on the front porch silhouetted against the snowy night. He had already delivered the mail that morning. She could not imagine what would bring him back to her house so late on Christmas Eve.

“This just came into the post office and I thought you might like to have it tonight,” he said.  “It’s all the way from Africa!”

She gasped and invited the dear man in.  They sat on the davenport across from the Christmas tree as she opened the package, so battered from its long journey. She showed him the gold pendant, and frankincense and myrrh all the way from the Land of Punt on the Arabian Sea.

Grandma wore the necklace to church that evening. One of the women’s auxiliary ladies disapproved of her wearing an Arabic word to a church. My grandmother informed her that the three kings who gifted the baby Jesus were Arabs, possibly from the Land of Punt. She also informed Reverend Poleck that Jesus and Mary are revered in the Koran.

I now wear the pendant, as my grandmother did, every Christmas.

Jeanne D’Haem (Somalia 1968-70) is an emeritus professor at William Paterson University and frequently lectures on issues in special education. She has published two prize-winning books and numerous journal articles. The Last Camel won the 1997 Paul Cowan prize for non-fiction, and Desert Dawn, with Waris Dirie, has been translated into over twenty languages and was on the bestseller list in Germany for over a year.  It was awarded the Corine prize for non-fiction. Her most recent book is Inclusion: The Dream and the Reality inside Special Education.

 

14 Comments

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  • Jeanne~This is exactly the story all of us need during these difficult times to remind us of a humanity that joins us all together. Thanks very much.

  • Brava to your grandmother for informing that church woman that the Wise Men were Arabs (or from somewhere, perhaps the Land of Punt), but more Christian Americans need to learn the word for “God” in other languages.
    Glad you’re continuing your grandmother’s tradition by wearing this pendant.

    Thank you for your story and your service.

    Karen DeWitt
    PCV 1966-68, Ethiopia

  • I agree with all the comments above and I, too, thank you for your sweet, timely story. I might add that perhaps there would have been no story at all if it weren’t for the foundation your family provided you. Thinking of your grandmother so far away and putting together that very special gift says a lot.

  • Such a beautiful story. Thank you. As a former Peace Corps Volunteer in Somalia myself, I brought back a nice chunk of frankincense. I brought it out for decades, breaking off a few grains to burn on Christmas Eve. I just gifted the remaining frankincense to a dear friend, a Somali and a Muslim. He and his wife were thrilled to get it, and I was thrilled that it went to such a worthy person. Whenever I tell people about the frankincense and myrrh in Somalia, and the gifts of the Magi, it totally changes their perception of ‘Somalia. It truly is a mystical country, filled with wonderful people.

    • Thank you MaryAnn for your comments and sharing your own story. Frankincense was so easy to buy in Somalia, and it was not expensive but we treasured it for years!

  • The holiday family story you shared with us Jeanne was a timely and touching tribute to not only your grandmother but to all who treasure the values that unite humanity. Witness the above comments it inspired and, I suspect, not only from RPCVs and their families. As a fellow writer please add my gratitude for the gift of “Peace Corps Christmas Story” and a special thanks go to a feisty grandmom who clearly knows right from hypocrisy. Also, thank you to Miram and John for helping the ripples spread.

    Vic Cox
    Brazil 64-66

  • Thank you for this beautiful story that highlights the fine features of Detroit and of Somalia – their people, and their place in our shared history, and your important role as a link between these worlds. I served in the south of Somalia (Chisimaio), but alas was not able to stay as long as planned, because of the change of government, so missed out on learning about the frankincense and myrrh, but do remember the amazingly pure gold. An excellent story for our times, for all times.
    Thank you!
    Michèle Longino
    Somalia 69 Gp. 9

  • Very special story, made me well up in anticipation. Good on Grandma Carter for spreading/defending your presentation of the Christmas story. A beautiful third goal success. In a similar vein, based on my Peace Corps and later travel stories and photos, my mother became fascinated to obsession with the (work) life of the African woman and wrote a post grad paper on the African woman and switched from wearing wigs to colorful headwraps for the rest of her life.

  • Thank you, Jeanne!! I still have a small amount of frankincense that I shipped home in a tin from Mog in my battered Peace Corps trunk when I left in spring, 1967. I’ve hoarded it over the years. I loved your story!

    Marki (Morgan) LeCompte, Somali III

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