My memories of a village Christmas

Once again, Philly Bongoley Lutaaya’s music is back from a year’s rest.

Some things may have changed about the Ugandan Christmas, but it appears that no matter how many new Christmas songs come after, Lutaaya’s are perpetually stuck onto the season. ‘Ever old, yet ever new’.

So was it then in the era of the cassette/tape or ‘compact’, as some called it. In the village, where electricity was more of a fairytale, it was not often that one’s Nia or Sound Solo radio would be let to ‘sing’ for more than half a day. Our dry cell economics scarcely allowed anything beyond news and a few songs.

Dry cells were such an irritating factor, especially the Tiger Head brand. If you played a cassette and got carried away into listening on and on, suddenly the song would slow down into a vampire-like tone and all the radio lights would start blinking like a drunken elder. On opening, you would find the cells swollen, almost the size of a pissed adult toad!

But homes of less-busy pockets knew that such were not to be thrown away before being put in the sun to ‘recharge’.

Part of the discipline in ensuring that their swelling time didn’t come early was never to use the forward and rewind buttons. You had to eject the tape and use a Bic pen to manually spin it in the preferred direction, only to find that you had run two songs ahead of the targeted point!

But on Christmas, dry cells were guaranteed – often the long-lasting Eveready or National type. So, it was a rare opportunity to play Philly Lutaaya, Bonny M, Elly Wamala, UB40, Madilu System, plus Chaka Demus and Pliers – all in one incredible day.

Though today I may look back and ask myself ‘what were we doing?’, it was fun of its own kind in our rural estimation. Christmas meant accessing much of what we desired in vain throughout the year.

That is why every villager knew that two days before the C-day was a pig slaughter day and that Christmas eve was for cows and goats to lay down their lives for our celebrations’ sake.

Even the village’s most renowned miser would be seen at the butchery placing a heavy order. Then he would greet or send a ‘ka jambo’ at every home he passed, for all to know that he too had it for the day – that rare thing called meat.

From church, the whole stretch of over four kilometers that we walked back home smelled like a barbecue avenue.

Every home roasted as though in proclamation that they got it too. A combination of being dressed in new clothes and smelling meat all the way made this day so unique in privilege – a day for everyone to feel part of the happiness narrative.

Church itself was different on Christmas, especially the smell from women’s hair oils and our new clothes that had often clearly come straight from package to body with their foldings. How else were we to show that they were brand new?

So, at offertory time, all had to find something to take before the altar, and walking last was such an enviable opportunity.

This is how a cousin once tripped off her new stilettos, landing her endowed self flat onto the floor of the church corridor as she tried to show off her new acquisition without the necessary experience. Night Mass (service) was usually for those that had nothing new to show, and maybe those who had to work the meals the following morning.

As a child and with my attraction to spontaneous drama, I particularly loved this service. And, God knows and forgive it, praying was second in my reasons for choosing the half-lit church.

Drunkards seemed to have loved it too, carelessly throwing in misplaced humorous comments here and there. One particular elderly fellow had his small tonto gourd inside his old coat, occasionally bending in onto a straw, pretending to be cleaning his face or coughing.

Something seemed to be inconveniently common at such after-meal night services – the carefree belching! It was not uncommon to leave church with a swollen stomach.

The decoration in homes, for those who cared, came rather easily. You only had to find a Cypress tree branch and dot it with small pieces of white toilet paper (snow!) and Christmas cards collected over the years. Each year, a ‘privileged’ family received (if any) one or two Christmas cards. Who cared, anyway?

Then we would sit before the Christmas tree holding our Nia radio for the village cameraman to take a photo with his old Yashika.

Neither we nor the cameraman could predict if the picture was to be okay, until it was out. That’s why he would spend time organising you: ‘adjust your neck a little, open your eyes, adjust your legs for the shoes to appear, smile, not so widely..’

What was Christmas without soda? It visited us so rarely. So, when it came, you had to sip it with a half-open mouth, careful not to finish it without feeling every bit – keeping in mind that the next one was to come on Easter.

A soccer match was assured in the evening, usually an inter-village cup. The higher one kicked the ball, the more the cheering from the pitch side. This was also an occasion to show off new casual wear, especially for the youths.

Christmas tourists (visitors) from ‘Kampala’ were sometimes a nuisance. Pointlessly moving here and everywhere to draw attention to their unique designs, and sometimes the English! They were highly intent at making everyone else seem primitive, them high-class. Even those who were returning from semi-rural Mpigi!

Enjoy yours too!


The author heads the Centre for African Studies at Uganda Martyrs University, Nkozi.

© 2016 Observer Media Ltd