I indulged in Christmas retail therapy – I was nice all year (frugal) and naughty all Christmas (profligate), it helped take my mind away from the fact that I am all alone in a strange country at Christmas. Now I have to spend the rest of next year making up for the indulgence of the past month. There is life after Christmas but what a dreary life it would be without Christmas. Most tribes have an all-important annual holiday they spend the whole year preparing for. In Brazil it’s the Carnival. In Islam it’s Ramadan. In Christianity it’s Lent. In the Capitalist West it’s Christmas. In Umuaka, my village it used to be the Owuh festival but now it’s Christmas too. Western capitalism is spreading.
I’ve had an amazing Christmas experience in England. Its is shopping galore! In Abuja when the supermarkets put out the Christmas decorations at the end of November it always seemed too early. Everyone was still hustling. For most people Christmas money didn’t arrive till the 22nd or the 23rd so there’s not a lot of buying going on that early. Even in Umuaka my village we never started shopping for Christmas till about a week or two before. There was no tree, no lights, no presents, no decorations. We shopped for rice, vegetable oil, tomato paste, maggi cubes, crayfish, flour, sugar, a cow or a goat and a half dozen chicken depending on how much money there was. The men bought the drinks; White Horse Whiskey, beer, and minerals like Coca Cola and Fanta. The more money you had the more you cooked and the more people came to visit you on Christmas day.
On Christmas morning in our compound in Umuaka the men and boys would gather and take over the center of the compound to kill and cut up the meat. The women woke up at dawn to set up the kitchen, slice the onions, blend the peppers and tomatoes and wash the rice. Each woman sat in her kitchen and waited for her portion of the meat to be delivered to her by one of the kids gathered in a circle round the butchers. The old men sat supervising the younger men making sure the cuts were appropriate and everybody in the compound got some meat.
One of my more prosperous uncle’s wife would gather as many young girls and woman as she could catch into the cooking area she had set up outside her kitchen because her kitchen was never big enough on Christmas Day and get the ladies mixing dough for chin-chin and puff-puff, while others boiled rice, sliced onions, crushed pepper and stoked the blazing fire to cook the feast. The gas cooker was never big enough for the pots she used on Christmas Day. Then she would appoint someone supervisor, go dress up and leave for church with my uncle and her youngest children.
Her older children either walked to church or more often than not they didn’t go to church at all and stayed close to the food and drinks with the excuse they were protecting it from the thronging native helpers while constantly taking more and more food and drinks for their friends who also didn’t go to church but came visiting instead. By the time my uncle and his wife came back from church half the beer and meat was finished and the natives helping in the kitchen would be blamed and banished with no Christmas plate and much bitterness. This was before my uncle moved into his big new house with tall walls and huge gates that kept all but a select few of the natives out.
In the village I only bought fabric in early December for Christmas clothes, sometimes in November as the few village seamstresses were always inundated with orders in December and could never keep up. It was a process; select the fabric, choose a style, every season had its trends too or you could design one of your own, get measured and go back regularly to make sure she was working on your dress. On Christmas day I would proudly wear my new dress till I saw the township kids in their ready-made clothes. Sadly, the village seamstresses never could fulfill the promise of that bespoke experience with a straight seam and clean finishing.
I felt both privileged and deprived, my father was single. He celebrated Christmas like a bachelor. He bought a turkey, a bag of rice, a tin of oil and give money to his sister in law to cook it and he didn’t really entertain or stay home much but that meant I could hang out with my various uncle’s and their families. We all lived together in the same compound so it wasn’t like I had to travel or anything. I ate Christmas rice in three, four sometimes five different places and had lots and lots of Fanta. No one needed an invitation; everybody had an open house and open kitchen at Christmas. I just moved from house to house eating and drinking. Much like I did in Abuja except I was moving from friend’s house to house eating and drinking.
So different than in England, where you’re either invited to dinner, cook or buy a sad imitation of a Christmas dinner at the local pub. In Umuaka my village it was unheard of to buy food on Christmas day. That would be like saying I don’t have friends. It would be shocking and pitiful and someone would invite me home for rice. Of course that changed once I moved to town. We township people buy food all the time, on Christmas day and any other day even if there is food at home. Its part of the higher standard of living we left the village for. And when we go to village nowadays we buy lots of food and drinks at the village square during Christmas because we can’t eat the natives food anymore for fear of the voodoo magic they put in food, they could poison you, you know, just because they are jealous and will get a free meal and beer at your funeral.
Last time I went to the village for Christmas I gave my aunt (the only one that I trust if you know what I mean) a bag of rice and the ingredients for stew and asked her to cook it for the visiting natives while I hung out with all my other town and abroad dwelling friends in the market. We are different from the natives now, we stay out late, we eat different food, and we spend money drinking and eating in the market, we wear trendy ready-made clothes, the latest Dutch wax wrappers, use the latest iphones and gadgets and gizmo’s and have the latest hair styles. Even our at home clothes are still new and shiny. And we know all the latest gossip and happenings in Nigeria. We are so sophisticated now. ‘Afropolitan.’
I don’t travel to my village for Christmas anymore, it’s too dangerous. My pale face is likely to identify me as a potentially valuable kidnap victim, who I am not nor can I afford the sort of security detail that is apparently required now to deter the criminally minded opportunists. At least that is what I am told my well-meaning family and friends. So I chose to spend Christmas in an English village this year. My flight was booked but I’ve spent the past 37 Christmases in Nigeria, the past 7 in Abuja. I know exactly what it’s like. I wanted something new. I wanted to enjoy my solitude this Christmas and be content alone far away from home and family.
I’ve opened all my presents, cooked a lonely English Christmas dinner, drank too much mulled wine, sang carols with the English natives and spent what was left of my Christmas bonus at the winter sales. The Boxing Day sales are addictive and dangerous. Everyone is doing a half-price sale, from Primark and H&M to Zara and Versace. This amazing Versace dress that almost led me into sin is going for half price even though the price is still more than the average monthly income for most Nigerians. It’s more than my average monthly income right now. I love it but can’t afford it so I opt for a practical blazer and some versatile shirts from Zara instead to dress up my jeans for those all important business meetings. Yes there are business meetings in my future.
Whether you are in Nigeria or England, ritual feasts are the same. Hedonistic. Christmas is beginning to look the same too. Do you participate? Or do you judge? Or do you just play Ebenezer Scrooge? Christmas is the biggest commercial event of the year after all. There were feeble attempts to remind us of ‘the reason for the season’ but mostly it was a time of media fuelled financial anxiety for adults and children gripped in a tidal wave of anticipation, expectation and trepidation strong enough to wash you screaming and flailing out into the choppy sea of capitalist consumption. But the messages were somewhat effective, they did help me think about what we were celebrating and why – consumption!
Now back to the hustle and frugal living till this time again next year. Sigh