Christmas is coming. Many stores this year opened Thanksgiving evening, a concept I will admit that I find somewhat appalling. Gift-giving occasions can be challenging when one is unemployed. I’ve always been more interested in giving value rather than price, but there are extra incentives this year, so I’ve been thinking a lot about gifts, and the value of gifts, and what things we really value and treasure.
Last year my grandma told me, “I give all your cousins gift certificates. If it’s too hard to come up with a list, I could give you one, too.”
And it’s true, I could. But — I don’t value gift certificates in the same way that I do actual gifts. I’m not good at spending them, and even if I do, ‘This is yarn I bought with the gift certificate grandma gave me’ doesn’t feel the same as ‘My grandma bought this yarn for me.’ Despite the fact that I might like yarn I picked out for myself better than yarn that someone else gives me.
This isn’t to say that I don’t understand the appeal of gift certificates. My brother is intensely difficult to shop for, and compounds the issue by shoving a December birthday into the same week as Christmas. Sometimes buying him an Amazon gift certificate looks pretty appealing. And yet . . .
I want to tell you a story.
This story is about Otelia. Otelia worked as a maid for the pilot’s family, coming in a couple of days a week to clean and wash dishes and do laundry and generally do the things that the mothers of toddlers wish someone else would do for them, particularly those who live in rural Africa. I think the pilot’s family went back to Lusaka sometime after I left, because there wasn’t enough traffic into and out of Macha after Macha Works collapsed. So I suppose that Otelia doesn’t work for them any more, but this story is about Otelia as I knew her.
Otelia’s family lives out in the bush somewhere. I don’t know where, exactly, but she attends the smaller BIC church that I never did manage to visit, because it was too far away and someone would have needed to take me there. It’s likely that she walked at least half an hour to get to the house of the pilot’s family. Her English is good, particularly for someone in such a rural setting.
Otelia was a window into another world for me. Not the only window; my world collided with a more traditional, rural Africa all the time. But at the same time, we walked in parallel. Anyone I interacted with in a meaningful way spoke English, and most of the people I talked to were involved with the church, or the hospital, or Macha Works — all Western-founded institutions, albeit some of notable age. The people I interacted with had regular paychecks (ostensibly), and regular contact with the Western world, or at least with its proxies.
And it’s not that Otelia didn’t. She worked for the pilot’s family, after all. But whereas my neighbors bought many of their housewares in town, Otelia carried home glass and plastic containers of all kinds to furnish her home, and those of her friends and relatives. The pilot’s children’s milk jugs carried water to and from her local borehole, and baby food jars make nice drinking glasses. Otelia was a conduit from an economy where things are disposable to one in which everything is used until it is used up. The parks in Choma and Lusaka are littered with dying plastic bottles, but in the villages, those bottles are washed out and refilled and sold again, and an empty metal can is as good as gold.
During my year in Macha, Otelia had a baby boy, and the pilot’s family gave her a goat, a traditional gift for a momentous event. Every year at Christmas, Otelia received a cash bonus large enough to buy a goat, but this was the first time that they gave her an actual animal. Otelia was overjoyed. That goat was far more valuable than a mere 300,000 Kwacha. That goat was an investment. She would raise it with her son, and it would give milk, and they would not kill and eat it.
This is partly about culture. It’s hard to keep money in Zambian culture; if your friends and family know you have money, they’ll ask for some of it, and it’s rude to refuse to share resources you have with someone who needs them. In that sense, a goat is more permanent; it can’t be given away. At the same time, just like the Old English feoh, wealth and cattle are indistinguishable in Tonga culture. A goat isn’t quite cattle, but it’s a step in that direction.
But I think that it’s about more than culture. Money is just money. Gift certificates are just money, too. When we give things — not stuff, not extra junk that will just pile up and get in the way and need to be dusted or moved or tended, but things that will be used and enjoyed, thoughtful gifts that mean something about us, and about the person we give them to — that’s worth more than money, or a gift certificate, or something pricey and useless that the recipient doesn’t really want or need.
I don’t think that anyone on my Christmas list wants a live chicken, nor do I think that they would have the resources to house and care for one. And I wouldn’t know where to buy one, or how to take care of it until Christmas day. And giving thoughtful gifts is hard. It takes more effort, and often more time, and may require serious consideration before one comes up with a flash of inspiration. All the same, this year, I’m going to try to give metaphorical chickens to the people I care about.