Christmas in Mbolo Aly Sidy

Mbolo Aly Sidy – Christmas

This was my first Christmas away from family.  Never before have I been without ALL of my immediate family and very rarely have I been without extended family as well.  Strangely, leading up to Christmas, I wasn’t actually feeling sad or homesick about this fact.  Probably because it did not feel like Christmas at all.  I am in the desert.  It’s 80 degrees every day (comfortably so!).  No one here celebrates Christmas.  There are no Christmas carols being played in the shops – what shops?  There is no festivity in the air.  I can’t really say ‘feels just like another day in Senegal’ because I have not been here long enough to know what ‘just another day in Senegal’ really feels like.  To me, the time leading up to Christmas just felt like adjustment still.  There are no such things as ‘norms’ when you move to a different country, at least for quite a while.

Most volunteers travel for the holiday.  Some go home to America to visit, some take trips abroad, others meet up at the Regional Houses around the country to celebrate with each other and eat American food.  People in my region were planning on meeting up in Ndioum.  I was considering joining them.  One day, however, I was walking slowly with my Baaba home from our family’s orchard and I said, “I have never been away from my family during Christmas before.”  He stopped in the middle of the road and said, “Coumba, you’re not away from your family during Christmas.  You’re here with your Senegalese family.  We want to celebrate with you.”  That decided it, I would celebrate Christmas in my village, at our house, with my new family.  The next day, I told Baaba that I wanted to celebrate Christmas at the house.  He said, “Yes of course, whatever you want to do, you can do it.  We know nothing about Christmas, so you just tell us what you want to do and you can do it.  This is your house now.”  I cannot even explain how happy my Baaba made me, saying these things.

Then came the challenge trying to explain to my sisters and mothers what Christmas is and what we do to celebrate it – in Pulaar.  “So on the 24th, families get together and spend time together and there is a feast and people eat a lot of food like… birds, or other meat, and bread, and umm, not rice, vegetables, salad, and cake?” My limited food vocabulary.  They said, “Cake? Will you make a cake? Can you?” My mothers didn’t actually know what a cake was, so I just called it sugar bread.  I said, yes I think I can actually. (Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread blob post soon to come) Then I described the Christmas tree by using hand gestures and drawing because pine trees do not exist here.  The typical tree in Africa does not at all resemble anything like it.  Then someone asked, what the celebration was actually for.  I explained in was for the son of our God’s birthday.  My sister said, “Oh… so Papa Noel is your God?” I can see the confusion there.  Then came the challenge of explaining, no, Santa Clause is not Jesus.  Jesus is a baby on Christmas, he is born in a place with cattle nearby because they don’t have a house right now.  Santa Clause is a guy who gives kids presents.  Then one sister quickly moved on saying, “And there’s guitars!”  “Hmm, sometimes yes there are guitars, if someone gets a guitar from Santa Clause.”  “No, I saw them on TV!  On Christmas, there are lots of guitars and music!”  Sure, why not, there are guitars on Christmas, haha.  So it was understood that there would be a tree, there would be presents given, there would be food, and there would be singing.  Now how to provide all of these things?

I decided to celebrate on the 24th because that is the day to celebrate family, food, and being together.  We must have Christmas dinner!  So I decided I would by chicken for dinner.  I wasn’t really sure how to do this.  Christmas was on a Wednesday, the Luumo (large market day) is on Friday.  My baaba suggested I buy chickens at the Luumo, but we couldn’t keep them for that long because we don’t have a chicken coop, so he suggested I wait and send one of my moms to the neighboring town on the day of Christmas.  On the morning of the 24th, I went to the oven where the baker bakes the village’s bread early in the morning.  I baked a lemon cake in a cooking pot and used a lump of bread dough to make a pizza (however, I had not managed to find cheese anywhere so it was more like bread with tomato sauce and fresh basil I picked from the garden).  I brought these things back to the house and we divided them ~25 ways between all of our family and the family in the compound next to ours.  Neither turned out very good, but they accepted that this is just what everyone eats on Christmas in America and were amused.  Then I went with one of my mothers and searched around for chickens.  One of the mothers had already been on a hunt for people selling their chickens and had come back empty handed.  We got word that one house would sell theirs, so we went there.  The house had tons of chickens scurrying around the whole compound, which contained two different houses (probably related, not sure how).  We bought two chickens from one house and two from another.  Each one was a different price; I’m not exactly sure how the prices were negotiated.  They were all similar sizes but different colors.  We carried them home by their feet.  Baaba Mamoudu did the honors of killing them, and the women got to work cooking.  I feel successful in providing the Senegalese with a holiday that very much resembles their own holidays: the women spend the day cooking and everyone else just hangs out and waits to see what will happen next.  And the whole time, I am not sure really what I am supposed to do, but everyone is watching me to see what it is that I will do.  This is how all holidays have been conducted so far, so this was not foreign to them.  As for me, I was not sure what it was that I would do next, but everyone watched expectantly.  So I went into my room and came out with paper and scissors.  I made snowflakes with the kids and we hung them up around my doorway.  They said, “Coumba, you don’t have a tree?” Ok let’s go get one.  They suggested cutting one down from our orchard… haha bad idea, but we could maybe find a good branch!  So we went on the hunt for a branch.  We resorted to the native trees and brush that we could take from as much as we wanted.  These trees and shrubs, however, all have very VERY mean thorns, so we all got pretty cut up while trying to hack off a branch with a dull shovel blade (shovel handle long gone).  In the end, we were successful, however very scraped up, and we walked back home with our spindly thorny branch.  Everyone laughed as we entered the compound, “That’s your tree??” “Sure, why not?” I laughed.  Then during lunch, my sister reminded me that we had just pruned our big neem tree in the yard and there were branches out back.  Duh, that would have been so much easier!  And more sightly than my puny twig.  So, after lunch I grabbed a nice-looking one from the back of my building and tied it up to a post by my door with dental floss.  I brought out the paper again and the kids and I cut out decorations and hung them with the dental floss.  It made me laugh so hard, it looked hilarious!  No one else found it as funny as I did, but my reactions to it made them laugh as well.

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Then I went through all of the care packages I had received so far: a bunch from mom and dad, one from granddad, one from Eli Baker, and one from Rory O’Connor.  Thanks so much you all!!  (There were probably more that had reached Ourossogui by then, but I had not been there recently to pick them up) From these, I had enough little trinkets and fun little snacks (those that I was willing to part with, that is) that I could give out a good amount of gifts to people.  However, I could hear that word had gotten out that I was giving out presents ‘to everyone’ and children from the village had gathered in our compound, expectantly.  Uh oh, I didn’t have enough for the whole village!  I tried to communicate that I only had presents for the people in the family and maybe some others, but that was not a popular answer for the kids in the village, of course.  They lingered.

Dinner was wonderful.  Chicken and vermicelli pasta with onion sauce: something reserved for special occasions.  And everyone was excited.  My sisters came up to me at different times during the day to tell me how happy they all were that I was celebrating with them.  After dinner, I gave out presents.  I invited my older siblings into my room to choose their present from my mat of goodies.  Then chaos ensued when the children noticed that I was giving presents and there was a crowd of screaming, grabbing kids outside my door.  The older kids helped me keep them at bay while we handed out things at random to the awaiting hands.  Everyone there received something, be it clown noses, Red Bluff, CA hacky sacks, Jr Ranger Badges (Alcatraz and Rocky Mountain), stickers, crayons, mini kites, postcards, etc.

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After I had delivered packs of peanut M&Ms to all 7 of my moms and the adults next door, I got ready for bed.  Right before I was about to turn off my light, my younger brother Djiby came to my door.  He said, in English, “Coumba, you did this.  You gave us Christmas.  It was you who showed us what Christmas is and is all about.  We thank you.”

I could not have been happier.

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