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Pastor's Monthly Newsletter Message

December 2010

“Christmas Angels”

A Memory of Christmastime in Africa, 1995

 

The Harmattan winds were blowing down from the Sahara, as they always do around Christmastime. They brought great clouds of red dust. It settled, fog-like, out over the canopy of lush green rainforests. The Harmattan winds were scorching, unrelenting, and before them flew the silent flocks of snowy white cattle egrets. These strange birds always presaged the holidays in those parts. They followed the nomads and their cattle herds—ox-like zebus—coming down from the north. The birds looked like storks. They made a shameless living by lunging on manure to feast on bugs and worms.

 

Rosette, my housekeeper, called these egrets les oiseaux de la paix, “peace birds.” And the herdsmen were Fulani nomads from the wild regions up along the Sahara. They always marched their great herds of zebus 500 miles south when the long Harmattan winds blew. These wanderers had Arabic features and purplish-black skin. They were tall and gaunt, like desert scarecrows. With their faces decorated in scars, their heads wrapped in turbans, and swords dangling from their belts, it was hard to believe that they (or their attendant birds!) loved peace. They would sit, uninvited, on my verandah, allowing their cattle to graze on my front lawn. If I politely asked them to leave, they would smile, and nod, and pretend not to understand French. They looked fierce and ghostly. They slept under the stars. They spoke to their cattle in whistles and clucks. They faced Mecca five times a day. I didn’t know it then, but our yearly visitors from the north did love peace: the egrets, and the zebus, and the herdsmen alike. They were Africa’s version of Christmas angels, heralding good things to come.

 

On Christmas Eve, I went to the missionary cemetery, which was neglected in a tangle of equatorial underbrush. I was hoping to find some long-forgotten pine tree that had been imported from North America and planted in decades past. But, alas, in a land of endless summer, all the trees are “ever-green,” and none are conifers. So I cut some palm branches and fashioned them into an ersatz Christmas tree, decorated with paper snowflakes and paper cutout angels.

 

I was envious of the Africans for their deep sense of belonging to a place, to a tribe, to a set of traditions and customs. Since it was my first Christmas in Africa, I felt the need to observe all the old Pennsylvania German traditions, as best I knew them. In fact, I knew only three things about my ancestors: they used to make cornhusk dolls; they used to paint hexes on barns; and they used to wait until Christmas Eve to put up the tree. But when you’re a foreigner in a far-away place, your heritage suddenly starts to matter. So, in far-off Africa, I groped after holiday traditions to give myself a sense of “place” in the world, creating a heritage for myself out of paper snowflakes and cutout angels.

 

On Christmas Eve, I hurried into Ebolowa, the nearest town, to purchase everything I needed to celebrate an American Christmas. A family of hardy Greeks maintained a so-called “deli” there, and though it didn’t carry turkeys or ham, it did have some acceptable substitutes: a whole frozen chicken, canned peas and string beans, Edom cheese, and long, crusty loaves of French bread. I had never liked canned vegetables, but I felt a special kinship with them on Christmas Eve, since both they and I were so far from the places where we belonged. The guests had been invited, and I would be laying a Christmas feast which, if not exactly “American” in content, would at least be American in size and extravagance.

 

Oh, those maddening Harmattans, scorching and drying everything they touch! There was an outdoor kitchen just behind my bungalow, a concrete hotbox with a metal roof and no ceiling. As I was out there hovering over a kerosene burner, preparing the next day’s feast, I began to feel an intense pressure in my forehead. My face drew tight. A sudden dizziness came over me, and I had to crawl across the rear verandah to my bedroom. Francois, my adopted African son, ran to my office and brought back an old electric fan. Fortunately, the electricity was working that day! I feebly drank large cups of treated water, and I splashed it around my head and face. I had suffered my first and only heatstroke on Christmas Eve.

 

As I lay panicked and nearly delirious beneath my mosquito nets, I spent a long moment wondering if it were snowing back in my native place, and if the river had frozen over. In a far-off land of steeples, and bells, and carols, was anyone thinking of me? Later, I would learn that it doesn’t work to be too sentimental at Christmastime in Africa. By my fifth Yuletide among the palms, I learned to accept my angels as they were sent. And they were sent not as paper cutouts, but on snowy wings, pecking for grubs in little heaps of manure.

 

But on that first Christmas in Africa, I still didn’t quite grasp the concept of “incarnation.” Everything was still so strange and foreign. The Harmattans, and the cattle egrets—those strange “peace birds”—and the herds of zebus, and their fearsome-looking Muslim herdsmen. The Harmattan winds were whipping the parched Christmas world. It was a new wind blowing, one I had never known before, stinging the eyes with red dust, searing the lips, chafing the hands. It was a time for changes, a time for new births and rebirths, and all the living world (and every dung-eating bird) stood ready to declare the great good news: God is not far, but near. God does not stand above us, but with us and in us. God is known in human flesh.

 

Merry Christmas,

 

~Brian