It is Christmas, yet again, and many people the world over are working overtime to prepare for the holidays. Businesses are busy as shoppers overwork their wallets and credit cards to ensure that their families and friends receive the best gifts.
Hotels and tourist destinations are reaping massive profits as holiday makers compete to show off the latest brands in safari suits, swimwear, cameras, sunglasses, beach sandals, ipods (to listen to music as one lies under an umbrella by the pool while taking measured sips of some colourful drink in a tall glass).... Everything that people do around this time, every year, has to do with boosting capitalism and making merry but few ever stop to think about the real meaning of Christmas. Indeed, churches will record their lowest attendance in the year as members travel to various destinations to ‘celebrate’ Christmas. How ironic!
What is Christmas all about? How should the day or the period be celebrated? Where should it be celebrated? Who should celebrate Christmas? These questions are among many that every person who purports to celebrate Christmas ought to ask themselves.
As the 25th day of December approaches there is need to take stock of the meaning of Christmas and meditate about the events occurring in our society as we celebrate the birth of Jesus. It is time to think about people other than ourselves and spare a thought about how they celebrate this period.
To guide us through the ‘Christmas meditation’ I suggest that we read Taban lo Liyong’s Christmas in Lodwar (Kenya Literature Bureau, 2013). The book is a collection of Taban’s thoughts about a myriad of subjects during the Christmas period of 1979.
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While driving from Nairobi to Juba on December 22 1979, Taban’s car, which he deliberately mentions was a Volvo saloon he had bought in Frankfurt, Germany, broke down in Lodwar. He had to wait for money to be sent from Nairobi by his bankers to enable him fix the car. He was, therefore, forced to spend Christmas in Lodwar, staying there up to January 2, 1980. It was during this period, the ‘festive’ season, that he put down the thoughts that culminated in the book, ‘Christmas in Lodwar’.
If we do not take any other lesson from Taban’s book, we should at least agree with the spirit of the book that Christmas needs to be about meditation. Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus, the saviour, but do they give serious thought to the meaning of the coming of Christ?
In between shopping, holidaying, taking leave from work, eating, and other activities of the season, do we actually pause to think about the real meaning of the birth of Jesus? ‘Christmas in Lodwar’ provokes one to think about the birth of Christ in relation to the society today.
Taban is not overly concerned about the events of that day that Jesus was born in Bethlehem but his controversial thoughts in this book point to the need to interrogate our society and perhaps think about the place of Christianity in today’s society. Indeed, the writer refers to himself as an unbeliever and warns believers not to let “the rantings of an ignorant unbeliever” sway their faith. However, his discourse on language, culture, religion and philosophy in this book cannot be ignored if we are to mull over the meaning of Christmas in 2014. Is Christmas today similar to that which happened over 2000 years ago in Bethlehem? Is society today the same as it was as Taban celebrated Christmas in Lodwar in 1979?
Taban remembers that when he was stranded in Lodwar, he was hosted by a man called Weyama, a Luhya, whose wife was Turkana. Among the residents of the area was Ogle, a Somali goats trader who gave Taban a lift to Kakuma in his lorry.
35 Christmases later, would Taban still enjoys the same hospitality from a combination of people from three ethnic groups, none of which he belongs to? Taban explores the similarities in linguistic, cultural and even physical features among different ethnic groups across Kenya, Uganda, Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia and notes that they are so many and therefore wonders why different groups keep fighting.
How can we celebrate Christmas when the nation is divided along tribal, racial or religious lines? How can Jesus be born among a divided people? Taban’s circumstances indicate that peace and tranquility reigned during the Christmas of 1979; what about today?
How will residents of Lodwar and surrounding areas celebrate Christmas if the road from Kitale to Lodwar can be closed for more than three days at Kainuk? Vehicles transporting food to Lodwar were stranded at Kainuk, which means there is a possibility that some families will go hungry this Christmas.
Christmas is about peace and love but there cannot be peace and love when members of one community take arms and restrict the free movement of another community as happened in Kainuk and Nyeri recently. Christmas is about embodying humanism regardless of where one comes from.
A few days ago, residents of Loruk in Baringo had to flee their homes after attacks by bandits. Suppose Jesus had chosen to be born in Loruk, in what circumstances would He have been born? Who would have visited Him with splendid gifts at midnight when all residents have been displaced? How would the wise men have walked to His manger at the height of such insecurity?
Taban poses controversial questions about Christianity, arguing that Jesus cannot provide lessons for mankind since He died young “with male youth colleagues, without wife and child, without experiencing the problems of marriage life, of child rearing.”
Indeed, Christians might find Taban’s thoughts about Christmas almost blasphemous as he compares the circumstances of his birth to those of Jesus. Explaining that his parents had hungered for a male child for a long time before he was born, he presents himself as a ‘saviour’ who saw the tears of Liyong, his mother, and decided to “grace her womb” because she deserved it just like Jesus chose Mary to be His mother because she deserved it.
He questions the credibility of the gospels and blames Christianity for the spread of Europeans into Africa, calling this spread, which happened through colonialism, a Christian sin.
Nevertheless, his meditations about the world and its movements, ideologies, philosophies, writers, places and what Jesus would have thought about them make this book very thought provoking. Christmas today, unlike the initial one in Bethlehem and perhaps the 1979 one in Lodwar, happens in the face of shameless capitalism, consumerism, conflicts, violence, tribalism, racism and other iniquities which contradict the spirit of sacrifice, peace, love and kindness which are the core of Christmas.
Kill little girls
As we celebrate Christmas, it would be important to think about where our society has gone wrong in interpreting the real meaning of this day. Would Jesus choose to be born in a society where violence is the order of the day; parents cannot travel home to be with their children for fear that their buses might be attacked; women cannot walk the streets freely for fear of being stripped by moral police; teenagers rape and kill little girls; husbands shoot wives and kill children?
Would He be comfortable coming to a society where a few live in extravagance while millions live in abject poverty? In Christmas 2014 let us, for a change, genuinely think about the true meaning of Christmas.
— The writer teaches Literature at the University of Nairobi. [email protected]