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Having and having not

The African sun beat down on the jungle outside my office. I was hot and alone, and it was Christmas Eve, 1963.

I had been in the town only six weeks. A tiny river port and province capital in a country then newly independent, it was a place where electricity and water supplies were uncertain, where nothing much seemed to happen and where I had been sent to open an American Cultural Center without any exact idea of what I was supposed to accomplish or why. I often wondered if I would survive the two years of my duty tour.

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I looked around at the new furniture. The previous day I had borrowed a truck from the Protestant mission, hired some Africans and taken delivery on crates of furniture, books and office supplies, the first load of equipment for the center.

This day I had labored hard with Tata Edouard, the old watchman who lived behind the center. Together we had muscled desks, chairs and books into the building. Now I felt elated that the center could soon begin its work. I had a satisfying sense of having worked well, and I had a desire to share these feelings with someone.

But there was no one. I knew few people as yet. And the people I did know all seemed to have gone off to spend a quiet Christmas in the bush.

Unable to share my feelings, I opened the desk drawer and gazed at the treasure I had secreted in the curved pencil tray: four tiny bars of chocolate.

As I was leaving the hotel that morning, ready to walk across town to the center, a Belgian aid technician stopped me. A look of excitement sparkled in his eyes. ''There's chocolate at Sedec,'' the technician confided. ''Better hurry if you want some.''

At that time chocolate arrived in the town only twice a year. So I hurried to Sedec. I found a jostling crowd of colons' wives at the cashier's counter. They elbowed me roughly when I joined their queue. They made ingratiating remarks to the African cashier in a manner that would have seemed unthinkable to them only five years before when the idea of political independence had been a joke.

This atmosphere gave the quest for chocolate an aura of great importance. By the time I left the store, clutching four bars of candy, I sensed that chocolate had an abstract value of its own. For all I knew, currencies were quoted in it. I regarded my four small bars -- that was my ration -- as prize possessions. At the center I placed them in the pencil tray of the new desk, knowing they would be safe there.

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Now Tata Edouard stuck his head into my office.

I looked up and smiled. I liked the old man. I admired his ability to do nothing, to stare for long minutes, apparently without thought. That struck me as the proper approach to the world of this town, to the unchanging jungle, river and sky surrounding us.

''Entrez, Edouard!'' I called.

The tata entered slowly. He carried a stalk of yellow bananas and laid it on my desk. ''Bon Noel, patron,'' he said.

''Tiens, Edouard!'' I said, rising, pleased at this show of regard, but also embarrassed. Having sent gifts to my family in August, I had checked off Christmas - before I had ever met Edouard. ''C'est vraiment Noel!'' I remarked heartily. ''Je vous remercie beaucoup!''

I realized that I must not let Edouard leave the office empty-handed. ''J'imagine que ce sont tres bon!'' I said of the bananas, stalling for time.

''Oui, patron,'' Edouard said.

Then I remembered the chocolate, the four precious bars of it, and said in French, ''And I -- I have something for you, Edouard.''

The old man brightened. I took from the desk the four bars of chocolate. ''Voila!'' I said. ''I wish you a good Christmas!''

Edouard stared at the chocolate bars, so small and few beside the bulk and number of bananas. I realized then that money would probably have been more welcome.

''C'est du chocolat!'' I explained. ''Tres bon! Your children will like it very much.'' The watchman seemed mystified. ''C'est tres difficile . . . to find chocolate these days,'' I added, hoping a statement of its scarcity would increase his estimate of its value.

Finally Edouard smiled, less with pleasure than perplexity. He put the gift into his trouser pocket. ''Merci, patron,'' he said, and shuffled slowly from the office.

Later outside the hotel I saw the aid technician again. He was packing his Land-Rover to spend Christmas with friends on a plantation.

''Manage to get some chocolate?'' he asked.

I said that I had. He gave me advice about how to protect it from ''les dudus ,'' the bugs. Eventually I admitted that I had given my chocolate to the watchman for his children.

The technician laughed in the darkness. ''I'm not sure you'll survive here,'' he remarked. ''Or that you deserve to. Do you know how stupid you've been?''

I shrugged, amused at the Belgian's bluntness.

''Your watchman doesn't want chocolate. It's too good for him! He wants cash.''

''But I couldn't just pay him,'' I said. ''I mean: when he gives me a present , do I just pay him off?''

''A present!'' the Belgian said scornfully. ''Those bananas cost him nothing! And don't worry. Cash won't insult your watchman!''

''I'll give him some at New Year's,'' I said.

''Meanwhile, you've lost the chocolate!'' the technician pointed out. He shook his head and got into his Land-Rover. ''You've done yourself out of something you want!'' He laughed derisively and drove off into the night.

Of course, he's right, I told myself as I went to my room. Frogs were croaking. Bats were flying around the hotel terrace. There was no hot water as usual, and the air conditioner was on the blink again.

Still, I could not help laughing. It seemed a very great fuss over a little chocolate, over something that assumed importance only because it was scarce. I hadn't even missed chocolate until that morning.

A very small experience. And yet I've thought of it time and time again.

That Belgian technician -- and a lot of other people in that town -- defined their lives in terms of the things they did not have. For the first time I asked myself a question: How can you enjoy what you have if your whole experience is focused on lack? It was an arresting thought. It held me for some time.

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