Baobab and Palm Wine: A West African Christmas

December 23, 2009 at 1:29 pm | Posted in Africa, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone | Leave a comment
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by Thomas Armitt

In the U.K. and the West in general we usually associate Christmas with family, eating and drinking (often to excess), giving presents, Father Christmas/Santa Claus, and a Christmas tree. But how is the tradition celebrated in West Africa, a region of the world where Christianity is at its freshest and missionaries have been preaching for only about 150 years? This is a culturally diverse region of 16 countries, where Islam and Christianity dominate among thousands of tribes speaking hundreds of languages. Therefore it’s unsurprising that Christmas is celebrated in a multitude of different and colorful ways. West Africa is a very religious place; belief is central to every household whether it is for Allah, Jehovah, Jesus, or the myriad gods founds in the more animistic religions. Regardless of deity, many have been taking Christmas up as an annual celebration where prayer, family, parties and merrymaking play an important role.

All over West Africa, from Senegal to Cameroon, Nigeria to Sierra Leone, parties of different sizes and significances are held on either the 24th or 25th of December. Even in the poorer countries, an effort is made by all to carry out the tradition and join the celebrations.

Sierra Leonean celebrations, for example, include partying and ancient local traditions. Like in most countries outside Africa, pre-Christian traditions and popular costumes have been mixed with religious sermons, making yuletide in Sierra Leone quite unique. Ancient and spectacular masquerades and masking ceremonies now play a major part in Christmas celebrations in Freetown, where the majority of people participate in the colorful party. In the cities, the police musical bands and other bands play Christmas songs in the streets throughout December, and nobody escapes the yuletide feeling.

Farther north, in Senegal, 95 percent Muslim but with a minority of Christians around Dakar and Casamance in the south, the atmosphere of Christmas is still present. I remember being in Dakar a week before Christmas, and the local petrol stations and shops had paintings of Christmas trees, Father Christmas and snow on the windows and walls. Decorations were everywhere, and people were always greeting me with “Merry Christmas!” Maybe the reason for this is because of the increasing presence of televisions in the wealthier households where the most popular programs are either dubbed American or French sitcoms where Christmas is the main theme during the end of the year. I also heard that even Islam-practicing households hand out gifts on December 24th and 25th.

Nigeria, on the other hand, is a country where Christmas is one of, or even maybe the most important event of the year on the festivity calendar because of the high concentration of Christians.  Taiwo, West Africa Discovery‘s local expert , explains how festivities are carried out in his home country:

“Christmas is a unique festival in Nigeria unlike any other part of the world. Christmas Day is a public holiday that is celebrated mainly in the southern and eastern parts of Nigeria. Nigerians have special traditions in celebrating Christmas. Almost everyone goes to church on Christmas Day. Weeks before the day, people buy lots of hens, turkeys, goats and cows. Children hover around the beasts, taunting and staring at them. There are feverish preparations for travel, holiday, and exchange of gifts, caroling, and all manner of celebrations.

On Christmas Eve, traditional meals are prepared. In Yoruba, such meals usually include iyan (pounded yam), eba (made from manioc flour), or amala (yam-skin porridge), served with peppery stewed vegetables. People find themselves eating this same meal three to four times on that day, as they are offered it at every house they visit; and according to custom it’s considered rude to decline to eat when offered food. Other meals include rice served with chicken stew; some families would include a delicacy called moin-moin, blended black-eyed beans mixed with vegetable oil and diced liver, prawns, chicken, fish and beef. The concoction is then wrapped in large leaves and steamed.

Another tradition is that of decorating homes and churches with both woven and unwoven palm fronds, Christmas trees, and holiday lights. There are festive jubilations on the streets, the loud crack of fireworks, luminous, starry firecrackers going off, traditional masked figures parading about on stilts, and children milling about displaying their best clothes or their Christmas presents.

There are no other celebrations that compare to Christmas festivities in Nigeria, where everyone can personalize their own festival, and one family’s enthusiasm merges with others; both physically and psychologically, creating a universe of fun and bonhomie.”

Northwest of Nigeria, in southern Mali, tolerance and community feel dominate the festivities in Dogon country, where Islam, Christianity, and African religions exist side by side in most villages. It’s commonplace to see blending of traditions — for example, masquerades from an ancient death cult, traditional songs and dances, midnight masses, and a local lamb dish inspired by biblical tales.

And these are only the tip of the iceberg. West Africa comprises so much diversity that it is impossible to pinpoint every Christmas celebration in the region, however in terms of experiencing them; there is of course the possibility to visit the countries to discover these festivities first hand.

The Nigerian blog Afrol News points out, “West African rich Christmas traditions even have it in them to become a tourist attraction and should be a serious candidate for Unesco’s World Heritage list.” In my opinion, some of the tour operators in West Africa could think about incorporating these cultural elements into some of their tours, as long as the local communities benefit economically and the destination’s heritage and traditions are respected.

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