Several people have asked what Christmas was like in Rumbek. Well, I have to say, it was one of the most stress-free Christmases I can remember. Very enjoyable, very relaxing and not a Christmas card in sight. A time to sit in the shade, read a book, write the occasional blog entry, surprise people at home with a phone call from the middle of Africa. Perfect.
Actually, we tried half a dozen times to phone some friends who were walking in the Brecon Beacons. And when we finally got through, as they came down off a wet and windy mountainside, we discovered that the problem of connectivity was not in Africa, it was the lack of mobile phone coverage in Darkest Wales.
On Christmas Eve, the wonderful Miriam and Mary, the two Kenya women who manage the Guest House where we live, decided to put on a special Christmas dinner for us –casseroled chicken and mashed potatoes, followed by fresh fruit salad made of pineapple, paw-paw, watermelon and banana. The fruit-salad was in a delicious syrup. Our big mistake was to ask how they had made it. “Fanta”, came the reply! What would we do without the Coca-Cola Company? Miriam and Mary had even dressed the tables with linen table cloths and properly folded napkins. What a treat! They did us proud, bless ‘em.
At about 10.00 pm, when normally we would be safely tucked up under our mosquito nets, Linda and I decided to go to Christmas Mass in the church just along the road from the Guest House. We were out after dark, how wicked is that?
When we got there we found that the church had been abandoned in favour of a large compound nearby where a stage with a large, corrugated iron roof had been erected along with a sound system that would have graced the O2 Arena. Why? Because the church wouldn’t hold the 1500 or so people who wanted to turn up for Mass! There was lots of singing, chanting, readings, women at the front dancing, (I actually think that African women are physically incapable of singing without dancing at the same time.) A really festive atmosphere.
After about an hour, Linda decided that it was time she took me home. The problem started with a Bible reading from an elderly priest. He had already told the assembled congregation that Jesus was born in a cattle-camp, which started me giggling. Then, (and to get the full effect of this, you need to know that Dinkas often have problems distinguishing between p’s and f’s), he started to read the Christmas story to the assembled crowd. The part he was reading was obviously towards the bottom of a page, which necessitated turning the page. This he clearly didn’t find easy, because it took him about fifteen seconds to accomplish the feat. Fifteen seconds seems like an eternity when you are left in a state of suspense about how the story continues.
So what we were treated to was:-
“… and Lo, there were shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their…… fumble, fumble … eager anticipation from 1500 hushed parishioners… fumble, fumble … plocks!”
I was led away.
The following morning was even more of a spectacle. Again, there must have been a couple of thousand people turning up for a series of morning Masses, this time with hundreds of children of all sizes.
The Dinka tradition at Christmas is that, if you can afford it, you give new clothes as presents. Mass on Christmas morning is obviously the time to show off your new outfits, so the area around the church was thronged with the most spectacular array of colours and styles that you can imagine. Some of it seemed slightly inappropriate to our eyes, like the young women in a shiny golden, backless, strapless cocktail dress, going off to take Communion, or the little girls in magnificent ‘Princess’ gowns with coloured beads in their hair. And then there were the numerous young boys in ill-fitting suits, complete with shirt, collar and tie, all picked up from the second hand clothes traders in the market. One lad, about 14 years old, was striding purposefully along the road in polished shoes and a bright silver suit, glistening in the morning sun. He was obviously going to show it off to someone and couldn’t wait to get there. Cool dude!
No two of the children, or the adults, for that matter, looked alike, but the one thing that they all had in common was the fact that they all thought that they looked like a million dollars… and so they did!
So why did I want to be a policeman with a camera in my hat? Because I was desperate to take my camera out of my pocket and record the event. The trouble is that taking pictures here can be a tricky business. People don’t understand why you would want a picture of them and they are often very suspicious. If you get permission from the subject, there is usually no problem, although even that is not always the case. A few weeks ago I had quite an aggressive reaction from a couple of complete strangers to my attempt to photograph two women carrying bags of flour on their heads. The women were very happy to be photographed as long as I promised them a copy of the picture, but the two men walking past were not happy. “Why do you want a picture of these women? These are not your women!”
My spoken Dinka was just not up to explaining to two stroppy passers-by, what, on earth, a blog is!