Here’s a piece I recently wrote for an event where local authors read out passages from their books. I hope you enjoy it!
So, do they know it’s Christmas? The answer is most definitely yes, or maybe no. You see, it all depends on where you are. In the average African village, a day’s journey from the nearest city, Christmas morning begins in much the same way as any other morning: with cockerels crowing before the sun has even hinted it’s going to rise, goats braying tirelessly, and small groups of ladies – always up before the men – heading out down the narrow, rocky path which leads to the local well half a mile away, heavy clay pots perched skilfully on their heads. And as the huge, red semi-circle of the sun rises slowly and majestically on the misty horizon, dozens of white, wispy columns of smoke can be seen across the village, emanating from small wood fires in dusty courtyards. Within minutes, the warmth of the sun is felt, and long shadows from tall palm trees make the dirt road through the village momentarily stripy. Tropical birds, one by one, break into their usual exotic melodies to greet the new day, taking over – almost seamlessly – from the crickets, who’ve been chirping away non-stop since dusk.
If there’s a church in the village, it will probably have a Christmas service, though rarely an early one. Some will even sing somewhat Africanized renditions of ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’ or ‘Silent Night’, accompanied by djembe drums, and with melodies somewhat modified to fit their pentatonic scale. After the service, they might share a ‘special’ meal of rice, sauce and chicken. Not particularly special though, as this is what they have every other day, alternating chicken with goat, or perhaps fish if the village is near water. No excitable children rushing downstairs to open masses of pristinely-wrapped gifts of all shapes and sizes. For starters, all the houses are single story! No brightly-coloured lights adorning the streets – this village still has no electricity, so that would be something of a challenge. And there’s none of the obscene over-indulgence the West deems both normal and acceptable as part of the ritual of celebrating Christ’s birth. These villagers consume the same number of calories in a week that the average Westerner would eat on Christmas Day alone. But they’re just happy to have some food in their stomach to get them through the day. And are they less happy than any of us on this special day? If anything, I’d say they were happier in many ways. They have none of the pressure which commercialization has brought to the Western Christmas and are just happy to spend time enjoying each other’s presence, and maybe doing a little less work for a day.
Now, if you go to urban Africa, then it’s an entirely different kettle of fish – or turkey if you’d rather. The swarming main streets of crazy Cotonou, Benin, are lit with brightly-shining, bell-shaped lights, alternating red and yellow for about a mile. Enormous Christmas trees – artificial of course – adorn the lobbies of swanky hotels, which pipe cheesy festive airs through every speaker at their disposal. And any white person outdoors at this time of the year, will be followed by groups of children carrying nativity scenes they have made from cardboard boxes (of varying quality, but never quite up to Blue Peter standard). As they scurry along behind you, they all sing the same song, in the hope of a coin in return. It goes:
Mon petit Papa Noël
My little Father Christmas
In many capital cities, a Christmas Market is held – for the ex-patriates of course, although some more prosperous Africans go along, often those who have lived in the West. The markets sell jewellery, wooden carvings, paintings, clothing, dried pineapple and mango chunks, peanuts – anything these ‘rich foreigners’ will spend their money on. At one such market, there was even the chance for my three children to go and see Father Christmas (for a small fee, of course). The queue was short and we were soon stepping into his tinsel-filled grotto.
You see, urban Africa has quickly learned that, at Christmas time, Westerners go crazy and spend even more money than they do the rest of the year. And so, every opportunity is taken to quite literally cash in on this. The larger supermarkets (still no bigger than your average Co-op) are adorned with giant inflatable Santas, reindeer or even snowmen. (How many local folk even know what snow is?) Inside, you can buy all manner of festive fare: French cheeses, wines, spirits, pâtés, chocolates – even Ferrero Rocher. Then there are Christmas lights, balloons, tinsel, party poppers, over-priced board games and endless tacky toys made in China, guaranteed to last at least until Boxing Day. Artificial trees – green, white or silver – take up a significant area of the shop floor, ranging from small and cheap to huge and expensive. I once even saw a real Christmas tree in a Lebanese-run supermarket in Bamako, Mali. Goodness knows what journey it must have made to get there. And it was priced at a mere 250,000 cfa – that’s three hundred English pounds. Tempted as I was, I decided I couldn’t quite justify blowing that much on a tree, however lovely it looked – or smelt! The best thing is that none of this starts until early December, when the supermarkets’ containers of festive goods finally arrive and are unpacked. Before that, there’s not even a hint of Christmas. And so, we get three weeks at the most of Christmassy goings- on, which is quite long enough in my book.
As a family, we always managed to recreate a pretty passable Christmas Dinner with what we could get hold of. Veg is easily available from any market: carrots, potatoes, beans – sometimes even broccoli. Brussels sprouts are something of a challenge, however, and can only be found in the tinned variety. They ooze out of the can, soft and brown and squashed, tasting even worse than the real thing. One British friend who spent an African Christmas with us almost a decade ago, still cites the ‘tinned sprouts’ as his most ‘memorable’ experience of the day. Mind you, he wasn’t there the year we bought a most interesting turkey from our Lebanese merchants down the road: My wife, Lois, was alone in the kitchen when she unwrapped the bird one sunny Christmas morning. She let out an almighty scream, and came running into the lounge, crying:
Intrigued, I went into our small kitchen, only to find an entire turkey, lying on the worktop: head, beak, claws – the lot. It looked just like, well, a dead turkey. It took me a good half hour of twisting, dislocating and chopping, before it even started to resemble a British supermarket turkey. And we got less meat than expected that year – I had paid for five pounds of ‘turkey’, but wasn’t expecting the first pound to be inedible.
If you gave me a choice between the three types of Christmas alluded to above, then I’d choose the urban African Christmas almost every time. I know I’d miss cosy log fire-lit pubs, the smell of real Christmas trees, and fresh sprouts. But an African Christmas is a much more relaxing affair, and does not invade your life for a quarter of the year, like back home. And you can choose to be Christmassy or not, getting together with like-minded ex-pats to enjoy a simple festive celebration, without the sometimes awkward obligation of spending a day with extended family members you hardly know. The weather’s warm and sunny too, of course, affording one the chance to sing outdoor Christmas carols in a tee-shirt (just don’t forget your mosquito repellent).
I love an African city Christmas, but, just occasionally – maybe every three or four years – take me to an African village for a Christmas untarnished by materialism, and where genuine love and hospitality pervade all aspects of life. For me, that’s what Christmas is really about.
Rob is author of “Adventures in Music and Culture”, available on Amazon in the UK and the USA, and globally in Kindle format. He lived in West Africa for eight years and is currently writing his second book, which is set in Mali.
Read an earlier blog post about Christmas in West Africa here (including a picture with Santa!)
Pictures of the turkey incident can be found on this blog post.