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Africa December 2002

By Jon Blanc/Out to Africa Too

Out of Africa – Too – Ezine – Newsletter – December 2002

The Christmas season is once again upon us here in the West. Wall Street is anxiously watching what is happening at retail from Walmart to Macy’s. People everywhere are shopping, looking, searching for that exclusive toy or gift for that loved one in their lives, from child to mate, from friend to relative all the while the registers are ringing with delight as we shop until we drop…. and drop we do, quite a bit of cash that is.

On Christmas Eve or Christmas morning there then is the unwrapping ritual of gifts, the giving and receiving, the things we bought are exchanged and the day after Christmas is one of the busiest days of the year back at Walmart and Macy’s and other places as we return the things that don’t fit, we don’t like, or got two or three of and some other reasons.


Things are a bit different in Africa at Christmas time, however it is certainly celebrated by those who are Christians and those who are culturally so but do not attend a church.

This time of the year people write to me asking: “How is Christmas celebrated in Africa or do they celebrate Kwanzaa? Do they have Santa Claus come and bring presents down their chimneys? What about Christmas trees? What kind of food do they eat at Christmas time?

In African society spirituality is an important part of life and it is reflected in the way people live and celebrate no matter if people are rich or poor they will celebrate and enjoy the moment, the reason for the season.

Kwanzaa for the most part is an unknown as such in Africa since it is an African American Holiday rooted in some African Traditions that have to do with the celebration of Harvest and principles of life, great idea, great holiday and some day it may be celebrated in Africa as it is in America but not presently. Santa Claus, well you will not find him hanging around Kenyatta or Kampala Avenue since Christmas is mostly a spiritual holiday with Christian meaning rather than a secular celebration. The trees, well you can get Christmas like trees here and there, but as usual, even this year the local newspapers in Kampala have had some articles where the tree has its roots in Western Pagan culture and besides if you have a choice of spending money on food or a tree, you will most likely go for food as most Africans do.

In Africa, there is not so much the giving of presents, but the giving of presence. Most people do not have the financial resources to buy gifts such as toys and out in the countryside there are not many stores that have any kinds of toys for sale, and even if they did they would not sell too well since people are into having daily food, but on Christmas just as all over the world there is this celebratory spirit for family and friends to come together, eat, drink and rejoice in the fact that they have each other.

Food is served but it would not be your usual Holiday spread found in the West. No turkey, goose, ham, but there will be many other things to feast on. In many cases it will be the same foods as usual but more of, and more variety.

The little shops, the kiosks will put up garlands and in some cases lights if they have electricity. Artists will make some extra money painting a nativity scene are some store windows and other festive things having to do with the celebration. I have some seen some painted on snowflakes, while the temperature was well into the 90’s. The main thing is that it looks nice, and with the sounds of Christmas music coming out of the shops it makes a nice change.

At the local Hotels, Choirs will come in and sing for guests and audiences, churches will be getting ready for Christmas eve events and everyone will get ready for the Christmas party. Children and parents will get a new set of clothes and sometimes shoes, often from the secondhand market which is actually imported clothing and was worn first by someone in the west. Women will put on some of their traditional dresses, in East Africa there has been resurgence of African style sweeping the land, which I think is nice and the bright colors are pleasant to behold.

Christmas is a time of celebration in Africa for all, well almost all unless you are a goat, a chicken, or a cow. Right now in Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda it is find the right goat time. I personally like goat, roasted goat is delightful, and I used to go to Fang Fang Chinese Restaurant where they had stir-fry goat with vegetables. For those of you who are Vegans or Vegetarians, no, there is not Tofu-Goat or Tofu-Chicken…only in the USA do we have Tofu-Turkey.

In Kenya, Nyama Choma (roast goat meat) and Tuskers Beer is the order of the day. So many goats are eaten in late December that this upsurge in demand fuels the goat rustling amongst the pastoralists in the arid parts of Kenya. A bit of supply and demand stuff.

The closer you get to Christmas, the higher the price of goats and since Ramadan is usually celebrated Christians place there orders way ahead of time. Even in the cities you will see goats tethered in yards awaiting the celebration, I usually detected a bit of nervousness about them. Recently I read of a man who was keeping a couple of goats on his balcony in Nairobi. People will drive a distance into Masai country or upcountry to where the pastoralists are to buy a goat and to get the best price.

Normally Christmas is a family affair and the size of the goat is determined by the size of the family. The meat is eaten hot from the charcoal grill and should be finished in one sitting. Among the Kikuyu and Masai tribes, certain parts of the goat are for girls while others are for boys. There is also meat for the roasters and of course for the man who butchers the goat. The poorer families will have chicken at Christmas with chapattis, ugali, sukuma wiki and rice.

In Uganda it is similar to Kenya, people are in search of the goat. Well to do might even buy a turkey at a fancy shop or store such as the new South African Shoprite superstore in Kampala but for most it is goat, matoke (green bananas – steamed), Irish potatoes, posho, groundnut sauce, cassava, yams, and lots of other things. One of the traditional dishes is Luwombo (see recipe) a delightful dish that is made for those special occasions in Kampala.

People without means will pull resources with neighbors and friends and slaughter a goat, goats or a cow, but usually there is a celebration for all. The children are excited; the adults look forward to a day of no work and just relaxing with friends and lots of food.

If you go to Kigali, things are pretty well the same, except more beef will be eaten. They love their roasted steaks, potatoes, rice, beans, and peas. Rwandans have a sweet tooth. Cake shops and patisseries are part of the Belgian colonial legacy and do a roaring trade around Christmas, but that is found primarily in Kigali and not in the small towns. Christmas is also the time when a lot of the children are christened and that means even a bigger celebration.

You can see that Africa like us here celebrates the season, gets together as families and friends, the ways and means may be different but the spirit is the same.

Personally, this Christmas my heart is with the children of Africa and the orphans of Africa in particular who do not have a place to go to this Christmas whose moms and dads have been taken by war, by aids or some other disease and they are alone in some orphanage, missing out on the celebration of family. There are millions of orphans in Africa since death often comes earlier to the parents than here in the West for various reasons.

To me Christmas is about giving and receiving something I learned as a young child in Germany and relearned during my times in Africa. It is in giving one receives. When one gives something to someone even if that person has closed their hand into a fist of anger, they will have to open that hand to be able to receive. It is a transformation of facial and body language, of attitude and of heart. I have sent that time and time again.

The ancient story of God giving his son is replayed as we in turn pass on what has been given to each one of us day after day…and as we do so and people open their hands to receive, things change, people change, walls come down and bridges of relationship open up.

Last update: December 2002

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