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Sunday, 9 December 2012

Is there truly anything African about Christmas?

By Andrew Mulenga

“It’s the season to be jolly”, goes the old Christmas song, and Christmas propaganda too tells us that it is “the season of giving”, which likewise encourages us to plunge into the pricey and pretentious realms of western-style material consumerism to buy gifts.

We are more likely to see an ox-drawn cart
dashing through the mud than a one-horse open
sleigh dashing through the snow
Initially a season on most Christian calendars set aside to commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ, it has also become the season in which one cannot innocently walk into a supermarket to buy a loaf of bread without being bombarded with the shriek of carols, the glare of dazzling decorations and the onslaught of Christmas sale pamphlets and advertising supplements.

Television, radio, newspaper and online advertisements too, do not spare us or give us a moment’s peace, despite this also being the season of peace and goodwill to all. We are repeatedly barraged with commercials that send children into a frenzy as they entice parents to go to the nearest shops and splurge money, on toys that will be broken before New Year.

Where is this article going you might ask?  Truth be told, the question we should be asking ourselves during this season is, what the cultural significance of Christmas is, or certainly what has it become to us as Africans?

And putting the commercial aspect aside for a moment, let’s look at some of the songs that we sing along to and have become so fond of that we can recite them probably even with more clarity than we can, remember the lyrics of our own national anthem.

Most of the dolls in toy stores European features,
blond hair and blue eyes, or red hair and green eyes
Take the time-honoured “Jingle Bells” for instance, a song most of us haven’t the slightest idea when and where it was composed. But every season we sing along to it, and it is - one must admit - quite fun to sing with the young ones, but do we ever put it to thought when we start the song with the words “Dashing through the snow, in a one horse open sleigh”. Honestly, how many Zambians have seen or experienced snow, or ever will, and we all know how hot it is here this season, we are experiencing one of the hottest and driest rain seasons possibly in decades. And how many of us will even get to see a one horse open sleigh. It is hard enough to see a horse, need not mention a sleigh or to imagine dashing through the snow in one. Most of us are more likely to see an ox drawn cart than a sleigh and horse in our lifetimes, and instead of snow, what we have is mud, now that the rainy season is finally setting in. So we are therefore likely to be dashing through the mud in a one ox open cart, as funny as the thought might sound, it just might be a more likely adaptation of the Jingle Bells.

Christmas also comes with reindeer. Not Eland, Roan antelope, or Duiker. Reindeer, an animal only found in the colder, snowy regions of the world. Do we ever give it a thought when we send Christmas cards with reindeer and snow flake designs on them, or when we see glowing, life-sized reindeer models in the decorative lighting at shopping malls. What's more don’t we all Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer? Whom we are told leads about eight of his comrades in pulling Santa’s toy laden sleigh around the world on Christmas Eve during his annual missions to distribute gifts to children who have exhibited good behaviour through the year.

It turns out that Rudolph and friends are in fact able to fly, and by using his blinking red nose to guide his friends, they drop Santa on roof tops so that he can slide down chimneys to distribute his gifts. Not that our village huts and township houses have chimneys to in any case.

I Am My Doll (Detail), colour photograph
by Phiwokule Khumalo
3rd year student at Rhodes University
Do we ever give it a thought when we take little ones to the ever mushrooming shopping malls in urban Zambia or indeed are compelled by school authorities in many cases to have the children’s photographs taken with our pitiful versions of Santa.

Speaking of children, one might suggest, we have been so brainwashed into buying them toys for Christmas when we at times cannot even afford it, a task that however, has become seemingly easier now that we have an influx of inexpensive, but often sub-standard toys coming in from the orient.

Anyone buying toys for a little girl will attest that the number one toy of choice is a doll or dolly as they are fondly called. But when you look at the options you have for purchasing one from the traffic light hawkers, the so-called Chinese shops or the high-end toy stores and shopping malls, you will notice that most of the dollies have European features. They have blond hair and blue eyes, or red hair and green eyes. Of course this may be nothing to fuss or write about; after all, the little ones for whom the toys are bought may not even notice the racial discrepancies between themselves and their beloved toys in their infantile innocence.

But have we ever as adults questioned why our shops should be flooded with these toys or certainly the cultural implications it may have. Have we ever, as toy importers attempted to get back to our suppliers to demand for dollies with African features and attire or better still if they cannot do it, why not attempt to do it ourselves. A visit to the toy stores will reveal such toys as Little Abbey and Emma, Baby Brittany, Wendy Walker and the Belly Ring Doll which features a tummy-bearing child’s doll complete with stomach piercing. Without pretending to be a preacher, authority on morals, or social expert it is almost undeniable that a child that grows up with a doll that has a navel ring is bound to get one herself at the earliest convenience, not to say this is a bad thing to do depending on how trendy she is or which part of the world she comes from.

Early this year, Phiwokule Khumalo a South African 3rd year Fine Art Student interrogated the issue of dark skinned African children playing with ‘white’ dolls in series of photographs entitled  I Am My Doll during the Rhodes University’s Annual Student Exhibition in Grahamestown, South Africa.

A glimpse of the images Khumalo portrayed in Grahamestown somehow illustrates the innocence of the children with the dolls, so maybe it is not such a big deal after all. As for Christmas, maybe we should continue “dreaming of a white Christmas” and sing this out loud in good old Jim Reaves’ voice as we do every Christmas, even if we should probably be “dreaming of a rainy Christmas”, just like the ones we used to know.

After all, who wants to be cited as Riley Freeman, the juvenile cartoon character from Aaron Mcgruder’s comic strip and TV series The Boondoks, constantly ; baring grudges against Santa Claus for not bringing him gifts when he lived in the ghetto, and subsequently venting it out on shopping mall Santas.
Likewise, one has to avoid saying “Bah humbug” and being regarded as the compassionless and ever grumbling Ebenezer Scrooge from Charles Dickens's 1843 novel, A Christmas Carol who despises “everything Christmas” and is later visited by the ghosts of Christmas past. In the end, “it’s the season to be jolly”.

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