From Awareness Times Newspaper in
Reflections of Christmas in Sierra Leone
By Patrick John, United Kingdom
Dec 7, 2010, 17:02
The thought of Christmas really evokes a sense of nostalgia which is almost impossible to articulate. I remember the ‘good old days’ in the late 60s and early 70s – what an incredible feeling the whole idea of Christmas conjured?
I recall the cool dry dusty winds of the harmattan, blowing south from the Sahara in December, pounding your face, leaving it dry in white powder; the brisk momentum of the days and nights leading up to Christmas; the half leveraged Christmas decorations in shop windows glittering through the nights; bright colourful light bulbs sprinkled on Christmas trees, hanging loose without the prospect of being pinched by some ‘good for nothing’ deviant. Sounds like fiction? Well, it isn’t!
If you stood at the ‘Clock Tower’ then, about the start of dusk on the eve of Christmas day, you could watch the clamouring crowds, hustling and bustling at Kissy Street, hawkers shouting their wares in high sopranos, the ‘Syrian’ proprietor couched behind the wooden counter , basking with his half lit cigar sealed between his dry lips, with eyes that revealed he was a cut above the others; wearied shoppers with half empty bags but with smiling faces, hopping about busily between shops, keeping up the yuletide fever. This feverish atmosphere was contagious – everyone caught the bug.
Christmas Eve was a sight to behold. As boys, my brothers and I would buy loads of fireworks. Well, not the plethora of choices you now have. A ‘starlite’ here and a ‘banger’ there, a couple of in between ones, all provided an excitingly wonderful chaos of a night. Not without some casualties though. We would blast each other into smithereens. On reflection, I am surprised we didn’t end up killing someone. I remember stuffing a beer bottle with a ‘banger’ and launching it as a missile on my brother, who was hiding away between two planks of wood, adjacent the outdoor tap. Oh boy! You could hear the loud explosion several doors away from our house. The screech, the fright, the ‘gotcha’ feeling that encapsulated such a gladiatorial combat, almost too impossible to explain. The more outrageous and outlandish we were, the greater the buzz we derived. Would I do it again? That’s a ‘catch 22’question!
Well, Christmas was never Christmas without the carol serenaders who seemed to meander out of the woodwork every December. Some in uniform (often in black and white), others, completely in disarray and their voices often reflected their total lack of organisation. They were in it for the money – everyone sang in unison. Sometimes , the screeching falsettos were so ingenious , it provided the extra entertainment for the hosts – and that is even before they got the lyrics all scrambled up ,’Why shepherds watched their fox by night’.
Rather perversely, Christmas day was almost always an anti climax. No dashing snow, no imaginary Santa breaking through roof tops to deliver nicely wrapped presents – just a serenely beautiful morning that announces itself through the ‘Gramophone’ of the neighbour three doors away, with the London King’s college choir singing, ‘Brightest and best of the sons of the morning’. As you glide out of bed to get ready for the Christmas day service , you are generous with your compliments of ‘Happi Krismess’ and reciprocating to family and friends in equal measure. I really can’t remember my family ever indulging in any of the ‘over the top’ hugging that now seems to pass for the norm. A hand shake with a smiling face used to suffice in my day.
Attending the Christmas day service was at the core of the celebrations and quite rightly so. Even my mother who would have languished the previous night in the kitchen preparing the ‘Pepeh Soup and Yams’, Jollof rice, buckets of ginger beer and all the other ‘goodies’, wasn’t exempt from ensuring she got herself ready for service.
The Christmas day cuisine was unlike any other. The jollof rice tasted incomparably different to any you’d have had previously. There was often a raft of sweets for the children, a variety of biscuits that made it feel like the confectionery shop a few yards away, had just moved into our sitting room. The crates of soft drinks in the house was always a novelty. Christmas was about the only time you were permitted a whole bottle of soft drinks all to yourself. Oh boy! How we sipped it so sparingly. The carving of the chicken was usually more about family hierarchy than the notion of food distribution. The leg or breast of chicken invariably ended up on my parent’s plate. With a bit of luck, you got the wings.
A wonderful highlight of the day was mainly the baskets of ‘jollof rice’ that arrived from our neighbour’s house. Somehow, it always tasted incredibly better than what was provided at home. This was reciprocated by mum posting huge chunks of food in her finest ‘pyrex’ dishes to a couple of neighbours around our vicinity.
You’ll probably have noticed that I haven’t mentioned ‘toy snatching’ from beneath the Christmas tree yet. That was a social panache observed in other sitting rooms – not ours. You might be lucky to have a toy gun (and that was before gun violence became the forte of young people), some new clothes for church and a couple of ‘change’ in your pocket. Good Gracious! How contented we were? Tell that to my children!
Then came the long afternoons – and I use that adjective unsparingly. There was nothing usually planned or structured. Everything from then on assumed an air of spontaneity. Children whizzed about with their new toys, played inventive games or just occupied themselves. The adults on the other hand, might sit over a Brandy or a bottle of Gin and ‘crack’ themselves potty with jokes children were forbidden from eavesdropping.
Almost as if from a distance, you would hear the pulsating rhythm of the ‘Milo Jazz’, signalling the approach of ‘Tetina’(a group of Masqueraders). This was usually a catalyst for an eruptive atmosphere that got young men and women streaming through in large numbers to catch a glimpse of this incredible carnival. How I yearned for many years to be part that crowd? It’s probably the wild streak in me!
As the day slowly ebbs away, ushering in Boxing day, you’re so amazingly exhausted, partly due to excitement, but mainly because one’s had too much to eat and drink. There’s often a whiff of sadness that you have to wait for another 365 days to do it all over again.
I do honestly miss the lost innocence of Christmas. I would do anything to recapture it once again. The truth is –it’s gone for ever!
© Copyright 2005, Freetown, Sierra Leone.