christmas in africa

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Advent Longing in the Horn of Africa

One Christmas Eve in Djibouti my family drove past a cart. It was a rickety wooden contraption attached by frayed ropes to the back of a donkey and clattered down the main road. A man sat on a makeshift seat and held a stick, hovering it above the donkey’s flanks. He wore a red and white shawl and a brown macwiis, a Somali-style sarong. His face was wrinkled, beardless, and wind-worn.

I said to my husband, “If there was a pregnant woman in that cart, I would swear it was Joseph and Mary on their way to Bethlehem.”

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The image stuck with me. It made the story of Christmas and the birth of Jesus tangible, weighty with the muffled clack of donkey’s hooves on dirt, the sting of a dusty wind, the smell of the desert, the look on a man’s face.

My family has lived in the Horn of Africa for almost twelve years. Ten Christmases have been spent in the desert. All these years have turned Christmas from a fairytale coupled with heaps of gifts into a realistic story coupled with the yearning ache of advent.

Advent, the four weeks preceding Christmas, is a time epitomized by waiting, longing. 400 years people waited to hear from God and then his Word came in the form a baby. But whether a family is religious or not, most engage in some kind of countdown to the big day. Lighting a candle each Sunday and reading meaningful texts. Hiding candy around the house and giving kids clues each morning.

What we are counting down to might be a day to spend with family, to give and receive gifts, to feast. It might be to joyfully honor the birth of a promised and miraculous child, Jesus. We count down and with each passing day, our hope increases. Hope that the day of feasts and gifts will arrive. Hope that this child born two thousand years ago did not come in vain and will, one day, bring peace to earth.

Christmases in the Horn of Africa have increased my longing, deepened my advent ache because we see the brokenness, need, and lack of peace so vividly all around us. We go to church to sing Christmas carols and pass dozens and dozens of homeless men sleeping on sidewalks. We hear news of another slaughter in southern Somalia. Djibouti faces an unemployment rate of nearly 60%. On other continents there are hostage crises and floods and drought. There is Ebola across the continent from us.

All over the world, the need and the ache are powerfully tangible. But so is hope. All is not broken, all is not lost.

Djibouti is 94% Muslim and though Muslims revere Jesus, they don’t traditionally celebrate his birth. But my Muslim friends know we are celebrating a holiday that is important to us and they respect that. Yesterday a friend brought gifts for my girls. On Eid we celebrate with our neighbors. Not because of religious conformity but because of genuine relationship.

I think this year in America there is also a deepened advent ache because the brokenness of our nation has been laid bare. Though not everyone will call it an advent ache, there is a burning desire to see justice and healing rain down. #blacklivesmatter and #icantbreathe are a heart-wrenching cry for fundamental change.

The more time my family spends living outside the homogenous neighborhoods of my own childhood means more time for my family to encounter the brokenness of the world and the hopefulness of the people working to heal it. We live right in the middle of the advent season of longing.

In the US, in the wake of devastating grand jury announcements, black and white are standing together, or laying on pavement together, or marching together. Together, the way my Djiboutian friends include us in their celebration and respect ours.

The way forward, the way of the longing and advent-aching heart is together. As we countdown this year with candles and candy, may each day be a reminder of the justice and healing we long for. May each day be an inspiration to actively pursue that justice and healing side by side, American and Djiboutian, Muslim and Christian, black and white.

Merry Christmas and Eid Wanaagsan and Joyeux Noel.

Yes, We Know It Is Christmas In Africa

christmas in africa

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:

What is wrong with Band-Aid 30’s song

Africans respond to Geldof’s song

How to think about Ebola in Africa

Where is Band-Aid 30’s money going? Hard to say.

Donate instead to Doctor’s Without Borders, like Adele did.

An Anti-Love Song to Ebola by African artists

*image via pixabay

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