December 2003:

It's hard to believe that back home it is cool and damp and, for many of you, already snowing. I know the stores are full of light, music and color and you're in the midst of gifts and special recipes. I talked to some friends and neighbors here in Kenya to find out what Christmas is like for them. Here is the result:

Keeping Christmas in East Africa

"Make some kuku, I'll be home for Christmas." This is the message those working and studying away from home send back to their families at this time of the year. Chicken is a luxury dish in this rural area where most rarely eat meat, so it's a symbol of the special time that is the Christmas season.

This is a community with deep religious commitments and yet remarkably tolerant of each other's beliefs. One lengthy religious observance follows another at the end of the year. In October many of the East Indian population observe Diwhali, followed by the Muslim Ramadan in November, and then Christmas.

In the larger towns, there will be incongruous, western style decorations in a few stores in December, with red clad Santas ho-hoing by the supermarket check out. It's hard to say whether this is to make the ex-patriates feel at home, or because the store really feels it is attractive to the locals.

I suspect the former.

In general there are no decorations in the shops or in the streets for any of these religious festivals. On December 24, a couple of tinsel garlands might appear in a shop window, but the celebrations are strictly an affair for the church community and the family.

The few outward signs of the celebration do not mean that there is nothing happening during the whole month of December! The main purpose of Christmas is to go to church, be surrounded by friends and family and eat more than usual. People will contribute through the year to a savings plan, sometimes set up by the church community or between friends, so that they will have the money to buy sugar and rice and a chicken.

Some villages will organize this on a larger scale, and people will do casual work to contribute to the village fund. If things go well, they might even buy a bull for slaughter and share the meat with everyone.

At Christmas, the staple ugali (maize porridge) is set aside for chapatis, rice and even store bought bread and cakes. Very few people have ovens, so commercial baked goods are a treat. They will make or buy mandazis (a large, solid kind of donut) and will do everything possible to provide protein in the form of a chicken or fish, or even a goose or turkey. All the birds will be stewed in a sauce, because they have all been running around for a good long while and are very tough creatures indeed.

During December, churches organize entertainment on the Christmas theme, choir festivals and drama festivals. People take these events very seriously, there are highly qualified adjudicators and levels of competition from the local to the national. Choirs sing in complex harmonies, accompanied only by drums and a few small, shaken gourds. There will also be announcements of special Bible study groups as Christmas draws closer.

The mud houses are decorated inside and out. New mud is plastered on the outside and different colours sought to make designs. White comes from plantains or from mixing fertilizer with the soil. Black comes from river banks and red is the normal colour of the ground. People travel far to beg soil from distant shambas (farms) where the earth is of a different colour.

Inside the house, fresh cow dung is spread on the floors and allowed to dry. A Christmas tree is made of cypress boughs and decorated with garlands, balloons and artificial flowers. Sometimes young banana boughs are planted by the gate and also decorated with garlands and balloons.

On Christmas Eve, interdenominational choirs will go door to door in a community to sing, pray and tell the Christmas story. Young people organize parties, which can last three days. Office parties and any gathering outside your circle of friends and family are very unusual.

On the night of December 24 the churches are decorated with garlands and balloons, ready for the late services.

Mention Santa Claus and you will get blank looks. Gifts are exchanged, but on a very subdued scale. Children look forward eagerly to receiving a new dress or trousers (which might be second hand) and possibly a pair of shoes.

If you wish to give a gift to a friend in your church, you can wrap and label it, then take it to the church. The gifts are placed on the altar and prayed over. You then walk by after the service to see if someone might have left something for you. Gifts are never frivolous. They might consist of a new piece of clothing, a small amount of money, a bag of rice. Collections are taken for the poor.

On Christmas Day, there is another church service in the morning, and then the visits begin. Family and friends tour the Open Houses to eat and bring a small gift, if they haven't given it at church. The protocol is to visit,eat, present a gift, then leave for the next house.

If a family has a little money, they might decide to go to a hotel for a soda, or even a meal. A very few take their children to the largest hotel in town, which has a swimming pool. But the main purpose of the day is to visit family. The husband's family has the priority, but the wife can ask her husband's permission to visit her own parents.

Many of these customs are reminiscent of how Christmas used to be in other countries which have now commercialized it to such an extent that it has lost its true meaning. Think about the people in Western Kenya as you go through the round of shopping, cooking and social events that clog your calendar from November on.