So, picture this.
The Christmas period in Freetown, Sierra Leone is joyous for everyone. Sierra Leoneans living abroad come back. The city is full of people. Families gather together, go out and visit friends and relations and everyone celebrates. It doesn’t matter if you are Muslim or Christian – everyone is involved.
I’m here in England, thinking about Christmases I have had back home.
I miss the hot weather, cooled by the harmattan winds blowing in from the Sahara desert.
I miss the music played from every corner on every street. The Hifi systems precariously balanced on top of cars, tables, roofs, drink crates, pumping out songs and all trying to compete for your attention and trying to be loudest.
Then there are the three hour church services on Christmas eve where to get a good seat you arrive a further hour early and sometimes have to bring your own chairs. These are seriously social occasions, everyone is gossiping, and enjoying themselves. And our carols in church – I don’t know how to describe it, the words and tune are the same as the British ones, but the whole tone is different, somehow there is more swing to the music.
I miss the carnival processions where ‘debul dem’ (Devils – brilliantly costumed masked dancers are followed by huge crowds of people dancing and singing), with the procession interrupted every now and again with the debul calling in on a house and sitting down to have a nice cooling beer. Then on with the party.
And the food. That’s something I really miss. Not just what we cook, but the fact that friends will send dishes round to ours, and we do the same. Of course, this is a part of serious one-upmanship. Everyone makes sure that they send out the best possible food, presented in the best possible way.
In my home, the main dish of jollof rice is made even tastier by the accompanying sweet oniony stew. The roast chicken and roasted pork ribs are accompanied by warm fried plantains, sweet potato, meat patties, coleslaw and delicious peanut gravy. Next are the heaped piles of cassava and yams to help mop up the steaming bowls of pepper soup. The huge tray of salad piled even higher with sweet juicy tomatoes, cucumber, tuna, beans, eggs and onions.
In the sweet corners (where all the children are) are the banana bread, rice cakes, coconut cake, sweets and biscuits. In the fridge would be the huge jars of cool refreshing ginger beer flavoured with limes and fragrant cloves. Crates for soft drinks, Guinness and Star Beer would be piled in the corner whilst the bottles themselves would spill out of huge buckets filled to the brim with ice cubes. Afternoonss are saved for just eating, relaxing and catching up.
Then on boxing day everyone goes on an ‘outing’. Everyone puts on their best clothes, and pack huge baskets full of delicious leftovers and more newly cooked food. Then they drive to one of the beaches (this is where Freetown is better than almost anywhere else – it has wonderful sandy beaches all around). Of course, you sit in traffic for hours before you get there, as everyone else has the same idea. People are going in cars, or if you haven’t got a car, you can go on the back of a motorbike, in a mini-bus (poda poda) or on the back of a truck. Getting back home? That’s tomorrow’s problem.
At the beach, the party gets going. People spread out coloured mats, and friends and families will share food with each other. Gossip too is shared, in equal proportions, with equal importance. That’s the old folk. The young are playing football, frisbees, or splashing in the sea. And if you’re not sporty, there is always dancing. Someone (or lots of someones) will have brought party-sized speakers and music will be blaring out over the beach.
I miss it all.
Sierra Leonean Christmas recipes to follow. Watch this space…………….
And I want to end with our age old verse that is so often sung again and again and again at Christmas.
‘Happy Chrismes me nor die oh. Happy chrismes me nor die oh. Tell God tenkey for me life oh, Happy Chrismes me nor die oh.’