In past years I would write a Christmas story for my family. This year is no exception, and so with the help of my young friend, Philip Phiri, I wrote a Christmas story that includes some of his memories from Malawi, Africa.
Here is our story: The Insider
The lights across the river cast a beautiful array of green and red along the ripples of the Lilongwe River. Tropical rain pounded the surface of the water, but Stephen and a group of twenty homeless boys stayed dry underneath the Sir Glyn Jones Road Bridge. They enjoyed the glow and warmth of a small fire. He pulled a roughly woven wool blanket around his shoulders and tried to find a comfortable place to lay his head. It was Christmas Eve.
“There will be good luck tomorrow,” piped Jonathan, Stephen’s older brother. “The bins will be full of scraps and the maids will all be in a good mood. They will look the other way and let us take what we want. Tomorrow we will not fall asleep hungry.”
The thought was little comfort to Stephen. “I wish I was not hungry today! I wish we were not always waiting for and hoping for tomorrow.”
“You will see,” said another boy from the back row. “Even the guards at the golf course will be in a good mood. We will have good luck and make some good money.”
“I don’t want to go back into that river,” Stephen said. “Someone else can get the golf balls. There are crocodiles in that water.”
“You will do as you are told,” said Captain, the oldest of the boys. He lifted the blade of his panga, a machete-like knife with a double-edged blade. “If we don’t get at least 100 golf balls a day we can’t be at the gate selling them to the foreigners. You know the rules.”
“They are stupid rules,” Stephen mumbled. “Stupid rules made up by stupid guards who only want to get their share. Tomorrow I’m not going to play by their rules.”
“And then you’ll go hungry,” Jonathan punched his brother. “Now let’s get some sleep, before the fire burns out and the cold sets in. I’m tired.”
Stephen shuffled a piece of cardboard over a dry patch of ground, lay down and closed his eyes. He tried to remember his last Christmas at home with his mother. She was a kind lady, respected by everyone in her community, even after his father’s death. Why she moved to the capital city and married Mr. Big-shot, the name he and his brother gave to their step-father, was a great mystery. Mr. Big-shot resented that he must work to feed children who were not his own flesh and blood. The brothers were told to leave when a baby sister was born, sent away when Jonathan was ten and Stephen was eight. Two years had passed and they were part of the “Hard Core,” a rough band of street children known for thievery, their mischief and foul language.
The boys woke up to the glorious dawning of a beautiful Christmas Day. The rainstorm had passed and golden slivers of light filtered through the trees that lined to river. It was early and the birds were singing. A pair of storks stalked the banks of the river, fishing for their daily catch. The cool morning air would give way to hot, humid summer temperatures, building to an afternoon thunderstorm and evening rains. The weather pattern was predictable and the boys knew that they needed to take advantage of the fine weather.
Stephen bundled his blanket and few belongings and made a bold declaration. “I will not swim with crocodiles today,” he said.
Captain rose to his feet, his panga strapped at his side. “If you do not come with us you will have to find your own food and we will not protect you. Run away, now, before I kill you!” Captain reached for the handle of his weapon, running his fingers along the edge of its wooden handle. He looked like a lion, ready to pounce on its prey.
Stephen stood to his feet, ready to run if Captain took a step closer. Fear filled his eyes as he took a step toward the path leading up to the road. “I will go,” he said.
“Wait! What will you do?” asked Jonathan. “You are better off staying with us to protect you and provide for you. Where will you go, my brother?”
“I am going back to Zomba today; back to where my uncles and aunties will care for me,” said Stephen confidently. He did not know exactly how far Zomba was, nor if he could find a way to catch a ride, but he was determined. “I pray God will help me, for it’s a special day. Don’t you believe that miracles can happen on Christmas Day?”
“Miracles?” scoffed Captain. “Miracles don’t happen for boys like us.”
Two hours later Stephen found himself near the outskirts of the city. An elderly couple had pointed him in the direction of the M-1 highway leading out of town, and told him it would eventually lead to the road heading in the direction of Zomba. He knew that he needed to hitch a ride on a bus or truck that could take him the two-hour drive, but there were few cars on the roads and the city was quietly waking up. He flagged down a bus headed for Lake Malawi and Zomba, but the driver would not let him ride without paying the fare.
Stephen was hungry, and so he did what he and his brother had done for the past two years; he began to search the garbage bins of houses of the Magwere District. Stephen did not know this part of the city, so he watched carefully as he made his way into the residential part of the community, cautiously taking back roads and smaller streets to avoid any guards or police. The houses looked new and were all safe behind high brick walls. It was before 8:00 a.m. and maids were putting out the night’s rubbish in the bins. Stephen was certain that there would be some scraps for him to fill his stomach.
Stephen heard a commotion as he turned a corner, stopping to hide behind a mango tree. A security guard stood at an open gate, trying to hold back two large dogs that had spotted a rabbit out on the street. The large German Shepherd was tugging at the end of its leash and broke away, chasing the frightened animal towards the end of the street. The guard handed the leash of the smaller Labrador to someone who stood behind the wall. He took after the dog, which had now taken a side street and was in pursuit of its own special Christmas treat.
The guard, in his haste to chase the dog, had dropped a large, black garbage bag just outside of the gate. Stephen cautiously made his way towards the open gate and was just about to reach for the bag when another boy, about the same age as him, stepped out from behind the wall. He held the brown Labrador’s leash as the dog began to bark.
“Stop it, Beanbone. Stop it!” The dog settled down and took a position beside his master, keeping an eye on the frightened scavenger.
Stephen’s eyes grew wide with fear as he looked at the other boy. “I, I …” he stammered. “I am only looking for some food.”
The boy looked confused. “Why are you not with your family? It is Christmas Day.”
“My family lives far away, in Zomba,” said Stephen. “And I have no food. Please, may I look to see if there is any food?”
“What is your name?” asked the boy. “My name is Isaac.”
“I am Stephen.” He looked at the dog, which now lay relaxed by Isaac’s feet. “Did you say your dog’s name is Beanbone? What kind of a name is that?”
“He likes beans and he likes bones,” Isaac replied. “I’ve had him ever since he was a puppy and he’s my best friend.”
“I used to have a dog,” Stephen started, “but then we moved to the city.”
“What happened to your dog?” Beanbone’s head twisted as Isaac asked the question, almost as if he understood every word.
Stephen sighed and shook his head. “My step-father made us give him away because he ate too much food.”
For the first time Isaac noticed the bundle of Stephen’s belongings, and that his clothes were dirty and torn. “You don’t live around here, do you? Where do you live?”
“No where,” Stephen admitted. “I live mostly under the bridge with a group of street kids, but I don’t want to be with them any more.”
Just then the security guard turned the corner, struggling to control the German Shepherd that was intent on heading back in the direction of the rabbit. He noticed Isaac standing by the open gate, talking to a complete stranger.
“What do you want, boy?” he called out. “Why do you bother us on this day?”
Stephen took a couple of steps back as the German Shepherd now focused its attention on him, trading its barking for a low growl. Isaac and Beanbone stepped between the larger dog and Stephen and held up his hand. “Squeeky! You sit!” The dog obeyed reluctantly, keeping an eye on the stranger.
“His name is Stephen and he is heading to his home in Zomba. All he wanted was to see if we might have a bit of food.”
Isaac turned to Stephen. “This is Mr. Mdunwe, but we call him Walter. He works as a guard at my father’s medical clinic. He came to spend Christmas with us because his village is far away.”
“We have no time for him,” Walter said. “We must get ready for church. Your father wants to leave in 20 minutes.”
“I will get him,” Isaac handed the leash of the second dog to Mr. Mdunwe. “He will know how we can help Stephen.”
Minutes later Isaac returned with a tall, smiling man. His broad smile revealed perfect white teeth. “Isaac tells me that you are from Zomba,” he said as he greeted Stephen. “Our pastor’s wife comes from the city and she knows many people there. Maybe we can help you. Please, come and sit in the shade.” He gestured for Stephen to come into the shaded courtyard.
Mr. Mdunwe spoke up. “Sir, we do not know where this boy comes from. He may be sent by a group to spy out the houses in the area. They send a small child that gets pity when he tells a sad story, then he goes back to report to the gang and tells them about all of the things that are worth stealing from the house. I think he’s one of these “insiders” that come to do harm, not good. I strongly advise against this.”
Isaac’s father looked at Stephen, then back at his employee. “We will treat him like we ourselves would want to be treated,” he assured. “And it is Christmas, there is no better time that we show some Christ-likeness.”
Stephen followed Isaac and his father as they stepped into the courtyard, where they sat down at a stone table. Mr. Mdunwe closed and latched the gate, then took the two dogs and released them in a dog pen that ran along one side of the white, concrete house.
“Do you go to church, young man?” asked Isaac’s father. “We will be leaving soon and you could join us if you would like.”
Stephen looked at his ragged clothes and flip-flops. He shook his head and said, “I don’t think that I … I don’t think that I am ready to go to church. I have no good clothes.”
“You can borrow one of my shirts and a pair of shorts. And most of the kids wear sandals,” chirped Isaac. “There will be games and balloons and the Christmas pageant.”
“My father used to take us to a church in Zomba,” Stephen recalled. “I think it was the Prespitarian church, or something like that. I was very young; maybe 4 or 5 years old. I can remember that I was part of the angel choir.”
“Maybe you mean Presbyterian,” said Isaac’s father. “We go to a Baptist church, but it is not very different from what you are used to. If you would like to join us, you should perhaps get cleaned up. I am the choir director and need to arrive early.” Stephen nodded his approval.
“Follow me!” Isaac instructed. They entered a side building that Stephen assumed was the maid or servant quarters. Mr. Mdunwe watched from the side, keeping an eye on the street child’s every move.
Stephen and Isaac sat in the back seat of the family sedan. Isaac’s parents rode in the front, talking as they drove. Stephen marveled at what a little soap and a clean set of clothes did for him. He wondered why this family would show such kindness to a boy they did not know.
The car fascinated Stephen. He did not want to tell the family that the last time he was in a car was when the police caught him, his brother and one of the other gang members in a shopping centre after closing hours. They hid in a bathroom and waited until they thought nobody was around, but were caught by one of the security guards. They were shoved into the back of the car, driven far out of town, and beaten with police clubs. The two policemen left them and told them never to return to the city, but they were back with their gang later the next day, finding their way back by following the banks of the river.
The church building was a simple white-brick structure with a tin roof. Everyone was dressed in their best clothing. Most men were dressed in black suits, with a white dress shirt and colorful ties. The ladies wore bright patterned dresses and black dress shoes. Children were happily playing a game of balloon volleyball, doing their best not to stain their Sunday clothing. It was an African church, but Stephen couldn’t help notice that most people looked very distinguished, yet out of place, in their European clothing.
“My mother always made us wear shoes to church,” he whispered to Isaac. “That’s one of the things I didn’t like about church.” He wore a pair of borrowed dress sandals, and was much more comfortable. “The other was when the ladies always hugged and kissed us. Do they do that at your church?”
“I just think you better get ready to get your cheeks pinched,” smiled Isaac. “Everyone will want to meet our visitor.”
Isaac was one hundred percent correct. The line of ladies waiting to pinch and hug and kiss the children as they arrived was almost more than Stephen could bear. He wasn’t used to the affection and kindness. “If they’d seen me yesterday, digging for trash out of garbage bins, I wonder if they’d still be treating me like a king?” he thought.
The service lasted for nearly three hours. Stephen found it hard to sit still through the three choirs, but found the children’s Christmas play more interesting. He laughed as Isaac played the role of the Innkeeper, pronouncing that “there was no room at the inn.” The pastor promised a short message, but after the first hour people began to get restless. He spoke of all of the characters of the Christmas story, including the donkey and a lamb he called Eunice. Stephen’s mind began to wander.
And he was hungry. Stephen’s stomach churned and began to growl, and he realized that he had not eaten anything that day, except for one shortbread cookie back at the house. In an act of mercy, Pastor Milton set aside two full pages of notes, pronounced the benediction and blessed his congregation.
Most of the people made their way out of the church quickly, heading home to prepare a special Christmas supper. The children knew that they must wait until after supper to open their presents, so they were anxious to get the formality of the special meal out of the way. Isaac’s family waited, hoping to speak to the Pastor Milton and his wife about Stephen’s family.
The pastor and his wife were an older couple, apparently with no children. They smiled as they were introduced to Stephen and invited him and Isaac’s family to sit down. They listened to Stephen’s story, asking questions as he told them about his father’s death, his mother’s new husband, and the lives he and his brother led in the city.
“Did people call your father ‘Barney’?” asked Velma, the pastor’s wife. “I think I can remember a family from the Presbyterian Church that fits your description. He died in a train accident and left a widow and two small boys. That must have been five years ago. The last I can remember she left for the capital and people say she married a cruel and hurtful man. There was a brother named Peter, who I think still lives in Zomba. Could this be your family? Did you live on the road to Maganga and to Lake Malawi?”
Stephen looked, wide-eyed in disbelief. “I do have an Uncle Peter,” he said. “And we lived not too far from the lake. My brother and I would ride my father’s motorcycle and go swimming when he had days off from work. I remember one Christmas, even through it was pouring rain, we went swimming.”
“Tomorrow we plan to travel to Zomba,” said Pastor Milton. “We could give you a ride and see if we can find your Uncle. We could try to find your brother too; we have room in our car for both of you. Would you like to do that?”
Stephen couldn’t believe his ears and was speechless.
Isaac tugged at Stephen’s sleeve. “Now do you see why you came to our house? How else would you ever have met Pastor Milton? Who else but God could work such a miracle?”
Stephen remembered Captain’s words. Maybe God can do a miracle for a boy like me, he thought.
Isaac’s father whispered something to his wife. She agreed to whatever was spoken, and he rose to his feet. “We would like to invite you all to have Christmas supper with us today. We have been blessed and have enough food for all of us – and even an “insider” who sent to us from God.”