Tuesday, 4 January 2011

An Idiot's Guide to an Afrikan Christmas

I never liked Bono’s patronising lyric ‘Do they know its Christmas time?’ not just because he’s a self-serving egotist, but because I wasn’t sure whether they actually celebrated Christmas in Afrika, (I was a lot younger when harbouring such thoughts, a similar age to when I assumed there was no food out here and when I thought The Edge was a cool name for a guitarist). But fortunately for us and Bono, they do know it’s Christmas time, and as this is only my second Christmas on foreign soil and the first riding solo without the rest of the Ford-Stroop clan, I figured I’d lay down some exotic festive truths to chew on whilst nursing an inevitable festive hangover.

Getting into the festive spirit has been a struggle, unlike England there was never any chance of a white Christmas out here, temperatures have not dropped below 20C and it’s been hard to imagine its December at all when we remain by far the whitest thing on the landscape. The purchase of the Pogues Fairytale of New York therefore has been the best purchase since a Massai spear we bought from a local blacksmith (smuggling it through customs however will be a bloody nightmare), and between Kirsty McCall’s sultry tones and licking a spoonful of nutella every morning we successfully got past the disappointment of not being able to find a Cadbury’s advent calendar anyway of the continent. (The only other Christmas song we had was Chris de Burgh’s Spaceman Came Travelling, played a good deal less, cuz the song makes no sense, and de Burghs an oddball).

Despite knowing its Christmas time, the general populace of Tanzania don’t seem to love Christmas half as much as the Brits and the rest of the Santa-worshipping West do. The country is a 50/50 Christian/Muslim split (plus some other funny religions too), which would go some way to explain some of the indifference to the big day (Eid was a while ago, we got the day off for that too, being the good Muslim boys that we are), but the whole Christmas culture is different to England. There doesn’t seem to be a tradition of giving presents, or of tinsel and Christmas trees, (we bought a fake one for our house, much to the amusement of everyone else), it doesn’t matter if you have been naughty or nice, presents seem rare and lumps of coal are only seen the the local home-brew banana beer mbegya, (we don’t know why they are there, but it makes it taste very strange). We discussed our disappointment at the apparent lack of festive cheer with our bosses at the charity, and they just seemed to accept the day as a public holiday (as is Eid, Independence Day and the ex-President/Communist dictators birthday) and a chance to meet up with family, no snow, no stockings or shepards or wise men, no fat bloke at the Trafford Centre dressed up as Santa with a worried looking child on his lap, thank god for the Pogues and Nutella for keeping us festive.         

Our own Christmas was spent with Burley’s family in the nearby city of Moshi (Lord knows how Njiapanda celebrates Christmas, and we sure as hell didn’t want to find out), though due to the muppets Kenya employs on her borders they got here a day late, which meant that Christmas Eve was spent almost exclusively eating the massive meals which the charity’s directors prepared for us. No turkey obviously (I’ve kept my eyes peeled for one, but all I’ve seen is heavy-bollocked goats and mangy looking chickens), but roast potatoes and goat curry went down an absolute treat regardless. We had originally planned to tear up Midnight Mass at the local Catholic Church on Christmas Eve (much to my mother’s delight), but come early evening we had ploughed through a fair few beers and our own limited experience of Afrikan church services (a wedding and a christening) is that services are long and in Swahili (a proper Catholic service should be in Latin, but I’ve kept quiet on that for now), and unlikely to look favourably on snoring foreigners, so decided to give the Catholics a wide berth for the evening.
Christmas day began at half 6 but some joker blaring out Christmas carols over the needlessly loud hostel sound system, (by seven they had ran out of Christmas carols and were playing some sort of Shaggy compilation instead). After exchanging gifts (I got a few books to add to our wide literary collection which includes super-geek Tom Clancy, the idiot Jeffrey Archer and the genius L. Ron Hubbard, as well as some Dutch chocolates relating to the hilariously racist Dutch tradition of Zwarte Piet, type it into Wikipedia and find out for yourselves) we headed to a waterfall just outside Kilimanjaro National Park to spend Christmas morning cutting very pale figures swimming in the splash-pool. The locals were not impressed, but they rarely are when the white folks go splashing about ruining the natural beauty of any place.

Whereas Christmas dinner is usually spent in Cheshire or Shropshire, this year we went to a bizarre little Austrian restaurant back in Moshi. I’d never paid Austria much thought before, they usually put in a decent shift at Eurovision and a pretty poor one at sporting events, I didn’t realise they had cuisine, and definitely didn’t realise they had enough of it to claim an entire restaurant. Turns out nothing on the menu was Austrian (except schnitzel, but I don’t know what that is, possibly something to do with an egg), so we all had a fat steak and chips for Christmas dinner, (blasphemy for Christmas purists, but there are literally no turkeys on this continent, and they wouldn’t take any Brussels Sprouts chat out here either). Beautiful.

After finally managing to organise a Skype call with the family (I replaced the Queen’s speech apparently, the one time a year she gets to go on TV and she gets replaced by some bearded tourist, honoured), they proceeded to show me both the snow in England and the remnants of their own traditional Christmas dinner, which did not go down well. (You know who you are, and you should be ashamed). The result of all this has been Christmas in Afrika has been a rather surreal experience, enjoyable, but surreal none the less. Nobody was anywhere near as excited about it as we were, and even our own excitement was dampened by the climate and the distinct lack of Santa’s hats at the market (Gin and spears easy to find, but not a hat nor an elf costume in sight. Scrooges). It sounds odd, but I’m looking forward to Christmas next year already, last minute Christmas shopping, throwing rocks at kids singing carols and watching Steve McQueen and the gang give the Jerrys a damn good hiding in some sort of war-related flick. Tanzania does know it’s Christmas time, they just don’t seem to care about it as much as we do. Sorry Bono.

Wishing England a merry belated Christmas and a happy new Year

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