Christmas celebration in Kenya through the years
Thirteen-year-old Trevor Carlin and his mother Irene Gesimba will be travelling to Kisumu today morning, a six-hour journey by road from Nairobi, hoping to arrive in time for dinner with their extended family. It is something they have done religiously every year.
“It has been like this for our family even before he was born,” Mrs Gesimba told Lifestyle when we caught up with them shopping at the Bata shoe outlet in Nairobi’s Hilton Hotel building on Wednesday afternoon.
Since coming to Nairobi over a decade ago, no Christmas has ever passed without Mrs Gesimba having dinner with her mother while Trevor, a Standard Seven pupil at Bidii Primary School in Nairobi’s Buru Buru estate, cannot imagine not wearing new clothes on the day Jesus was born.
“It is a tradition, we can’t fight it and we can’t change it. You just have to be with your family on Christmas Day because during the year, everyone is busy,” said Mrs Gesimba, a business woman in Nairobi.
“The one thing I love about Christmas is new gifts,” chuckled Trevor as Kelvin Arusei, a shop attendant, assisted him to fit his new white canvas shoes.
For a lot of Kenyan families, celebrating the birth of Christ will not be complete without going to church with the children clad in their new clothes and thereafter tucking into a special meal before taking that all-important family Christmas photograph.
For others, the festive season is about breaking the bank, travelling, slaughtering chicken, goats and cows while drowning themselves in litres of alcohol hoping that January will take care of itself.
But for those who grew up from the 1960s to sometime in the 1990s when mobile phones and the internet were either unavailable or too expensive for a majority of people, Christmas cards sent through the post office and messages sent publicly on the Voice of Kenya radio (now the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation) were the in thing. Add this to the journey to one’s rural home where those from Nairobi and other towns would arrive with loads of shopping while flaunting their fancy clothes, radiant skins, mastery of Kiswahili and English and money to spare to complete the perfect festive season.
But over time, Christmas like every other global festival, has evolved. And while some things have remained unchanged, many others are totally different, according to multiple interviews done by Lifestyle to those who have watched this transformation in Kenya and records from the Nation archives.
So what has changed and what has remained the same? What is dying out and how will the Christmas of the future pan out?
“Silent night, holy night! All is calm, all is bright. Round yon virgin, mother and child.”
First written in German and performed on Christmas Eve in 1818 at St Nicholas Parish Church in Salzburg, Austria, its English version was released by American duo Simon and Gurkfunkel under the title “7 O’clock news” in 1966. Over 100 musicians have since made a rendition of this song, including in Kiswahili and many Kenyan languages, but one thing has remained constant.
Like most Christmas carols it has defied time by being played on rotation on almost all radio stations during all festive seasons decades after it was released. Morris Wanjohi, an accountant in Mombasa, says this is his all-time favourite Christmas carol.
“Nothing set the mood for Christmas like the carols. They were everywhere — on the radio, your neighbour’s house, the shop, the market and the church,” he recalls with nostalgia.
“No one cared about the titles of the songs but the kids were singing them outside like they had stuck in their heads,” he says.
On Thursday UK’s Daily Telegraph newspaper ranked “7 O’clock news” as the fifth most popular Christmas carol of all time. The list also contains classics such as Neviz Navidad by Puerto Rican singer Jose Feliciano (1970) and The little drummer boy originally done by Katherine Kennicott (1941) then renditioned to its popular version by Bob Seger in 1989.
For those who can’t recall, The little drummer boy’s lyrics’ went like this, “Come they told me (ba rum bu bu bum). A new born king to see (ba rum bu bu bum). Our finest gifts we bring (ba rum bu bu bum).”
Then of course there are the timeless hits by groups like the Caribbean band Boney M that have stood the test of time.
The Mayor’s Christmas tree
If you have been following debates on social media, one of the biggest controversies last week was whether or not Nyandarua County spent Sh2 million to set up a ceremonial Christmas tree, a fact Governor Daniel Waithaka has vehemently refuted.
In years gone by, before the county governments took over from local authorities, the festivities we “officially” ushered in by the lighting of the Mayor’s Christmas trees in the big towns.
While the lighting was just ceremonial, every local authority leader used the occasion to fundraise for the “Mayor’s Christmas Tree Fund” where money raised sometimes through sports tournaments would be used to assist the disadvantaged.
“The money raised supported causes such as children’s homes and special schools for children with disabilities and because the Mayor’s Christmas Tree Fund tournament was a season-ender, clubs used it to showcase their new signings,” Former long serving Nation reporter Roy Gachuhi said last Saturday on his column.
Big balloon that no one ever won
In between the decline in popularity of the Kenya Charity Sweepstake and the surge of sports betting, Kenya’s gamblers today may have honed their skill through gambling of another kind as children in the late 1980s and 1990s. They gambled for balloons.
If you grew up in an urban setting you must have tried purchasing a balloon through a raffle at the shop where you select a hidden number on a board which determines the size of the balloon you will win.
“It used to cost 50 cents at that time and getting the huge balloon was every child’s dream,” says Alex Orenge from Kericho.
“What we didn’t realise is the idea was to get you buying as many balloons as possible because there was only one large one and very many pin like balloons that were painful to blow,” he recalls.
From Christmas trees made out of cut cypress to artificial ones
If there is something about Christmas that has evolved it is the decorations. From live Christmas trees made from cut cypress trees to artificial ones and the type of lights. Mr Orenge says families used to preserve the lights after Christmas in order to use them the next festive season — only to find they don’t work.”
And while business establishments have maintained decorating their premises in order to get their customers in the Christmas spirit, this phenomenon appears to be declining as some counties now charge for external decorations.
Started by President Daniel Arap Moi in 1986 and aimed at improving the livelihoods of the residents of Baringo, who would have a platform to sell their goats. To some, the highlight of the event, which was usually attended by top political and business leaders, was usually the hilarious performance of “master auctioneer” and politician Ezekiel Barngetuny. The fame of this goat auction held a week before Christmas grew until 2003 when the Narc government took over from the Kanu regime.
After a 10 year break, the auction roared back to life in 2013 as the Kimalel Cultural Fair after Jubilee assumed leadership of the country and has been growing ever since. Barngetuny also died in 2013, depriving the event of his trademark antics.
And last week the picture of Deputy President William Ruto in a blue jeans, grey canvas shoes, cream cap and an untucked checked shirt at the dusty market checking out for goats is enough evidence that the auction is not about to die soon. He has attended every auction for the last three years.
This year some Sh30 million was netted at the event where President Uhuru Kenyatta and Mr Ruto paid Sh7.4 million cash for 616 goats.
Kiamaiko’s disappearance from the limelight
Before it became a crime infested unofficial headquarter of the underground gun trade in Nairobi, Kiamaiko, located between Huruma and Kariobangi neighbourhoods was a permanent fixture of the Christmas spirit.
People came in droves in December up to the New Year to buy goats and sheep as media houses scrambled to get shots of the annual animal purchase jamboree.
An audit by the Inter-African Bureau for Animal Resources says that in the period between 1996 and 2000, when business was good, a total of 110,921 goats and 42,109 sheep were slaughtered in Kiamaiko with an average of 25,000 goats and 8,000 sheep slaughtered yearly.
Today sadly, the neighbourhood which started as a settlement for Somali refugees who came to Nairobi following the outbreak of civil war in their country has become a crime infested sprawling slum. And while the sale of goats and sheep still peaks during Christmas, interest from Kenyans has waned.
The all-important Christmas family Photo
Nowadays taking a photograph is as easy as flipping out your phone and sharing it on social media. You can do it anytime, anywhere and as many times as you want but before the smartphone age, a photograph was a treasured item and photos were mostly taken during special occasions. Christmas was one of them.
“That was Christmas,” IT expert Peter Makori of On Phone Group says. “The simplicity brought about by technology has made treasured moments diminish because what you can do with your phone was only done by a cameraman and it took days to get the image produced.”
Before night clubs and bars took over this function, Faith Mbori, a teacher who grew up in Meru, says there was no sleeping on the night before Christmas at Mbogori village.
“Those who were of age would meet at a central point like a school and move through the village singing hymns. It was mostly a men’s affair but girls who were lucky enough to convince their parents or sneak after supper joined in,” she says.
“Most of the parents kept vigil at mass in the church which would have been decorated and cleaned to perfection by the women during the day,” she says.
Mombasa’s rising star as a festive season destination for Kenyans
Despite its decline as a global tourist destination over the years, the coastal city is increasing its importance as a must visit for families wishing to go for holiday away from their normal routines.
Hotels which have for a long time been accused of being too expensive appear to have learnt their lesson and reworked their packages to attract Kenyans.
Sarova Whitesands Beach Resort general manager Raj Jadhay says the hotel was fully booked for today by last week and 85 per cent of his guests are Kenyans.
“Tourism is back big time but the big question is who is it that is touring?” He poses.
“We have invested Sh1 billion in order to give guests a premium product. Kenyans have to feel that if they holiday in Kenya the things they will get are of the same quality as Dubai,” he says.
Upcountry travel craze and hiked fares may not die soon
Nothing has over the years demonstrated the craze to travel upcountry during Christmas than pictures of frustrated women with children strapped on their waists seated on bags at bus terminuses waiting for means of transport that appears not forthcoming.
By Wednesday Easy Coach had been fully booked to December 26 and buses at the Machakos station had hiked fares by up to 50 per cent. This hike in fares is expected to hit crescendo today before declining and rising again after New Year when everyone is rushing to travel back to their home.
Back in the day, however, some people travelled to the village with their sofa sets, television sets and other bulky household goods. They would then return with these items in January, inspiring long-running jokes. This has become less common as our spot check at the Machakos Country Bus station showed this week.
Source: Daily nation