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Monday, December 18, 2006

How Christmas made us Criminals

It started off innocently enough. Even though it is a typical mid-December 90 plus degrees and we are 8 hours from the nearest mall, we still feel the urge for some few Christmas essentials: baking cookies, lighting candles, listening to carols. And a tree, a live, fresh-cut pine-type of tree, with green needles. Last year we noticed the appearance of what would have been in the USA a Christmas Tree farm, but in Uganda is a National Foresty Authority (N-F-A) timber plantation. We stopped at the office (closed), found some friendly employees, asked for permission to take one tree. They readily prepared to dig up a seedling, when we indicated our desire for a five-foot maturing tree. They were skeptical. Scott started to hack it down with a panga. They were incredulous. They tried to explain to us that the tree would not live if we took it without roots . . . We tried to explain the concept of a Christmas tree . . . In the end we left with a reasonable tree and gave them a tip and everyone was happy.

So this year we went back for round two. Same office. Closed again. Same employees chatting outside on the steps. This time they understood us, greeted us like long lost friends, hopped onto the truck to take us to an appropriate section of forest. On the way they waved to a puzzled looking man whom we took to be the driver of a stalled truck.

We were dead wrong. We had just chopped our little tree down and were wrapping it up to put on top of our loaded truck, when that man and a colleague zoomed up behind us in an official N-F-A truck, jumped out, and started yelling. We were stealing a tree, we were defrauding the country, we were ruining the environment, we were promoting corruption. On and on they went. Over the years we have learned that the best reaction in this situation of extreme anger and power posturing is to be humble, and we were feeling pretty guilty anyway. We sat on the ground. We apologized. We appealed. They talked of huge sums of money in fines. They talked of the police station. They talked of the newspapers. They talked of court. We patiently begged forgiveness and explained our story. Jack was in the car crying. Everyone else was certain that Christmas had just been ruined.

But over time they ran out of steam. They started asking us about who we were, what we did. They slowly warmed up to us (no doubt divine intervention!). Since we had actually gone to the office to begin with and since we were dealing with actual employees of the foresty authority, they started to take the view that we were simply misguided and not actual thieves. The tree was loaded into their truck and we all drove to their office together. The door was unlocked, we sat down, apologized again, and signed the official guest book. Under “reason for visit” Scott wrote “to admire your beautiful forest and seek a Christmas Tree.” At which point the man in charge decided that it would be a legitimate public relations gesture to donate a tree to the crazy bazungu. So the tree was transferred to our truck, we drove away with smiles and waves to our new friends.

So a mere hour of suffering the anxiety of not knowing if we were about to land in jail or fined or disgraced . . . was the price we paid, but we now have a nice little tree supporting a strand of lights and as many ornaments as we could manage. And I suppose Christmas is important because we are all criminals on some level. So this year we’ll look at our tree and be thankful we were mercifully let off the small hook of the Ugandan National Foresty Authority, and the big hook of all we deserve from God. Merry Christmas.

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