The Ghanaians I see did Christmas very differently than my American or European experiences. Commercialism and pageantry were out – I saw only two Santas: one drawn onto the outside chalk board at Ashesi, accented with green garland; and the second on orange wrapping paper that I bought at the European & Lebanese grocery store on Christmas eve. The advent wreath and Christmas songs with which I am familiar at home evaporated into our tent-congregation’s routine of beginning before the heat and singing African music, the words of which I never quite really understand. That all seemed easier though than fulfilling the image of what I allow my culture to expect of me this season – the right gift(s) for all the right people, a complex sequence of social engagements, planning and coordinating weeks (sometimes months) in advance about travel among family and friends, and teaching traditions to our next generation.
Here, my friends have had loose plans over the recent week or two, yet no one seemed to be confirming specifics until nearly a week in advance. Perhaps that’s a sign that I affiliate with a rather frictional group of people (as in, those not explicitly affiliated with one identity group or another). Working at a university which only adjourned on 20 December, I am similar in ways to the international student community – from Togo, Nigeria, Liberia, etc – whose families are out of the country, yet we are many years separated and their families are more geographically proximal than mine. Living in Berekuso, “the bush,” I am not squarely inside Accra’s ex-pat community – which I understand had a mass exodus after close of business on Thursday and Friday. As a white-lady, I’m not solidly inside the local Ghanain community – many of whom welcomed relatives living abroad who I understand had a mass in-flow on Friday and Saturday. The people with whom I most resonate are cross-cultural, people in bi-racial marriages or who have studied or lived abroad for several years, or those whose children or grandchildren live in Europe or America. Somehow, this cross-cultural or multi-cultural group knows my sense of displaced presence, neither really belonging within my home group because I’m away, nor fully belonging with this culture because I’m partially of somewhere else.
Within that context, I celebrated a Christmas to remember.
Christmas Eve I ventured into Accra for two reasons I would never have imagined in America: picking up a leg of lamb from a Lebanese butcher, and getting my hair cut (really, has any American woman reading this ever bothered the impossible, even the most basic hair appointment on a Christmas eve?! Antoinette seemed business-as-usual when I asked on Thursday if she could trim my hair on Monday (24 December), “yes, at 10 o’clock or at 12:30…” Monday was the only day I have had flexibility to go where she is in the city, but it’s unheard of to me that a hairdresser would be available Christmas Eve without weeks’ notice). The city was alive as I had never seen it. Building crews worked normal hours, all of the shops were buzzing (including “Jesus Loves You Electronics”, the shop’s normal name, not just a seasonal touch), and a vibrant flair of shopping seemed to be underway. Like in America, the access ramp to the mall was at a standstill for blocks before the exit, and yet other main arteries seemed as thin as pre-dawn hours. The most amazing thing was the animals – herds of goats and large cages of fowl ready for sale and slaughter. (I glanced sideways waiting for a tro-tro at one point, only to see a woman near me waiting with a fluffy yet elongated chicken hanging limply from its reddish clawed feet in her hands!). When I got back home about 3 p.m., I smiled congratulatory greetings at the neighborhood chickens and goats that might now make it to Easter.
Increasingly, I am benefiting from having been introduced to Yaw, a driver who is infinitely reliable and far safer on the roads than tro-tros or than what I call “off the street taxis.” He seemed non-pulsed about driving me to a mentor/friend’s home that evening, Christmas Eve. His rate remained the same as normal, but I paid him “time and a half” which seemed reasonable to me even though unexpected (and welcomed) by him. He picked me up at 4:00 pm for a traffic-ridden two hour ride that should have taken about 40 minutes. And he seemed more startled that I asked him to pick me up again this morning, December 26 which is “Boxing Day,” for an early morning airport ride, than he did when I had asked about driving me on Christmas Eve evening. I don’t know if he was startled by the early pick-up hour today or by some special significance to the colonially imprinted Boxing Day holiday. Either way, I decided I should pay him time and a half for this morning’s ride too. (Bargaining about Christmas just didn’t seem right on either ride.)
Christmas Eve, my host Nana and I shared a quiet meal, exchanging stories about the traditions we each grew up with, as well as our various funny and profound memories of Christmases past. After dinner, we intermittently baked with Esi, snacked on fruit and candy together, and sipped tea reflecting on relationships.
I’ve read and been told that Ghanaians don’t open presents in front of the person who gives. So, I didn’t ask if or when we might exchange gifts. I was grateful to feel so welcomed into their collaborative home, as welcomed as the sort-of-adopted children from across the street; this was the gift I was receiving. I quietly put several little presents for various people in the household under the artificial tree (which my host tells me she bought when her European grandchildren visited 5 or more years ago), and left this morning without the small gifts having been touched.
Christmas day, the featured event was a lunch-party at 1:00 for children in the neighborhood who didn’t have a “proper” place to be. Nana knew each one by name. She enlisted her niece to hang balloons in the trees and to be the DJ and enthusiast for music and dancing after boxed lunches. By 1:30, no children had come; the various 20+ year olds who came to eat lamb and roasted chicken and help with the party laughed that children learn “Ghanaian time” early, that or the fact that youth definitely prefer night time parties and are saying such with their feet! By 3:00, the adults had enjoyed our fare (including my American touches of canned cranberries, stove top stuffing, and eventually a pumpkin pie) and the children’s party was really getting underway.
Until 10ish last night, there was a continuous sequence of people dropping-in for visits (even though the music moved from outdoor dance music to indoor jazz after the children left shortly after 5).
I appreciate all that Nana did to love me into her eclectic Christmas, all the care Esi provided through cooking and cleaning and smiles, and all of warmth the children created who laughed and danced and sang the only Christmas carols I really heard this season. I met a young adult I want to invite to share stories in class next semester, networked with a couple who turned out to be Gestalt practitioners (an organizational development approach that I too studied 5-8 years ago and practice) in Accra, and raised a toast with an American couple living in Ghana, ones who took me in before they had even met me. “Merry Christmas,” we smiled among ourselves late in the evening. Indeed, it was an eclectic and merry Christmas.