My novel Burning Embers is set in Kenya, and while the action does not span Christmas, I thought it would be interesting to consider what Christmas means to a Kenyan native.
In the UK, Christmas is pretty much universal – even atheists may have trees and exchange gifts. In Kenya Krismasi, as they call Christmas, it’s less commercial, but as in the UK, most people celebrate the national holiday. Still, it’s very much a Christian festival – and there are plenty of Christians; an estimated 350 million across Africa.
For many, the focus is on the religious element, celebrating the birth of Christ. On Christmas Eve, children go from house to house singing carols, and they receive money and gifts in return. Many people attend church that day, and the next. Some go to all-night services. Gifts may be exchanged – but not on the scale of the Western world. In Kenya, this holiday isn’t about what you get, it’s about what you give.
What’s most touching about the Kenyan approach to Christmas is the focus on family. The Los Angeles Times (http://articles.latimes.com/2008/dec/23/world/fg-kenya-xmas23) has reported: ‘Those aren’t chestnuts roasting on the open fire; it’s goat. And rather than Santa Claus and tree ornaments, ’tis the season here for fermented porridge and summer evening strolls. But there’s one Christmas tradition that Kenyans share with the much of the world: the annual trek home for the holidays…’
Those who live in urban centres often travel back to their rural birthplaces to spend the day with family. There, they share a meal, though it’s unlikely to be turkey – nyama choma (roasted meat) of chicken, lamb, goat or beef may be on the menu, served with chapattis, vegetables and fruit. In some places, families have pilau (rice, meat and spices) for the meal, served on one dish from which all share.
People say ‘Kuwa na Krismasi njema’ to one another (‘Merry Christmas’ in Swahili). The Swahili language is beautiful, so poetic. To finish, here’s a translation of ‘Silent Night’ in Swahili, the kind of traditional carol sung in Kenya at Christmas:
Usiku mkuu. Mtakatifu.
Bikira amezaa Mwana,
Mtoto Mtakatifu ni Bwana;
Alale amanini, Alale amanini.
Usiku mtuu. Mtakatifu.
Wachunga wa hofu;
Kristo amezaliwa, Kristo amezaliwa.
Usiku mkuu. Mtakatifu.
Ni Mwana wa Mungu;
Ili tukae na salama;
Yesu Kristo Mwokozi, Yesu Kristo Mwokozi.