This Christmas season you may have heard the song “Do They Know Its Christmas?” Originally written by Bob Geldof in 1984 to raise money for Ethiopian famine relief, the song has recently been revived to raise money to fight Ebola in west Africa.
The song came with original lines like: Tonight thank God its them instead of you and where nothing ever grows and no rain or river flows. These have been replaced to be, in Geldof and Band-Aid 30’s hopes, less offensive or ignorant. There are now lines like there is death in every tear and the Christmas bells that ring there are the clanging chimes of doom.
The song cannot escape the original condescension and racism it espoused (in my opinion, these new lyrics are not a whole lot better). It was then and is now based on ignorance, racism, and a white savior mentality. It promotes an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ idea and does nothing to promote honest understanding, true compassion, or empathy. It sets up Africa as a monolithic mysterious place where everyone is poor and helpless, unaware, and in need of saving.
What I really want to say is that: Yes, we know it is Christmas in Africa.
People in Africa know it is Christmas because there are Christians in Africa and they know and celebrate the story of Jesus’ birth.
Out of every four Christians in the world, one of them lives in Africa. 24% of the world’s Christians live in Africa, which means there are over half a billion Christians on the continent. Of the top 10 countries with the world’s largest Christian population, three of them are in Africa.
Even, wait for it, wait for it…even in Muslim Africa, people know it is Christmas.
Here in Djibouti, a country with a 94% Muslim population, there are Christmas trees for sale, Santa Claus chocolates in grocery stores, Christmas carols played over the sound system in stores, Christmas programs performed by children at school. There are vacation days from work, advertising campaigns urging people to purchase the perfect gift for loved ones. There are glittering lights on lampposts downtown and a real, life-size gingerbread house at the five-star Kempinski Hotel.
These people know it is Christmas. And though I’m not Djiboutian, for now as an expatriate into my second decade in Djibouti, I’m one of them. We know it is Christmas.
One of my best Somali friends, a devout Muslim, gives me Christmas gifts. One year it was an 8×10 framed photo of my infant daughter. Another year, another Somali friend who is also a devout Muslim, pretended to be Santa Claus and delivered new material to be sewn into covers for my local-style cushions. My kids invite Muslim friends to our house to sit on Santa’s lap and tell him what they want and their parents laugh and take photos. On Christmas Day we bring part of our feast to our Muslim neighbors.
Just like they do on their Muslim feasts. Every Eid holiday we receive plates filled with grilled goat and rice dyed green, pink, and blue. Every Eid holiday our friends wish us a happy holiday and they wish us a happy holiday again on Christmas.
This is not ISIS, Muslims killing Christians. It isn’t Band-Aid 30, rich white westerners saving a dark continent filled with nameless poor and ignorant heathen. It is real people in real relationship, respecting and honoring each other across differences.
This is Christmas in Africa. Okay, actually, it is Christmas in Djibouti. But I’ve also celebrated Christmas in Kenya and have friends who celebrate in Burundi and in Somalia and in Ethiopia, Nigeria, Congo…This is a global holiday and whether or not we believe in Jesus, we are all wishing for peace on earth, for freedom for the captive, justice for the oppressed, healing from disease.
Raising money to fight disease is an excellent thing. Diarrhea kills more people than ebola. Thousands and thousands more. I wonder who will sing a song about diarrhea? Or about worms, which keep more children out of school than almost any other issue across the developing world. And how about using local artists, engaging with local initiatives, or being accurate in the stories we tell and the songs we sing? Here are some suggestions for how we can maybe do a little bit better:
*image via pixabay