Every year I wait for my sister, Regina, at JKIA, and like a child, I am most interested in what she has in her suitcases; Aldo Shoes. This mini vigil at the airport has been happening every year for the past eight years. Something of a family Christmas ritual. But to be honest, things have not always been thus. This new ritual is a replacement of an older Christmas ritual – one that the William Oduor family has been practicing for as long as men have been peeing.
This is how it happened;
With Umoja slippers protecting our soles from the hot Kisumu sand, we set out on an escapade to look for Christmas trees. I do not know about other places, but as a general rule, it was the younger siblings who went for this hunt. That is because the elder ones were busy with elder sibling duties like cooking and coming up with ways to fleece parents of Christmas money by exaggerating prices on the shopping list. For the rest of us, we set out to find proper trees. The problem with finding Christmas trees was that you could either find the good ones in a person’s compound or on a person’s hedge, because between 1997 and 2003, many people in Migosi Estate preferred live fences to cement walls. It was the vogue.
Over the years we had learnt that it was pointless asking these people to let us cut these trees for free, so we skipped the whole negotiation part and dove directly to the part where we stole it. So you walk around the hood with a panga, someone cuts the hedge or climbs the pine tree to cut it, while others keep watch. In case the owners appeared, the only decency the lookout affords the cutter is a shout before he disappears. But that is not to say that sometimes the lookout would just scurry off without so much as a warning, and leave you to the mercies of home owner. Loyalty and honour amongst Migosi thieves shifted with the wind. And quite frankly, if you never had a friend who threw you under the bus to save his own skin, then you never quite had a childhood.
Anyway. The tree would be dragged back to the house. Along the way as we passed by different homes to our respective ones, the air was delicious, filled with the smell of frying meat. I would get back home, set the tree on a pot, force it erect with gravel and sand and hope that it would not yellow before New Year’s. But that was not all, there was the whole thing about adorning it with decorations and then wrapping it up with those blinking Christmas lights. It would be next to this tree that every Christmas portrait would be taken.
By this time, the other siblings had already filled balloons with air, hung coloured papers all over the wall, mopped the house and changed the vitambaa for the sofa sets; vitambaa that she last spread when her church members from St. Peters Claver came visiting. Every 24th of December our house would be so clean that not even a dirty thought was allowed inside. You could not step into Mother Karua’s house on a Christmas Eve without being screened for antibodies first.
Those were the days when Christmas was Christmas. At least to me. And Christmas would never be the same without shopping for new clothes that Karua would later on forbid us from wearing unless we were going to church. New clothing was a Christmas imperative, because to us, what good is a festive season that is celebrated in old clothes? Christmas was never so much about the son of man as it was about being seen. Everyone in the hood would keep his outfit a secret until the morning of Christmas when you swaggered out of the house after breakfast to your usual rendezvous, face shining from excess Vaseline, and pride dangling from every fibre of your pristine clothes. And when I say new clothes, I mean we would be walking out with new everything, including underwear.
Back then, we had no use for wrapped boxes under the Christmas tree because houses in Migosi did not have chimneys for Father Christmas to crawl down in anyway. All we needed to show that Jesus was about to be born were new clothes, a busy kitchen and a decorated house.
Christmas was never so much about the son of man as it was about being seen.
That night, we would sit on top of our wall, dangle our feet in the dark while looking up waiting for Father Christmas to cross the sky on his way to America. We’d brainstorm on New Year’s resolutions like how to go swimming in Kapenesa without getting caught because the trick of smearing ourselves with used oil from Mama Daddy’s chips place was getting too old. On top of that wall we’d also reminisce and forgive the persons for whom you had called 110. Then as the clock chimed midnight, we would light up the fatakra (fireworks) that we had saved up from Diwali – especially the rockets that would whistle on their way to the skies before bursting into drizzles of little lights.
That is what December was to us, Migosi kids. It was a month of lights and feasts, a time to make amends and tie up the loose ends of infantile friendships. A moment to finish off what you had started and look at the shower of falling sparkles, hoping that Father Christmas (I hear you guys call him Santa) would see you from way up there and make all your wishes come true.
Those childish imaginings never stayed with me. Christmas changed when the old man went to sleep. He was the soul of the Christmas festivities and when he left, he took a long standing family tradition with him. With him, went the pomp, circumstance and accompanying razzmatazz that was Christmas. Of course Karua tried to keep that flame alive, but she couldn’t – once broken, some things are better left not fixed. We did very little cooking and many a time we spent Christmas away from each other. I remember during the Christmas of 2007 it was just me and Dee at home, because by then, my sister was majuu, while Karua and Neem were officiating the infamous 2007 General Elections from Siaya.
As I write this, I am alone in my sitting room, examining how I have lived my 24 years. Reminiscing about the things that have been. Remembering my old man and the way rhumba music used to make him smile on Christmas mornings. I remember my mother in the kitchen cooking, and in hindsight, I wonder how she used to slice so many onions without crying. I remember how new shoes used to make me run faster and how new December clothes made me feathery. I miss a lot from childhood. It was a party that ended too soon. I think of old age and how things will be. If I, like my dad, will sit next to my jaber and watch my kids get excited by whatever will excite kids at that time. I wonder whether my family will be happy like I was. I hope they will. They have to, man. It would be a great disservice to the honour of my old man if my family lacked something, yet I never wanted for anything. That means taking up an insurance pension from any of the companies under the umbrella of Association of Kenyan Insurers – so that even if one day by some tough luck, I happen to depart too soon, my people will still have a proper life. But if I happen to be around long enough to watch them turn into rent-paying adults, life will still be as good as it was when I was still this high. I want to look at my famo, that big beautiful thing that I will have created- that rare dream come true- I want to look at it and feel nothing but great about what I will have done with it.
It is December again. With it comes the iron birds. The skies are awash with aeroplanes that descend upon us, brimming with summer bunnies escaping the falling ice that I hope to one day taste. Every year in December, a ritual is relived. Regina keeps us waiting for her at the airport. We stand there exhaling visible air that makes us look like smokers. The hope of seeing her again is what keeps us warm. This year, just like every other year, has brought me shoes from America and Pounds for my currency collection; gifts that I will hold on to like a tender memory for years to come.
Merry Christmas, happy birthday to Sir Isaac Newton and Happy New Year to the readers of this blog. It has been great writing for you. I hope 2016 adds more ink to my fingers.
So let it be written, so let it be done.
Cover Image: Maasai Santa by Osborne Macharia