In the beginning, it feels good. I feel good. I mingle with the crowd occupying the front yard of some aid organization. There are more women than men, and even more children. Someone has scattered foldable white garden chairs everywhere. My wife and I are lucky. We have secured two of the few seats in the shade, shielded by a canopy tent from the punishing sun. Kids run around, raising a mist of red sand. Their parents, grandparents and older siblings sit and rest. They are the country’s poorest—the residents of the matitis, the slums of Libreville, Gabon. And yet, there is playing, laughing, chattering. A suitable mood for Christmas. Most are oblivious to my presence. Some stare. But their gaze reveals puzzlement, not hostility.
A little girl—about 5, dark complexion, her hair unbraided and standing up—gapes in astonishment, keeping her distance. I pull out a strip of Juicy Fruit chewing gum and extend my hand. She approaches carefully. I hold my breath. She grabs it wordlessly, then rushes back to a safe distance. My heart leaps. She unwraps it, chews, then, unaware of its proper use, swallows. Her eyes never leave me.
A sad little pine tree, bending under the weight of too much silvery tinsel and red ornaments, stands near a group of distinguished-looking VIP guests. Its thinning needles seem strangely out of place in this tropical climate. By the tree, the district mayor, a corpulent man, sweat pearls in his greying handlebar mustache, delivers his holiday speech. His monotonous, metallic voice echoes from speakers across the yard. White noise. Hardly anybody listens. He reads from his notes into the microphone, words about the spirit of Christmas, national unity and solidarity with the less fortunate. Only in the end does his voice rise with enthusiasm, when it is time to thank a long list of dignitaries, most of whom are not present. His sincerest gratitude goes out to the President of Gabon, the Mayor of Libreville, ministers, judges and high-ranking members of the security forces.
More kids have gathered around me and my wife. She is the reason why we are here. The aid organization invited her, a movie director of some local renown, to associate her name with the event, and to provide a handsome donation. But the kids show little interest in her. It is I, her strange foreign husband, who attracts attention.
I distribute the remainder of my Juicy Fruit. There is giggling and squealing. I like it. It proves I’m not like the others. I’m not here to flatter powerful men, to secure inflated business deals, to flaunt young girlfriends, to party obnoxiously and to fraternize with fellow expats. No, I don’t despise these poorest of the locals. I’m oblivious to the difference between us. I’m one of the good ones, and I want everybody to know it.
The district mayor thanks his last big shot, then hands the microphone to an elderly lady. Apparently, she’s the organizer of the event. Probably sensing the omnipresent indifference to speeches, she utters a few words, little more than a high-pitched Merci à tous and Joyeux Noël. Then, she declares that the time for presents has come. About a hundred kids rush toward the shabby Christmas tree, where a few aid workers have begun to pile up boxes in shiny gift wrap.
Santa Claus appears, and, with forced joviality, distributes the gifts. He’s not a very credible Santa. Too skinny, and his porous cotton beard hangs too low, barely concealing his tired features. Also, he is slow. The first children get a minute on his lap and a few words, before he sends them on their way. The other kids scramble for the best spots in line. There’s pushing, shoving, and a swelling cacophony of shouting and lamenting. Some parents and older siblings rise. Santa’s eyes widen. He rushes to pull kids out of the boiling mass, hands over a gift and sends them away, skipping the chat. Whether they’ve been naughty or nice is the least of his concerns. He just wants them to leave. Only, they don’t. Many unwrap their toys but stick around. Some even rejoin the waiting crowd. The pushing intensifies. The shouting becomes angrier.
I don’t know when the line is crossed, when exactly the nature of everything changes. Perhaps it is when Santa, overwhelmed by the forest of reaching hands, begins to disregard whose turn it is and blindly hands over gift boxes. Perhaps it is when the kids without presents realize there is not enough for them, and turn on those parading their toys around. Perhaps it is when the adults rise and join the shouting and pushing. In any case, whatever is left of any order collapses when the crowd rushes toward the remaining presents. Some are swallowed by the raging flood of bodies. Some kick and pull. Others grab whatever they can, Christmas present or not, and take off.
And then I see her, the little girl, my little girl. She is immersed in the crowd, bouncing like a pinball from body to body. But she, too, pushes, hits, kicks and claws. No trace of wide-eyed timidity is left, only grim determination to secure her share of the loot. Something inside me crumbles.
Santa has vanished. Aid workers, together with a few guests, try to disperse the crowd. I join them in their effort. Little bodies are extracted from the roaring wave. Bigger bodies are blocked or pushed backward. The response is furious. My French soon proves too limited to decipher all the swearing. The kids are angry, but it’s the adults who are truly menacing, their faces distorted with spite and spittle spraying from their mouths as they spew insults.
One voice stands out. Fragments of English rise above the noise. My wife screams in my ear. At last, I make out a few words. Bewildered, I hear her repeated “don’t.” And I hear “white.” And then I understand. I look around and see the hate and rage in their eyes, and, for the first time, I realize it is directed at me. I am a white man; a white man who interferes. I step back and let things unfold.
When it’s all over, there are shards of broken glass, rips of gift wrap, and a few broken toys scattered on the ground. The heavy scent of stale sweat hangs in the air. What remains of the Christmas tree lies in a corner, like a ravaged carcass. The elderly organizer picks up random pieces of debris, weeping quietly. Most of the crowd has left, but a few matitis residents stick around, smiling and chatting, as though they hadn’t just emerged from a thunderstorm of fury.
I walk around, take everything in, and feel my anger rising. I hate their ingratitude and egotism. I hate their entitlement, their vulgarity, their violence. Fuck them all.
I pass by the district mayor, who shares his insights with another dignitary. “Well, it was obviously poorly organized. You can’t tell those people to behave and wait in line. There’s no discipline. We’re not dealing with folks capable of self-control. After all, those people are still savages. Uncivilized. Utterly uncivilized.”
My rage is thinning. I find myself in unwanted company. What is left is confusion. I no longer feel like one of the good ones.