One problem with adulting, is that we forget what Christmas really meant to our younger selves. I remember Christmas as that time of the year when the sun shone differently. The air we breathed tasted different. Even the stream where we went for a swim down in the valley after we had let the cattle loose on the grazing meadows felt warmer on our naked backs, caressing the fine hair at the base of the spine as we held our breath and explored the depths of the clear water to see if we could find the secret place where the giant brown crabs went to mate. Christmas to a village boy growing up in a remote village in Western Kenya in the 1980s was that one golden month when God climbed down from the sky and took a stroll with us down the sun-dappled paths as we watched the brown leaves of eucalyptus and misinya trees waft down in the lazy evening breeze.
There was no school during December, and so we played; rollicked in the mud and dust till we came back home looking like squirrels that had been ravaged by the hunting dogs. There wasn’t much work either, and so we ate; gorged on roast potatoes, wild guavas and green maize till our bellies were taught and rounded as drums. The short rains had passed and the evenings were fine and breezy, and so we went out and tried to make the village girls come out of their homesteads and follow us to a secret place down by the valley where they could be persuaded to lift the hem of their dress and show us the colour of their panties. It was a time of making merry, and even the hand of the grim reaper let us be. The flowers bloomed differently this time too, the scented night ones like the moonflower and devil’s trumpet imbuing the moonlit nights with a sense of enchanted mystery.
The village, usually mundane and humdrum during the other months, erupted in a splash of colour around Christmas time. This once a year the monochrome mud huts took on character and colour on the walls as we painted patterns and flowers. First, the mud walls of the thatched round huts were pampered, given a scrub and the equivalent of a facial scrub till they glowed. It was an intense exercise that started with fixing the cracks and smoothing them out using the ordinary red clay dug up in the backyard, and which was mixed with cow dung to give it elasticity, before it was smeared on the walls by hand. Traditionally, it was a chore for girls, but as kids we didn’t care much about all that, for we gleefully rolled up our sleeves and dug in to help, after stamping the paste fine with our bare feet till it was pliable and soft like chapati dough.
Next was the beautification of our spanking walls. This required a special white clay that was not easy to find. It was mined deep in the valleys where you had to wade through reeds and marshes to get to it, risking snakes, leeches and other creatures found in the marshes. After the white walls had dried our canvas would finally be ready to receive its artwork. The reverse, just like the ‘dark’ mode on modern cellphones, would be using a dark clay, again found in the marshes, to which the artwork would be applied using light-coloured or pastel pigments.
The Christmas wall art was achieved by a number of mediums. The most common was using a fine paste made from soot collected from the thatch of the kitchen hut, and which had accumulated there over a year from the burning of wood fires. This soot was mixed with a little water and ground into a fine paste. The other dye was red ochre, which was equally painstakingly sought in the valleys and ground into a paste. Where a green dye was desired this pigment was obtained from ground pumpkin leaves. White was easy; green plantain or bananas sharpened into a pencil. We didn’t need no brushes once our array of multi-coloured dyes was ready. Our fingers served us just fine.
The wall art varied, depending on the sophistication of the artists – it was always kids doing this, never adults – and how world-wise they were. For those whose exposure ended at the village church and school it might be a bible verse or a representation of Jesus holding his shepherd’s staff. Those who had no clue but simply needed to fill the space with something it might be a basic lotus petal pattern or any other flower pattern akin to those they doodled in their school notebooks during a double afternoon maths lesson. For the romantics it was a heart pierced by Cupid’s arrow – never mind we had never met this Cupid fellow! For the adventurous it might be a pouncing lion or a cheetah in full flight- again we had never seen these canines around the village, only read about them in school books. Or it might be the rally car of our favourite ace from the past Safari Rally, complete with the Marlboro and Pirelli brand embellishments. Whatever the artist chose to draw it was always accompanied by a loud ‘Merry Xmas and Happy New Year’ sign. Everything would then be enclosed in a border of an elaborate spiral, cruciform or triangular checkerboard pattern that covered the length and breadth of the wall as if guarding the artwork from plagiarists. Our walls would now be ready for baby Jesus.
And it was not just the walls, the floors had to be made colourful for Christmas as well. For these you had to start with applying a fresh layer of moist earth to the hardpan earth floor and tamping it down with a heavy compactor hewn out of a log. Before the floor dried you smeared it with fresh cow dung, which, besides aesthetics, served an equally important hygienic purpose back then: it kept chiggers, mites, bugs and other dust-dwelling vermin out by smothering their eggs and pupae before they hatched. Only after this did the decor come in.
And we being Africans, and Africans being generally colourful people, we embellished those earth walls using diverse patterns, depending on what working tools were at hand. You could choose to leave a dry maize cob overnight on a termite mound and let the ants make a pattern for you as they gnawed on it. If you took this gnawed cob and rolled it on a semi-dry earthen floor it left a complex but visually pleasing pattern after it dried. You were at liberty to choose from the many natural objects around you, including a banana leaf whose central stem had another intricate pattern; or if you were not imaginative enough then you could simply pick up an old tin mug and stamp a pattern of circles in the soft earth with it. The idea was never to leave anything looking drab, regardless whether you dined on rich chicken stew or plain steamed veggies in the hut.
With the artwork done and as the big day inched closer the cousins from Nairobi and other towns who we had not seen the whole year would start arriving. I would later learn that they were escaping the cities because it was more fun in the village than in those enclosed and regulated places where they were coming from. It was lonely in urban places at Christmas.
These urban fellows were interesting. For one they were amused at things that us village kids found everyday and mundane. For instance if you caught a beetle and poked a stick through its back and handed it to an urban kid he would go around all day mesmerized as the poor beetle buzzed at the end of the stick – at least until its strength ebbed and it died. If you snared a bird and tied it to a string they would equally pet it all day, and cry real tears when we made a fire at the back of the house and got set to roast it. They were real sissies, these fellows. They didn’t even know how to make a toy car from the inner stem of a banana tree, or cut a Toyota rally car out of a used Kimbo or Cowboy tin that your mother was done with in the kitchen; and if you made a fine truck for them on the day before they departed they would insist on carrying it back to the city with them. They would cackle like wild monkeys on a rabbit hunt and whoop with delight when we carried pails of water up a slope and prepared a slippery stretch for mud-sliding.
You should have seen the look on their mother’s face when we eventually came home to roost, covered all over in scratches and grazes. The fellows would have to be bathed in a special hot bath with Dettol in it as we watched in bemusement. Thereafter they would be swathed all over in mosquito repellent and be made to swallow a spoonful of vile-tasting Scott’s Emulsion and other concoctions for worms and stuff. Their mothers must have worked in a pharmacy, from the bottles of medication they brought with them whenever they came visiting. Even a common cold that went away on its own had medication for it!
Anyway, eventually the big day would come round and it was time to slaughter the big cock that we had been fattening all year round for that day – for folks from western Kenya Christmas is never complete without slaughtering the biggest cockerel in the homestead. It is the reason if you visit the informal settlements in cities like Nairobi where folks from that side of the country live, you will not miss to find a forlorn fowl tethered outside the mabati-walled shack picking at a few grains of maize or left-over ugali the owner threw at it as it awaits the knife on the big day. And around Christmas the traders cash in on this, trucking in chickens from the city’s environs and selling them at double what they usually cost at the City Council market the rest of the year.
There were those who were more affluent in the village who would slaughter a goat or ram for their visiting city relatives. But the rule of thumb was that chicken would still appear on the dinner table in order for it to be a complete feast. As for the accompaniment, chapati was the favourite. Back then it was rare to cook chapati the rest of the year, the usual fare being bananas, cassava, arrow roots or mahengere (maize-and-beans mix) which were in plenty in the kitchen gardens. The ugali was served with a variety of veggies that were often steamed or, on rare occasions, fried. Meaning we lived quite healthy, even when we detested these everyday foods as kids. Ever tried eating boiled pumpkin with your tea for breakfast on a Monday morning when you had woken up on the wrong side of the bed? Pah! Anyway, Christmas was a time to spoil ourselves and pad up with the fat we had been denied the whole year, like herbivores in the Kalahari when the rains finally come and the desert sprouts green. This once everything had to be deep-fried, be it rice, beef or even those very bananas we had been made to eat boiled out of their skins the rest of the year. This once everything had to glisten in oil. Meaning if you took a stroll down the main village path your nose would be assailed by an assortment of aromas wafting in from people’s backyards.
If you talk to any kid who came of age back then they will tell you that there was always a Christmas dress; their finest pair of shirt and pants or dress that was kept ironed and folded and stored at the bottom of the clothes trunk, never to be worn the whole year. If your folks had a bit of money – like if that year’s tea crop had brought in an impressive bonus payment – it meant you would receive new clothes at this time. If not, then your old but carefully stored clothes would have to come out now to be laundered and ironed, same to your only pair of shoes. Often you would have outgrown the pair of trousers by a few inches by then, and the stiff shoes would be pinching, but it was not a bother considering, you would still be coming out in your Christmas best, regardless whether you hobbled along like a goat that had stepped on a thorn!
Now, the interesting thing about a village Christmas is that even with all the preparation and anticipation, when the big day finally came it passed by rather in a blur, just like any other day. The thing that made you know it was CChristmas was the villagers passing outside your compound at dawn, either already stoned from their tipple at the village brewer’s – where they probably had stayed up all night drinking – or headed there for the special busaa that had been brewed for the occasion. Their raucous laughter and drunken banter started very early before the village rose. And often by the time the sun came up properly they would be lining up in the gutters pissing their best pants, already stoned as newts, singing ribald circumcision songs in a drunken drawl to the embarrassment of the passing village women dressed in white, accompanied by their daughters, headed to the Christmas mass.
Your visiting uncle from the city, who found this merriment exciting, would be longing to go out and join the village folks to wherever brewer’s compound they were headed to, but then he was too proud to sit on the grass under a banana tree and cradle a gorogoro tin of busaa like the villagers were doing. Instead he would summon your other drunken uncle who usually sold goats at the village market over the fence and pass him some money and instruct him to fetch some of the stuff in a jerrican so that they could drink on folding chairs under the mango tree after the rest of the family had left for the Christmas mass as they cleaned out goat ribs. And the goat-selling uncle would oblige because he knew that after the urbanite was fairly drunk and merry he would go into the house to bring out his car keys so that they could go and carry on the party at the pub at the village shopping centre, and which was only patronized by salaried villagers like teachers at month-end. For once your poor uncle’s throat would be lubricated by bottled beer!
The drinking aside, for us kids the day would mostly be spent at the choir competitions catcalling at the girls, whose faces would be shiny with a generous dose of Vaseline, hair elaborately done in cornrows and other intricate patterns. Thereafter we would abandon our snacks of soda and sugarcane and head back down to the valley to do adult things- we got bored far too easily back in the day!
Earlier that day we would have contrived with that same goat-selling uncle to get us our share of the busaa or the more fiery chang’aa, paying for it with our meagre savings, and tipping the wily guy generously in the process. Back then the adults still took the ‘Under 18’ rule seriously, you see, and kids could not be sold booze. Actually if you were seen lurking near a booze joint you would be slapped or spanked seriously by any passing adult. Try that today with modern kids! And so we had no choice but to innovate if we wanted to taste the nectar of the gods.
And so, come midday, most of us would either be snoring softly in the soft grass down in the valley sleeping off the booze, or for those who were altar boys their bellies would be too stuffed with a variety of bitings all they could do was loll under a tree and fart silently into the wind as they waited for some of it to digest. Those who were fortunate enough to convince a girl to follow them to the valley they would already have seen the colour of her panties and would now be ensconced in God’s soft bed of green sharing the illicit liquor, with the ninja knowing full well that there was no way the girl was going home to her strict Quaker parents with that stuff smelling on her breath. A lie would have to be concocted about this feast to which she had been dragged by a relative who was well-known to her mum; the consequences could be dealt with after Boxing Day was over.
And as the sun softened on the canopy of trees overhead and the noises of the village children celebrating the trophy their choir had lifted at the choir competitions faded into the distant hills, you would rise from your soft green bed and blink awake, only to realize that Jesus had indeed been born in a manger somewhere in the Middle East as you were snoozing!