Christmas Eve in The Gambia: One holy night

Christmas Eve in N’Jowara, The Gambia years ago was one night where it felt like world peace has a chance. Instead of heading down to spend Christmas near the capital, Banjul where a group of us rented an apartment year round, I decided to have my Peace Corps friends come to my village for a village Christmas.

Having eight people show up on Christmas Eve day for two nights of comfort and joy in a place that doesn’t have running water or electricity takes a bit of planning. One of my Gambian friends took me on his motorcycle from village to small village a couple days earlier in search of chickens to buy for Christmas dinner. (Chicken and dumplings was about as close to a traditional meal as I could think of considering my gas stove oven was not much bigger than a bread box.

Chickens are hard to come by since they are considered special occasion food. The eggs are also valuable so people want to hold onto their egg-laying birds. Without electricity there’s no way to refrigerate meat, therefore all animals for parties are bought alive and kept until it’s time to cook them. We did buy four chickens and bought them back to my village with their feet tied together and slipped over the handlebars. Yep, it’s rough being a chicken in The Gambia.

Water for bathing and cooking also became a task where guests had to help out. Luckily, water in my village was not a problem even though there were only wells. (Now, there is one stand-pipe.) We were able to keep buckets coming. As soon as we boiled a kettle of water for drinking and it was cool, we started another one.

When the villagers heard I was having a slew of guests for Christmas, they were as excited as I was. Although, The Gambia is predominately Muslim, for the people living in my village, my decision to celebrate one of the most prominent holidays from my culture was exciting. Seeing what the village toubob (non-African) was going to do next was always a treat the other days of the year. Seeing what I did for Christmas was a bonanza. There was great interest in my small artificial tree that I festooned with ornaments–some handmade, some sent by my mother, and the Christmas cards I had scotch taped to my white washed walls. I tied a piece of red ribbon around each of the white candles I bought for the occassion and placed one in each of my five windows. As my friends arrived in whatever way they managed to get to my village (there wasn’t a regular taxi service,) shaking off red dust from their backpacks, thrilled that some of the homesickness of being away for the holidays would be chased away, the feeling of good will grew.

Christmas Eve night was when goodwill spilled out past our own gathering. As night fell, the village looked more like Bethlehem than any Christmas card picture I’d ever seen. The trees that rustled gently in the shadows and the men with their long caftans that were illuminated by the kerosene lamps set in shop doorways cast a certain holy night glow. The cattle were lowing, the goats were bleating, and if a woman on a donkey, a man with a staff, and some wise men rounded the corner, it would have been like a live nativity for sure.

I can’t remember whose idea it was that we should go Christmas caroling. Since one of us had a guitar to help us stay on key, why not? We bought candy to give out while we went from compound to compound sharing one of our almost extinct holiday traditions. Who carols anymore?

My favorite stop was at the compound of one of the village elder women, Mama Badja. Mama Badja was one of my most favorite people who always made me feel good, even on my lowest days. This particular night she was so tickled with the whole scene of us gathered in her yard that she grabbed my hand, chortling out, “Amie M’Bye” my African name) and danced to whatever carol we were singing.

That was a moment of transformation when it didn’t matter which religion was being celebrated. The point was feeling as if the world’s people were one. If it would have been possible to bottle up the air that surrounded us that night, there would be world peace for sure.