opinionBy Eddie Mugarura Balaba
My earliest and fondest memories of Christmas are of playing 'treasure hunt' in Entebbe botanical gardens in Uganda. Those were good times, every clue unearthed came with goodies; chocolate and plastic toys flowed out of the impresario Uncle Santos' pockets like milk from a cow's udder.
I must have been eight or nine at the time. Images of my aunties, uncles and cousins running around looking for the hidden clues still bring a smile to my face. I can't help but be nostalgic in awe of the good old times gone by!
Christmas 1986 sticks in my memory for it marked a watershed in my life. The next school term I was shipped off to boarding school. Anyone who has read William Golding's book titled 'Lord of the flies' must be familiar with the potential for tyranny among adolescent children.
Although no one ever got killed at my primary school, the daily terror of the younger lads at the hands of older pupils in primary six and seven was enough to induce regular cries of "I want my mummy!"
Suffice to say, we looked forward to the long Christmas holiday more for the opportunity to escape the bullying than the camaraderie of being in the bosom of one's kin.
It is said that absence makes the heart grow fonder. I beg to differ. I have it on good authority that absence trains the heart to do without. Case in point; no sooner would we return home for the holidays than we would be shipped off again this time to the village!
Don't get me wrong, I love the outdoor lifestyle in Ugandan villages.
It's just that there was never any Santa Claus bearing presents as most kids who watch enough TV would expect. We milked cows at dawn, swam in ponds in the afternoon, roasted maize in the evening by the fire place and attended 'Ibitaramo' at night; beat that my dear Nintendo Wii wielding generation!
Christmas lost its allure in 1994 when I joined my family in Kigali. I blame it on the hangover in the aftermath of the human catastrophe that was the genocide against the Tutsi.
I remember spending the day indoors sharing a humble lunch with a few relatives. I was allowed to have my first beer at the tender age of sixteen and Koffi Olomide's monster hit 'Senga' aka 'Papa Plus' played on loop all day.
The yuletide holiday remained uneventful until 2003 when I experienced my first 'white Christmas'. I found myself trapped in a dump and stuffy south London flat as the only Christian in a shared 5 bed flat. My Muslim brothers were cashing in on the festive season by working extra shifts at double hourly rates!
I felt like a sheep among wolves. I resorted to retail therapy. I attacked central London armed with my student credit card and worshipped at the altars of Philip Green and Mohamed Al fayed.
From NEXT to Topshop to Harvey Nichols in Oxford Street to Harrods in Knightsbridge I went hunting for holiday bargains. It had not yet dawned on me that a six hundred pound pair of shoes at 75% off was still a tad too expensive for me! I ogled Cartier watches lustily only to look at the price tag; a heart wrenching 15,000 pound sterling! Who said Christmas is about having loved ones close by?
Well they were mistaken; it is about having a credit limit on your plastic big enough to empty the malls while attempting to numb that feeling of loneliness when you find yourself stuck in sub zero temperatures all alone with no one to share that turkey with. Unfortunately my credit limit wasn't up to the task and so i left central London still feeling empty within but with a few designer labels to soothe the hurting soul.
What struck me the most was how everyone in England embraced Christmas; well everyone with the exception of my housemates.
From mid November all shops, supermarkets and malls had a Christmas tree, sales discounts and special offers to spread the spirit of the festive season. Christmas carols and ads featuring Santa were everywhere. To this day, I am still confused at how people that claim to have lost faith in religion remain so attached to religious celebrations such as Christmas.
Maybe it is the well oiled marketing machine of the retail industry that keeps the traditions going, I wouldn't know! Whatever it is, it works.
The amount of shopping done in London alone in the two weeks between 18th December and 1st January can comfortably finance the Rwandan national budget for entire year!
To put things in context; every week, 7.3 billion pounds on average is spent in the UK by shoppers in retail outlets. (Source: Mark Duell, www.dailymail.co.uk-21/12/2012)
The Rwandan annual budget is estimated at 3billion pounds.
Whatever you choose to do this Christmas, remember it all began humbly with a young couple from Bethlehem that could not find a room at the inn and so they settled for a manger.
The baby that was born grew up to become a world acclaimed preacher and he eventually gave his life so that we may all one day enter the kingdom of God. There is no price tag on that!
May you and your loved ones have a very merry Christmas!