Christmas in West Africa

Friday 28thDecember 2018

Marina International School had their annual Speech & Prize Day in the first week of December and Rai’s good friend won a prize for some good work done last year.

Form 2 buddies in the playing field

We broke up for the Christmas holidays quite late with Open Day for parent-teacher consultations being held on Thursday 20thDecember. 

Of the more than fifty students that I teach English Language and Literature to at the High School, only 15 parents came to see me. I am used to more than 90% of parents consulting me about their children’s progress every academic term in all the other international schools I have taught in both in Sri Lanka as well as in China and Brunei. So I was surprised by the low turn out here in the Gambia until I was made aware that a majority of High School students did not, in fact, live with their parents (most of whom seemed to be expatriate residents of the USA, the UK or other European countries) who paid their school fees but had entrusted the physical care of their children to grandparents, uncles & aunts or even older siblings. This accounted for the small number of parents who came in to see me about their children’s progress in school.

End of Term – Mufti Day & Party Time with my First Formers!

The ones who did come in were, for the most part, parents or grandmothers of high achievers – which is of course true of most other schools that I have taught in. The children of these caregivers are highly motivated learners who are fortunate to have adults in their lives who are caring and concerned about them – and bother to come to a parent-teacher consultation because of this. The parents and guardians of children who have potential but who consistently under-achieve in class tend to avoid Parents’ Days and steer clear when it is they whom the teachers need desperately to meet!

The next day we went into town and bought two Christmas trees from a small shop run by a Chinese man: a small white one which we decorated with blue baubles and blue & silver tinsel and a tall green one which we decorated with silver baubles and blue & silver tinsel. The blue décor was to match the large blue batik painting that we inherited with the house – and of course because we were going to have a blue Christmas this year without our family and friends in Sri Lanka. We played Christmas carols as we decorated the trees and strung up the fairy lights – and also played some Christmas oldies from the sixties: Jim Reeves with his 12 days of Christmas & Elvis Presley’s ‘Blue Christmas’…..!

We went Christmas shopping over the weekend and bought presents from the very basic choice of cosmetics available along the main street called Kairaba Avenue. Only one shop was playing Boney M Christmas songs! We did buy some seasonal goodies in the form of cakes and biscuits imported from the UK mainly because of the British tourists who flood the beach areas to escape the winter in the Gambia’s eternal sunshine. We did see some turkeys for sale in a Lebanese supermarket but they were too big for us so we decided on roast pork instead for Christmas lunch. We were also thrilled to see a black man dressed in a red Santa suit handing out lollipops at Right Choice, the local Indian supermarket! 

Our first Gambian Father Christmas!

However, the main Christmas present we got for the four of us was an embarrassingly large TV (with a 50-inch screen!) The head of the High School, William, drove Paul all the way to the capital city, Banjul, to buy it through a Ghanaian contact of his who sold it to us for a very reasonable price. We also got a really good deal on the satellite dish and an internet connection with a ridiculously low monthly charge. The main point about the telly though is not that it was such a good bargain – but that it was a symbol of the fact that we have now made a firm decision to stay on in the Gambia and see the school year out in July 2019. 

The TV has made our living room look much better and provided a focus for the household. It has finally turned the ‘Wacky Warehouse’ into a home!  

The big screen TV that the four of us gifted ourselves with for Christmas 2018

My expat teaching colleagues from Sierra Leone and Nigeria had forewarned me about how boring Christmas could be in the Gambia because it is more than 95% Muslim and so we were well-prepared for it. We actually had a quiet but lovely Christmas Day at home with a big but bizarre breakfast spread made by me (an English breakfast with toast, bacon & eggs; American pancakes with maple syrup and fried rice with chicken curry!) and a delicious Christmas lunch made by Paul with roast pork, mash & veggies. 

We played loud Christmas music all day, called family and friends on Whatsapp in the evening and watched ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogies back to back on the telly until late at night. It was brilliant.

We had cooked so much that we were able to eat leftovers for the next two days – hooray! All we did was sleep in, eat, read (the school librarian took pity on me and let Rai and me borrow as many books as we wanted for the 2 week Christmas break – I borrowed 10 African novels!) – and watch Christmas movies on TV. It was heavenly!

While Christmas is a quiet season in the Gambia where the most amount of excitement one is likely to find is in watching a black man in a red Santa suit riding a donkey cart along the beach, it is apparently very different in the rest of West Africa. 

In countries like Ghana which has a majority Christian population of 71% (what a novel concept that is – coming from Sri Lanka where we have always been a very small minority!) as well as Nigeria & Liberia in which more than 50% of the population is Christian (which amounts to a whopping 80 million Christians in Nigeria alone!), Christmas is celebrated through December and well into January with Christmas Eve featuring dancing and drumming all night and Christmas Day marked with overflowing church services followed by special family meals including beef stew, fish soup and grilled chicken accompanying the ubiquitous ‘fufu’ – small balls of rice flour dipped in soup! 

Even in West African countries where Christians are a minority such as Sierra Leone where they make up only 20% of the population, Christmas is celebrated with much energy and excitement with loud Christmas music blaring over loud speakers and boom boxes at every street corner in the run up to Christmas, Midnight Mass & Watch Night Services held in churches throughout the country to which people flock in their best clothes on Christmas Eve, delicious meals and gift giving among family and friends on Christmas Day and then on Boxing Day everybody piles into public transport and goes down to the beach to party!

Maimuna who makes the most delicious pepper chicken and crab kebabs in the world!

Another really astonishing thing is how Christians and Muslims in the Gambia, Senegal and Sierra Leone enjoy peaceful co-existence. People from these countries whom I have had the pleasure of meeting here go to great lengths to explain to anyone who will care to listen that in their countries (unlike in Nigeria where these two main religions clash so violently) both Christians and Muslims have historically lived amicably and peacefully together because ‘after all, we are one family since we are all descended from Adam’! 

Sierra Leoneans have described how the terrible civil war that country went through in the 1990s had absolutely nothing to do with either race or religion – it was, they say, fought entirely due to political reasons. The people – and the government – have always made certain that divisions were not created along tribal, racial or religious lines. My Sierra Leonean colleagues in the English Department tell me that this is probably due to a history of inter-marriage between people of the two faiths and that it is quite common to have Muslims praying in church before going to office in the mornings or attending church services on Sundays – so going to church is not an indication of someone being a Christian. The colleague I share an office with, who is a charismatic Christian, says that evangelistic efforts are therefore not aimed at bringing a person to church but, rather, at seeing a change in a person’s heart as he or she turns their life over to the Lord Jesus Christ.  

To someone like me who comes from a nation racked by religious extremism (not as practiced by the vast majority of the Sri Lankan population of course – but by those power-hungry political parties who use racism in such violent and obscene ways), the mature perspective these West Africans have on race and religion in their countries is so refreshing. It fills me both with a wistfulness for the past when we all lived happily together in that once enchanted island that we call home – and with a longing to see those days return to Sri Lanka for the sake of our children.             

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.