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African Insights Blog  - Newsletter

Christmas  - African Style

The Christmas season is once again upon us here in the West.  Wall Street is anxiously watching what is happening at retail from Wal-Mart to Macy’s.  People everywhere are shopping, looking, searching for that elusive toy or gift for that loveEthiopian painting on leather bought in Nairobi from some friends.d one in their lives, from child to mate, from friend to relative all the while the registers are ringing with delight as we shop until we drop…. and drop we do, quite a bit of cash that is.

On Christmas Eve or Christmas morning there then is the unwrapping ritual of gifts, the giving and receiving, the things we bought are exchanged and the day after Christmas is one of the busiest days of the year back at Wal-Mart and Macy’s and other places as we return the things that don’t fit, we don’t like, or got two or three of and some other reasons. 

Things are a bit different in Africa at Christmas time, however it is certainly celebrated by those who are Christians and those who are culturally so but do not attend a church.

This time of the year people write to me asking: “How is Christmas celebrated in Africa or do they celebrate Kwanzaa?  Do they have Santa Claus come and bring presents down their chimneys?  What about Christmas trees?  What kind of food do they eat at Christmas time?

In African society spirituality is an important part of life and it is reflected in the way people live and celebrate no matter if people are rich or poor they will celebrate and enjoy the moment, the reason for the season.

Kwanzaa for the most part is an unknown as such in Africa since it is an African American Holiday rooted in some African Traditions that have to do with the celebration of Harvest and principles of life, great idea, great holiday and some day it may be celebrated in Africa as it is in America but not presently.  Santa Claus, well you will not find him hanging around Kenyatta or Kampala Avenue since Christmas is mostly a spiritual holiday with Christian meaning rather than a secular celebration.  The trees, well you can get Christmas like trees here and there, but as usual, even this year the local newspapers in Kampala have had some articles where the tree has its roots in Western Pagan culture and besides if you have a choice of spending money on food or a tree, you will most likely go for food as most Africans do.

the picture itself is made from dried Banana Leaves.In Africa, there is not so much the giving of presents, but the giving of presence. Most people do not have the financial resources to buy gifts such as toys and out in the countryside there are not many stores that have any kinds of toys for sale, and even if they did they would not sell too well since people are into having daily food, but on Christmas just as all over the world there is this celebratory spirit for family and friends to come together, eat, drink and rejoice in the fact that they have each other.

Food is served but it would not be your usual Holiday spread found in the West.  No turkey, goose, ham, but there will be many other things to feast on.  In many cases it will be the same foods as usual but more of, and more variety. 

The little shops, the kiosks will put up garlands and in some cases lights if they have electricity.  Artists will make some extra money painting a nativity scene are some store windows and other festive things having to do with the celebration.  I have some seen some painted on snowflakes, while the temperature was well into the 90’s.  The main thing is that it looks nice, and with the sounds of Christmas music coming out of the shops it makes a nice change.

At the local Hotels, Choirs will come in and sing for guests and audiences, churches wThe splendor of African Fashionill be getting ready for Christmas eve events and everyone will get ready for the Christmas party.  Children and parents will get a new set of clothes and sometimes shoes, often from the secondhand market which is actually imported clothing and was worn first by someone in the west.  Women will put on some of their traditional dresses, in East Africa there has been resurgence of African style sweeping the land, which I think is nice and the bright colors are pleasant to behold.

Christmas is a time of celebration in Africa for all, well almost all unless you are a goat, a chicken, or a cow.  Right now in Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda it is find the right goat time.  I personally like goat, roasted goat is delightful, and I used to go to Fang Fang Chinese Restaurant where they had stir-fry goat with vegetables.  For those of you who are Vegans or Vegetarians, no, there is not Tofu-Goat or Tofu-Chicken…only in the USA do we have Tofu-Turkey.

In Kenya, Nyama Choma (roast goat meat) and Tuskers Beer is the order of the day. So many goats are eaten in late December that this upsurge in demand fuels the goat rustling amongst the pastoralists in the arid parts of Kenya.  A bit of supply and demand stuff.

The closer you get to Christmas, the higher the price of goats and since Ramadan is usually celebrated Christians place there orders way ahead of time.  Even in the cities you will see goats tethered in yards awaiting the celebration, I usually detected a bit of nervousness about them. Recently I read of a man who was keeping a couple of goats on his balcony in Nairobi.  People will drive a distance into Masai country or upcountry to where the pastoralists are to buy a goat and to get the best price. 

Normally Christmas is a family affair and the size of the goat is determined by the size of the family. The meat is eaten hot from the charcoal grill and should be finished in one sitting.  Among the Kikuyu and Masai tribes, certain parts of the goat are for girls while others are for boys. There is also meat for the roasters and of course for the man who butchers the goat. The poorer families will have chicken at Christmas with chapattis, ugali, sukuma wiki and rice.

In Uganda it is similar to Kenya, people are in search of the goat.  Well to do might even buy a turkey at a fancy shop or store such as the new South African Shoprite superstore in Kampala but for most it is goat, matoke (green bananas – steamed), Irish potatoes, posho, groundnut sauce, cassava, yams, and lots of other things.  One of the traditional dishes is Luwombo (see recipe) a delightful dish that is made for those special occasions in Kampala.

People without means will pull resources with neighbors and friends and slaughter a goat, goats or a cow, but usually there is a celebration for all.  The children are excited; the adults look forward to a day of no work and just relaxing with friends and lots of food.

If you go to Kigali, things are pretty well the same, except more beef will be eaten.  They love their roasted steaks, potatoes, rice, beans, and peas. Rwandans have a sweet tooth.  Cake shops and patisseries are part of the Belgian colonial legacy and do a roaring trade around Christmas, but that is found primarily in Kigali and not in the small towns.  Christmas is also the time when a lot of the children are christened and that means even a bigger celebration.

You can see that Africa like us here celebrates the season, gets together as families and friends, the ways and means may be different but the spirit is the same.

Personally, this Christmas my heart is with the children of Africa and the orphans of Africa in particular who do not have a place to go to this Christmas whose moms and dads have been taken by war, by aids or some other disease and they are alone in some orphanage, missing out on the celebration of family.  There are millions of orphans in Africa since death often comes earlier to the parents than here in the West for various reasons. 

To me Christmas is about giving and receiving something I learned as a young child in Germany and relearned during my times in Africa.  It is in giving one receives.  When one gives something to someone even if that person has closed their hand into a fist of anger, they will have to open that hand to be able to receive.  It is a transformation of facial and body language, of attitude and of heart.  I have sent that time and time again.

The ancient story of God giving his son is replayed as we in turn pass on what has been given to each one of us day after day…and as we do so and people open their hands to receive, things change, people change, walls come down and bridges of relationship open up.

Merry Christmas from Kampala, Uganda, the pearl of Africa...jon

Christmas in Africa is different from here, except that people are in a festive spirit just like here in the West.  Here is an article from the “New Vision” that made me chuckle, smile, think, written by a reporter in Kampala, Uganda.

What if there was no Christmas day?

Santa Claus is an American invention, a Father Christmas who lives in Brooklyn By Ernest Bazanye Christmas, like virtually everything else, was invented by Americans, the world’s leading manufacturers of the ‘Big Deal’. They make a big deal out of everything. They took the raw material of the Savior's birth and upon it built a globe-encompassing cultural and economic phenomenon that leaves no corner of the planet untouched. There is Christmas in Syria, did you know that? With Santa Claus and everything.

Of course Santa Claus is American. He lives in Brooklyn. But if Christmas did not exist, would it be necessary to invent it? What would the world be like without Christmas? It is a chilling thought, but be brave and meditate on this with me for a moment.

First of all, December would be a much cheaper, and at the same time, much less profitable month. There would be no need to scurry around like insane ants looking for cards and gifts and tinsel and trees and goats and chicken and beer-no wait, there is always need to scurry around looking for beer. But nevertheless, we would be spared the obligation to spend huge portions of our incomes on things of passing value. We would save hundreds of thousands. At the same time the manufacturers of nonsense like cards and Christmas trees and little inflatable Santa toys and frilly, shiny bits of paper would have nothing with which to fleece us. They would be forced to apportion their talents and resources to more important things. Like beer. Is that good or bad? You decide.

It is not as ambiguous as the next thing that would happen, if there was no Christmas which is — we would all be working. Christmas season, for people not as hardworking as newspaper employees for example, is a guaranteed week off. It starts with Christmas Eve, goes through Christmas, then Boxing Day, and then we ignore the next three days and boom! It is New Year’s Eve.

Normal people take the whole week off. Even if their bosses insist that they appear at their offices, they are not going to work. They are going to gossip and play solitaire and drink the free office coffee, then clock off early and go back to their real job at home — finishing off that bull.

Christmas is ostensibly for kids. Besides the businessmen who are going to spend the season fleecing you of your hard earned dollar, kids enjoy it the most. Look at them, running around, squealing, screeching, putting their lives in mortal danger by toying with knives, and sticking their little fingers in electric sockets, and giving their parents splitting headaches. They call it “playing”. It is generally great being a kid, but never so much as at Christmas time.

If there was no Christmas, some of the magic of childhood would be done without. Or would it? No, they are kids. They are programmed to have fun at every chance. Of course at Christmas they get away with a lot more, because you cannot spank your kids at Christmas — it is a mean thing to do. But they will find a way of having a whale of a time, regardless. Then again, maybe we are all kids— or at least, we all turn into kids at Christmas time. We also find a way of pretending life does not totally suck and we just gather round the table and enjoy good food, family, friends, and lest we forget, the beer. Yes. The beer. It would be a shame to do without it.

If there was no Christmas, we would just have to end the year the way we have spent it — struggling, striving and being stressed. Moreover, there is one thing we would miss out on without Christmas. Despite what the Americans say, it is still the day Jesus was born. If there was no birth of Christ, we would all go to hell. Which would hurt a bit.  (New Vision Newspaper –Uganda)  


A favorite Christmas dish in Uganda is 'luwombo', which is chicken (or other meat) in concasse (French Method of roughly chopping soft foods often applied to vegetables, such as tomatoes) steamed in banana leaves. Feasting and merry-making is incomplete without the famed 'luwombo.'

'Matooke' (green bananas) are a staple crop that are cooked and eaten like potatoes and made into fermented wine, which is drunk with the 'luwombo'. The chicken is cooked and served in the banana leaf envelopes. I am sure your green grocer hasWhat a way to bring home that Christmas Dinner. banana leaves...hmmm...

The most delicious and favored "luwombo" sauces are undoubtedly pork, chicken, meat, mushroom in nut sauce and smoked fish in nut sauce.

The 'luwombo' sauce is never fried and as a result it has a fantastic rare taste. This is arrived at after hours of prolonged cooking in an airtight container made out of a wilted banana leaf.

As an accompanying dish, the 'matooke' are harvested two days before. They are peeled and wrapped in several banana leaves, then placed in a saucepan and cooked slowly over a medium fire for up to six hours. The golden colored 'matooke' is mashed and served with the 'luwombo' sauce.

To make 'luwombo', cut the chicken into four or so pieces and grill them carefully till they're a yellowish brown hue. Smoked meat can be cut into serving portions.

Make the concasse by mixing tomatoes and chopped onions then stewing them over low heat in a pot for about fifteen minutes. Add tomato paste and a little water to get a rich, tomato-base gravy, and you could add a chicken-flavored cube or spices

  • Pick one fresh un-slit banana leaf of medium size.

  • Place leaf over fire and wilt but do not burn.

  • Fold leaf in half and bring edges together.

  • Place various ingredients in envelope.

  • Tie top of leaf with banana fiber to make airtight.

  • Lay banana stalks in the saucepan and add water.

  • Place in pan and insulate with banana leaves. Ensure that envelopes do not sit on the saucepan floor and are not immersed in  water - you could place a few cut banana stems at the bottom.

  • Steam for three hours, and have a lovely meal.

More Holiday Reflections African Style


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