18 December 2012

Uganda: When Christmas Becomes a Burden


Christmas has its own language. No, not the festival, but the season. And one of the most notable is 'Christmas cheer'. It is a season where we all get into an ecstatic mood and - I will not shy away from it - do lots of eating. Let us concentrate on this last bit.

While other forms of Yuletide celebration are rather personal and sometimes even private, the eating was always a public affair. In the past, families got together, pooling money to buy a bull for slaughter, then the women would come together to cook food collectively. When the three, four or six families sat together for the Christmas lunch, it was truly a festive mood. That was the general mood and idea. Sharing.

But it was not always embraced by everybody. There was always the woman who did not fancy group meals. There was the woman who did not welcome her husband's inviting of the orphan girl from the local congregation, after the priest made the appeal for families to invite one person to their home for the season.

There was always the stray woman who, when the (then) rare dish of beef was put into the picture, did not fancy being that hospitable.

I recall the woman in the neighbourhood where we grew up. Married woman with children. Every Christmas, she and her husband never failed to fight over his 'generosity'. Every Christmas, probably thinking the dying year would have changed her, he would reintroduce the idea of either inviting people over, or coming together with other families to do a joint lunch.

And every year she, knowing hers was the most advantaged family around, refused, reasoning that they stood to gain nothing, while the other families risked no loss at all, when they pooled resources for a joint meal. This annual discussion always degenerated into an argument, which religiously collapsed into a fight.

While trends have since changed, new trends came up and a few old ones mutated into something different. For instance, the thing about families inviting the disadvantaged from their church communities still persists, especially where families are encouraged to take on spiritual children.

Yet even today, you find the woman who will smile when the child accepts the invitation, but once they drive off from church, she will turn the heat on her husband or the child who just asked her friend Anna over, in Anna's hearing.

"Do you intend to buy what she will eat?" the child will be asked, but if it is the man who initiated the invitation, the woman will sulk, nose-in-mouth and all conversation frozen, till the children are out of the car and the issue has been sorted out in the family parliamentary chamber, a.k.a. bedroom.

Chances are there are men who are averse to this stinginess, but see, when it comes to issues of kitchen and hospitality management, the woman is chief. It is rare that a woman who wants to host someone for lunch will even hear her man out should he say no; let alone one of the children. Bar the few cases where the man forces himself as the final word holder, in an average home, the woman is home-maker, and can determine what happens at the dining table.

I cannot forget the Boxing Day afternoon when my mother and I went to a family friend's house. She was excited to see us, and sat us down in the grass-thatched hut with half-level walls, where the family received its visitors.

Presently, she brought us a teapot (yes, it was those years) full of African tea, but with no accompanying sugar bowl and no bread.

"This has been a terrible Christmas," she explained, "when my husband did not have the money to buy the usual things." Well, we did attack the drug-like milk, but stopped - in shock - when a little girl came out of the house, dragging behind her a thick cloth bag of something. "Mummy," she called out, "You forgot to bring the sugar for the visitors." That woman needed a pole to support her jaw.

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