I lived for eight years in Lesotho, Southern Africa. During Christmas, if someone comes to your door and says “Kresmese! (Christmas!)” he is not wishing you a “Merry Christmas.” He is asking for a hand-out. It wrecked my romantic image of Christmas in Africa. But soon I realized that my idea of Christmas needed a revision. Birth of Christ was not nice nor neat. There was no romance, but there was love.
Christmas comes in the middle of the summer in Southern Africa. Temperatures can go up to the 40 degrees C and above. The celebration awaits the cool air of the night. “Carols in the Candle Light” is a very popular community event in the whole of Southern Africa. Summer nights in South Africa are very dark but the skies are full of stars because there is no pollution. People gather in town squares and soccer fields, sing Christmas Carols in the light of candles, and stage the Christmas pageants.
The pageants performance looks truly authentic. The scenes described in the Bible must have looked like that of the one in Lesotho. Animals are everywhere: Cattle, donkeys, horses, goats, pigs, and sheep roam everywhere in the soccer field. Mary rides on a real donkey. When the Bible mentions a stable the Basotho know it isn’t a pretty sight with a smell of hay, stale milk, and manure.
Shepherds come with real sheep. The audience knows how shepherds look like. Shepherds are everywhere in Lesotho, in the mountains, in the fields, or passing through the city streets. They look like homeless people: rags on their backs, dirty, smelly, and always hungry. They are shunned by decent citizens and chased by dogs like thiefs. They wear no bath robes.
The wise men of the East arrive on real horses. In Africa, well dressed educated intellectuals are often seen as opportunistic and arrogant as they ride around in Mercedes. When ordinary folks in Lesotho hear of wise men giving up everything to pursue what they believed to be the truth, they have a tremendous respect for such men. For them, it is one of the miracles of Christmas.
The women know how to give birth without professional help, because that’s what they do with grannies and girls doing whatever they can. When I saw the little girls play a nativity scene in a church, I was a bit taken aback. They knew exactly what a birthing scene was like, so they played as it should look and sound like. However, they also knew about an adept use of blankets to provide privacy, as blankets are integral part of their daily attire. There was nothing inappropriate to stage a birth in the church.
As for dinner, Basotho meals are simple. Their staple is “millipap” – white corn mill cooked into solid lump and eaten with yoghurt. When they have extra cash, they can indulge in “stompo” – grains of white corn stewed slowly with beans, beef fat and salt with a bit of curry. Our
Christmas dinner doesn’t work so well in Lesotho. Remember, Christmas comes in South Africa in the middle of extreme heat. By the time the turkey is cooked, one gets sick of the
heat and the smell.
Gifts were mostly hand-made. There was no store nearby where we lived first in Lesotho: we had no car either. Our-4-year old daughter got a hand-crafted model car made of wire and wood from discarded crates. A local village kid made it. I paid a few cents for it. I felt so bad for her remembering tons of store-bought toys she got the year before, in Canada. But she didn’t see any problem. A present is a present, she enjoyed it just the same.
Christmas belongs to all people, particularly to the poor. For not so poor, like me, it is a celebration of love. I enjoy presents and having turkey dinner with loved ones very much. However, without love, food and presents don’t mean much.
“Blessed are the poor. Yours is the Kingdom of God.” I learned a lot about the true Christmas in Africa.