Print   |   Back
December 22, 2015
African Voice
Christmas and Folkways in Africa
by Imo Eshiet

At Christmas festivities in my village, stockades of competing cultures often give way and blend as foods do in a salad bowl. During the end of year Christian holiday, a carnival float displaying nativity scenes and ancient masquerade rites previously used to honor of ancestral gods, stirringly combine to evoke refreshing memories of the Savior’s birth.

It had not always been so. In my childhood days, folks who preferred inherited folk religion traditionally passed on for generations, opposed Christianity, mocked its adherents, and threw every obnoxious and snide remarks at their sacred holidays. They used the same masquerade processions now common at Christmas festivities to publicly assault Christianity and those who professed it.

I can easily recall stories my parents told me about the mistrust between the two religions back in the day. When Christian missionaries first came to my village, they went to consult my grandfather who was both the tribal chief and the high priest of the community’s god of divination. The missionaries asked their host for land to build a church and a school.

Grandfather consulted his fellow chiefs. Furious and afraid the new religion would displace their gods and usurp their positions, they advised him to drive away the newcomers immediately. A man of keen insights and foresight, the old man, however, was for welcoming the missionaries and building bridges and goodwill rather than walls. He argued that since the missionaries said they were bringing a new god, he thought the more gods and more god people the better for the land so long as they did not meddle with our culture and traditions, or mess with children and women.

It was not an easy road to go with the adamant chiefs. A deft leader, he managed to avert crisis by persuading the uncooperating chiefs to at least give the missionaries a chance.

Still mad at the decision of their leader, the chiefs found another way to try to get rid of the missionaries. They said to give the missionaries a part of the jungle nobody wanted. This was where villagers who died of what the community feared were abominable diseases like small pox, influenza, or from curses for breaking taboos were abandoned at death. In those days, folks worshipped the earth as a deity and dared not profane it by burying evil people.

Anyone who died from an illness that stumped the community was taken to that part of the jungle and simply left there to rot or be eaten by carrion birds and animals. Believing the jungle was ghost-haunted, the chiefs reckoned that before long the missionaries would be wiped out.

When the missionaries thrived, my grandfather felt absolved from blame. He figured that he was right in the first place when he thought the missionaries had a good and powerful juju. Thus convinced, he started thinking of how to get some of that new “magic” from the missionary.

The missionaries obliged and told him conversion and sending his children to school was the fastest way to their powers. The first condition was like suicide, so Grandfather fearing a blowback from other chiefs who would accuse him of selling out and boot him, wisely turned it down. He got around it though by contributing funds to the building of churches and schools and sending out his sons to learn all they could about the new ways.

That was how my uncles and my father got education. They in turn would send their children who in turn would educate the next generation in that order. That was how my uncles became the first high school and college graduates in the clan. The lesson Grandfather left for his posterity was that thoughtful action can open the door to change and progress.

Grandfather, however, kept back his daughters. He would marry them off to powerful chiefs who otherwise would have made trouble for him if they were not so connected.

So though Grandfather passed before he could lay hands on the good juju, his sons, grandsons, and great-grandsons did. With the new generation, it was clear that diverse cultures could get along pretty well for the good of all.

I remember going to church every Sunday with my parents and also belonging to children cults in the village. They did not see any conflict in that. Belonging to these cults stirred my lifelong interest in folk performances, storytelling, improvisation, and theater. As a member of Ekpo Ntokeyen, a village cult where kids took part in masking, costuming, and dancing to entertain themselves and other villagers, I learned many folkways that were never part of school curricula.

Through my membership in the cult, I early learned how to be happy by making do with what I had. During one public outing by maskers at one Christmas holiday, I had lost my mask and could not join the procession of maskers. I was devastated, but an uncle helped me deal with the situation. He reached for a calabash hanging on our kitchen rafter, split it in two and taught me how to carve these into masks. I ended up having a mask and one to spare.

For a headgear, he taught me how to weave around broomsticks, the radiant feathers of a rooster and how to stick these on the mask we had improvised. Soaking red clay in water, and mixing in white chalk, he transformed my complexion from a little brown boy to a colorful spirit child which the community assumed kid maskers to be. Through his common touch, I learned the magic of simplicity, imagination, and creativity.

As this season for celebrating the birth of the Light of the World brings back these sweet memories, I realize how my ancestors and childhood experiences prepped me for greater light and truths. When I came by the words taught by President Gordon B. Hinckley, “We say to the people, in effect, you bring with you all the good that you have, and then let us see if we can add to it,” it was not difficult for me to understand that light can be added to light for greater illumination.

Also, when introduced to the restored gospel, I was able to easily get around the popular but flawed reasoning that since one already had the Bible there was no need for added revelations and other scriptures.

One of the things I get from Christmas and my folk background is the goodwill to get along with different peoples and traditions. Joseph and Mary, the earthly parents of Jesus did exactly that when they received the mysterious Magi and their exotic gifts at the birth of their child Jesus.

Folk cultures can be different, but a certain peace comes knowing that all things work together for those who love God. Sue Owen, a Church spokeswoman, made the point clear at Brisbane, Australia, when a group of Muslims invited to a Church facility prayed together with members. “We can promote peace,” She said, “by finding out what we have in common, rather than what sets us apart.”

Copyright © 2024 by Imo Eshiet Printed from