Christmas time in Africa was such a laid back and family orientated affair. Looking back in time, I miss those days, when the entire family would all group together somewhere, be at a hotel restaurant, out at the farm, or just playing round the houses as we all trooped from one house to the next.
You were always guaranteed to have a bit of Canadian Christmas cake, and if you were sly maybe even two slices. There was always a bottle or two of JC Le Reux floating around somewhere, and for the men a beer or three. Pressies under the tree, and sweets and peanuts on all the tables, and cousins you’d almost forgotten about to watch in awe.
The thing I loved about Christmas in Zimbabwe was not just that it was thoroughly a family time, but it was also a community time. Not only did the celebration encompass spending time with your family, but all your close friends, and you made the effort to look in on each other, and in most circumstances on one or three occasions you were all together at a night club on night, a braai the next day and a booze cruise the day after.
I recall how it was always tradition for old year’s day to have a massive braai around our place, everyone that was anyone was invited. The Manduwi family would pop around and say happy new year, Biggy was always around, in later years Dixion and his family would join the celebrations. I can never remember the name of the Major across the street from us but he’d always pop over for a drink. People from church would be around, there was plenty of people to talk to about all manner of things. We’d all eat about 7pm and then sit around for several hours looking like stuffed pigs, waiting for that hour when all the youngsters would troop off into town or Sam Levy’s village for the party to see New Year in. The clear up operation would then swing into action. All the ladies in the kitchen chuckling away as the gossip flowed freely and all the men watching the embers burn down appreciatively. Yes those were the days.
Christmas in the UK. Well, I find it kind of strange how the whole system works here in the UK. You’ve barely got over the January sales, and outcome the Valentines days stuff. Once that’s all done and dusted, the Easter stuff hits the shelves. Then comes the summer bbq and gardening stuff, and then come July Halloween hits the shelves. No sooner is Halloween over than Christmas hits the television screen, the news paper, the shops and anywhere else that you really care to look.
I know of one food and drink chain that have their Christmas tree put up in July to start attracting Christmas bookings. Now I realise that while I lived in Zimbabwe I was incredibly lucky in that Christmas falls in summer and that means you’re able to spend a lot of time outdoors and enjoying your time with friends and family, however when I look back at the value of Christmas and what it meant to us then and what it means to people here, I am ashamed to say it’s nowhere near the same thing.
Yes we had gifts, but we lived in a country that much of the time has been under sanctions or in a money crisis and didn’t have the fancy range of toys and gifts that are available to the average child in this country. In Zimbabwe a home was lucky to have one television or at the very most two. Never did I know a kid my age with his own telly in his room. This seems the norm today, with their own dvd player, Sky digi box and a collection of movies to make a cinema envious.
Never before do I recall seeing Christmas stuff on display in October with sales starting in November to try ensure that the shops Christmas stock was all moved. To me the thrill of Christmas began when school finished for the term and we began to visit town once or twice a week to find out what had been put out on the shelves. The Christmas tree went up a few days before Christmas, and I remember how thrilled I was when it became my responsibility to be mom’s helper to decorate the tree. I remember how I used to insist that the Christmas tree lights were used every year, even though they were almost 30 years old and mostly blown. The day of Christmas was always such an event, there was everyone rushing to get ready for church, then everyone rushing to get the lunch ready, then everyone sitting around feeling rather full! As a family we’d always open our gifts at about 8 pm on Christmas eve, all grouped around the tree, and exploring, or tearing through the paper, eyes wide at what was coming next. Mom has this uncanny way of making sure we always got what we wanted within our needs and I never really remember wanting any more than I ever got. We were taught to be happy with what came.
Now that there are just two of us, Christmas has lost that sparkle for me. By the time it arrives I am so sick of hearing about it on the box that I just want to forget it ever existed. The cost of a half decent Christmas in this country is another reason that I’ve learnt to despise it. You go to the shops in November and see a product marked at £49.95, yet go on the January sales and find the exact same thing, in the exact same place, in the very same store marked for £24.95. I’m sorry but daylight robbery is not my idea of Christmas spirit, and so over the last few years I’ve rather said no thanks, wait to find a gift I really want later in the year than feel forced to get me something at these inflated prices.
Family in the UK are all split up and ranged over a fair distance, and the houses in the UK are a tad too small for us to realistically be able to enjoy a Christmas together. Plus there is the reality that as we’ve all grown up, that thrill of all getting together to meet and have fun has dissipated somewhat as we’ve all chosen to go our separate ways. It is not a common thing for British people to welcome you into their home in the way that it was back home, and so that social element of Christmas in the UK is not the same for people from Africa. For us meeting down the pub is not something we do daily and certainly not something we do on Christmas day, so there is a large cultural barrier that often makes Christmas for anyone from Southern Africa a rather lonely affair while living in the UK.
So this year I’ve had a bit of a brain storm. Anyone that knows Rob knows that I’ve been working on a project called African Connexions, a way for African’s who live in the UK to build social networks within the areas that they live so that we have a way of living some of that close social interaction that we are familiar with. So I’ve decided to do an open house this year. It’s not a massive house, but there is enough space for a whole host of different people to pop along, visit, have a drink or three, a bite to eat and enjoy some traditional welcome and Christmas spirit. It’s a hatchling idea as yet, and one that I am sure will turn into a very different beast by the time Christmas arrives, but that is the idea for now. I want to put my money where my mouth is and say that yes, this is a project I really do believe in. It’s something I am passionate about and something I really want to see come up off the ground and get underway. What better way and time to do it? So people watch this space, or no actually rather watch the African Connexions space, and let’s see what we can do to make Christmas 2009 a very African Christmas for us all right here in the UK.