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An African Christmas

“In Africa, there is not so much the giving of presents, but the giving of presence.”
(Jon Blanc: Out to Africa Too web site)


On my first trip to Africa, I experienced first-hand the truth of Jon’s words. I was in Sierra Leone, West Africa. It was December 2003; the truce that ended the ten-year on-and-off war was not yet a year old. In the capital, Freetown, there were still no traffic lights, nor streetlights. In fact, electric power went on and off in a seemingly arbitrary fashion, phones rarely worked, and many public buildings were still in a state of disrepair. Broken sidewalks presented hazards day and night. It had been, and still looked like, a war zone.


There would be little to put “under the tree” at Christmas. Having a job did not necessarily mean that employees received a paycheck: teachers and other government workers had not been paid for over two months. Many men, women, and children had lost hands, arms, and legs during the war and could no longer work. Elderly people, accompanied by school-age children, spent their days begging from slowing cars at intersections. Street merchants as young as eight years old loudly hawked their items, which ranged from water to dishtowels. A steady stream of folks came to our convent door looking for some type of assistance. All my life I’d wanted to come to Africa, and having finally arrived, I felt powerless to help make Christmas special for anyone. It was heartbreaking … at first.


Then, in the Advent days leading up to the feast, I accompanied the sisters in my community on their rounds through the city and outlying villages. The experience became heartwarming. In Makeni, Cluny Sisters staff and oversee a variety of ministries including a girls’ high school, a school for the hearing impaired, an agricultural technical school, and a clinic. The students at the school for the hearing impaired invited me to their Christmas pageant, held out in the courtyard. All the teachers were dressed with the same cloth and pattern demonstrating their solidarity, their sense of belonging to the same “family” with their co-workers.


Busy with the camera catching the last bows, I was surprised when one of the teachers invited me to the front where the principal presented me with a basket of cassava and potatoes grown by the agricultural students for our Christmas dinner.


Later that day, I went to a nearby village to visit with the director of one of the schools, Sister Mary. Throughout the year she meets with parents to encourage them to send their children to school. One of the families offered us a chicken. In yet another village, the gift was spontaneous singing of local songs. Another family brought a tiny goat to the convent. (In Sierra Leone, as in many African countries, goat is the preferred meat for a Christmas roast.)


In the evenings, carolers came to entertain us. Often they were people with disabilities who sang to raise funds so they could provide food, clothing, and shelter for other less fortunate disabled people. They gave their gift of time and presence. In turn, they received the gift of presence from each home, as well as a donation.


It is the custom to wear something new at Christmas. At midnight Mass in the cathedral, family after family arrived similarly dressed. Fathers and sons wore shirts made from the same cloth and pattern as mothers’ and daughters’ dresses. This custom struck me as a beautiful way to express the unity we have in Christ, who came to gather us all in to the Father.


Back at the convent after Mass we gathered for the traditional Christmas soup and sharing of gifts and presence. The sisters shared many stories and news from family and friends; before we parted we gathered in a circle to pray for continued peace in the land.


Christmas dinner was fufu, a West African favorite. Fufu consists of dough, usually made of cassava flour, served in a mound on a side plate along with a soup or a meat stew. I learned how to pull off a ball of dough, make an indentation with my thumb, and use it as a spoon to scoop up some stew and enjoy! Despite the desperate economic and social issues weighing on everyone in the country, our table was full of joy. One sister after another shared experiences, humorous anecdotes, and traditional stories and parables. We were at table for hours, but the time flew. It was a celebration of relationships—God’s family gathered around the table to celebrate his Word become flesh for the salvation of the world.


In many ways Sierra Leoneans showed me how much they value presence, whether it was gratitude for time spent visiting in the village, enjoying a pageant, sharing the good news that their children could go to school, or providing health care at the clinic. My Christmas gift was indeed the gift of their presence and their appreciation of the gift of mine. They showed me that it is possible to carry heavy burdens without being crushed by them, and to find joy in the midst of pain and struggle. They revealed again and again how to live the Paschal Mystery – living, dying, rising with Christ – day by day.



Sister Marie is a member of the RENEW staff, a Sister of St. Joseph of Cluny, and the Project Leader for RENEW Africa.

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