"Character is the one thing we make in this world and take with us into the next."
- - Ezra Taft Benson
December 24, 2013
Christmas in an African Village
by Imo Eshiet

At work someone asked, “Do you celebrate Christmas in Africa?” From the look on his face, I could tell the question was nuanced with subtexts. What my acquaintance actually intended was, “Do you have great malls in Africa and the electricity to light up the Christmas season?”

Downplaying the underlying question, I answered that perhaps the Christmas tradition in Africa anciently harkens back to when the Ethiopian said to the Apostle Philip, “Look, here is water. What thus hinders me to be baptized?”

Getting away from early century Christianity, I explained that before the 1492 landing of Columbus in the Americas, explorers who scoured the West African coast in search of much needed spices In Europe not only traded with Africans but also proselyted with their brand of the gospel.

The Bible and the sword especially in the hands of early European missionaries and colonizers were choice modes of persuasion to win over Africans during those early days of contact with Europe and the traditions they brought. Inevitably Easter, Christmas and Christian holidays were early introduced to and embraced by Africans.

Long before money obsessed businesses and profligate politicians usurped a season globally set aside to appreciate unmerited grace and divine compassion and turned it into a celebration of the idolatry of money (to borrow a phrase from Pope Francis), Christmas was one of the most wholesome periods in rural Africa.

It was a time for those hard-bitten by squalor, scuffed up by neglect, and hurting from miseries and sorrow to find release in uncommon uplift and merriment. It was a time for community service. It was a time to magnify and strengthen family bonds, a time to eat together, a time to recollect and share anecdotes, a time for reconciliations, expectations and renewal of hope for the New Year.

In my boyhood in rural Nigeria, folks stopped at nothing in pouring their hearts and souls to making the Christmas celebration special. Though we had other celebrations all year round, Christmas stood out as the singular most important one in the lives of several groups. In my local language it was known as Uchoro Awasi, literally meaning the “Celebration of Deity.” Thus Christmas was the festival of festivals.

The mood in the period between Christmas and the New Year was usually happy and enjoyable. In Nigeria most people who work and live in cities usually return home during the festive season to celebrate with their extended families. Thus Christmas was a time when the city and its ideas and fashion interacted with the country and its set of values.

People returning home would bring gift items that were uncommon in the villages. In return they would be feted with delicious local cuisines, herbs, spices and art works normally unavailable in the cities or too expensive in the cities. In anticipation of the volume of visitors flowing into the country, such community services such as maintaining village pathways, squares, streams and markets were freely done by the villagers.

Cracked mud walls were plastered over with native clay, while rutted thatched roofs were replaced. In honor of Deity, every homestead placed wreathes woven from palm fronds on gateways leading to their homes. I guess the choice of palm fronds was significant because the oil palm tree is the most important economic tree in our jungle and its deep yellow young fronds are traditionally laden with meaning.

These wreathes, which were so high trucks could conveniently drive through their curves, were festooned with colored objects, crafts and flowers (which to Westerners would easily pass as exotic). Conditioned by centuries of rain and sunshine, many of the sparkling flowers such as the Flame of the Forest wittily blended and projected the charm of goodwill and peace associated with the season. Some of the flowers like the Queen of the Night and some species of tropical hibiscus made the atmosphere redolent with delicate, haunting fragrance.

I recall how friendly and helpful feelings so very much permeated the land at this time that otherwise fractious neighbors ceased hostilities to one another. For example, there was an extended family member with whom communication had broken down with my mom.

She was furious because mother encouraged my sisters to attend college instead of allowing them to be married off. She feared mother was setting a bad example for other women over whom Mom had some measure of influence.

This tradition-bound family member had so bought into the narrow roles our male-dominated society fashioned for women that she was mad at anyone who went against the obtaining order. Naturally, since Mom had lived in cities and had embraced ideas not yet current in the village, this family member found her particularly annoying.

But at Christmas, she would bring over to Mom soup locally known as “fine-bottom” because it was rich in vegetables and assorted seafood such as sea snails, lobsters and periwinkle. The aroma of the soup was so mouthwatering we could perceive it long before she arrived with her earthen clay pot delicately balanced on her head.

Interestingly, her soup always had smoked barracuda in it. Since that big tropical fish fed on other fish in the sea, I couldn’t help later as an adult, musing over its symbolism given how the two women chewed up each other.

Mother often reciprocated the gesture with trinkets and a bowlful of curried goat and rice cooked with coconut milk. They would laugh and hug themselves as long lost friends — to my amazement. In fact, I remember that the Christmas season was one period when the destitute didn’t have to pluck their lunch from high hanging boughs. All that was required was a good appetite. Anyone who visited any home at all in the community would eat and still have enough to take away.

One particular Christmas, I over-ate so much that an aunt had to use some special oil and herbs to massage my tummy to ease the pressure on my lungs just so I could breathe.

Social activities and religious observances went hand in hand. Whether Christmas Day fell on a Sunday or not, folks held church meetings and celebrated what they called “Usen Eno,” which means “the Day of Gift” in our language. Religious scenes that heralded the birth of Christ such as the annunciation were mimed or acted out during these meetings.

Like almost every aspect of our present day culture, Christmas is a colorful blend of indigenous and received traditions.

My Annang folks are renowned in West Africa for carving. Often spiritual experiences are captured in wood carvings, the better to give immediacy and permanence to their impressions. Before contact with Christianity, local deities were venerated and represented in carvings and raffia work.

They bring this tradition to their current religion. At Christmas, for instance, nativity images are depicted as motifs in mural, masks and raffia. Since childhood, the imagery of Joseph, Mary and the Magi adoring the child Jesus has remained indelible in my mind as result of the paintings and carving I saw in our homes and local churches.

The Magi with their regal bearing, apparel, walking staff and gifts to the newborn child left a long-lasting impression of royalty and grace on my young mind because how they looked like in wood carving resonated with the chiefs and wise elders carried themselves in real life in my community.

I could relate to the child in the manger because the surroundings and the animals captured in the paintings and carvings were so very similar to my reality because we too lived with the domestic animals we raised.

To drive home the royalty of the newborn Jesus, the dances, songs and other musical performances usually reserved for special social and cultural ceremonies such as the crowning of kings were elaborately staged on village squares and playgrounds.

Horn-blowers with elephant tusks, drummers and exquisitely costumed dancers in long processions moved through the community regaling folks with what the birth of Christ meant to them. Stories were not merely narrated but enacted in charming memorable ways.

The Christmas pageant was the event to look to in my childhood. Though every other festival had its peculiar appeal, yet it all paled in significance when compared to the festivities and ceremonies held in memory of the child Jesus.

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About Imo Eshiet

Imo Ben Eshiet was born in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. Raised in his village, Uruk Enung, and at several cities in his country including Nsukka, Enugu, Umuahia, Eket and Calabar, Eshiet is a detribalized Nigerian. Although he was extensively exposed to Western education right from childhood in his country where he obtained a PhD in English and Literary Studies from the University of Calabar, he is well nurtured in African history, politics, culture and traditions.

Imo is currently a teacher in the high priests group in the Summit Ward of the Greensboro North Carolina Stake.

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