Sahara diaries

Would Santa Claus find us at the edge of the Mali desert?

Among the mud mosques of Mali, my sister, brother and I once spent the better part of a week when we were kids wondering if Santa Claus would find us.

For the Christmas holiday, our parents had decided to drive from our home in Accra, Ghana, north toward Timbuktu in Mali. Days later, fortified by warm soda and cold ravioli from cans, the dashboard in our car dislodged by the roads, we arrived hot and dusty just before Christmas in the town of Mopti at the edge of the Sahara in Mali.

Each morning, a worn-down chicken would drag itself to the dirt courtyard of our hotel in Mopti and wake us with a feeble, sickly call to the day. Exhausted, the chicken would spend the day recovering in the shade, while my family and I went sightseeing.

After visiting cliff villages and wandering along the mud-walled streets and markets of the city, we would return to the hotel in the evening to find the chicken panting in the shadows. As dusk set in, old men in robes prayed toward Mecca, and the sky turned the same dark blue as the veiled faces of the local Tuareg.

Would Santa find us here on the edge of the Sahara? My siblings and I wondered: Would camels work better than reindeer?

The next morning, the routine would begin again. The chicken would wake us with his scratchy call like a bad needle on a turntable, and we would drive off to visit nearby villages, markets and mosques. At lunch, spackled by dust and sand, we scrubbed ourselves with moist towelettes that had dried into something closer to steel wool in the heat, and again ate cold ravioli from cans and drank hot orange-flavored Fanta.

Things changed on Christmas Eve, though. Our mother surprised us by unpacking a small plastic Christmas tree she had hidden in the car back in Accra. Unfolded, the tree was as gaunt and bony as the courtyard chicken. We made decorations out of colored paper and added them to the small tree. Skeletal as it was, the tree’s bright-green plastic was a gift of it own, since everything in Mopti—the buildings, clothes, food—took on the color and texture of sand.

On Christmas Eve, we went to bed beneath a dark desert sky, the stars seemingly as close as a hand held in front of one’s face, and with Santa hopefully somewhere in those constellations above. That night, rather than sugarplums, I dreamed that Santa was looking for us in a parking garage at an American mall.

The next morning, the chicken, for once, did not wake us. But it being Christmas, we woke early anyway, and Santa, with or without camels, had found my brother, sister and me after all. We spent the morning unwrapping a few gifts and listening to Christmas music on a small tape deck that warbled in a way not unlike the chicken.

At noon, the hotel staff politely tapped on the door. Although Muslim, they were pleased to tell us—the only guests in the place—they had prepared a special treat in honor of the Christmas holiday. Curious, we followed them to the dining room, which had one wall open to the street and doubled as a disco by night. After we sat down, a waiter brought out a covered silver tray and set it on the table. Proudly, and with a flourish, he removed the cover, and there before us on a bed of rice, gaunt, bony, undercooked, but still rising valiantly to the occasion—the chicken.