In Summary

MEMORIES KEEP COMING. From going to the kiosk for lottery spin wheel that entitled us to Christmas gifts, to dancing with our uncles in the village. A lot has changed about Christmas. Eric Ntalumbwa shares his experience.

Christmas was my favourite time while growing up as child in the suburb of Nsambya. The forthcoming commemoration of the birth of Jesus Christ turned the streets of Kampala busier, and the lights twinkled and blinked randomly at night. Just as it is today, every first day of December brought the late Philly Bongoley Lutaaya’s music back to life. His songs such as Katujaguze, and Oh Happy New Year reigned supreme until the first week of January.

The special atmosphere of Christmas carols brought excitement as we looked forward to travelling upcountry to celebrate with friends and relatives.
“Boys pack up your bags, we are travelling on Monday, December 21, in the morning,” said our mother. This was the best news 20 years ago in 1998. The confidence that we had been promoted to the next class guaranteed a flawless festive holiday. Over the weekend, as our mother went shopping in Kikuubo; one of Uganda’s most prominent business quarters, I was tasked to buy balloons worth Shs 1,000.

The decoration lottery
After breakfast, I rushed with Brian, a friend in the neighbourhood to play the raffle at Kanyakole’s shop.
Kanyankole, as he was popularly called, was a young man, fairly tall and fairly slim with a sharp and pointed nose. He always left the top three buttons of his shirt open for his chest to peek through. The sight of his chest hair was unpleasant.
“Each balloon costs Shs50. Bring the money,” he demanded. He then handed over the raffle chart which had numbers inside that corresponded to balloons. Despite expressing interest in choosing the raffle sticker with the biggest balloon, little did we know that Kanyankole often plucked out the ‘magic’ in advance. Nevertheless, we took home 20 balloons in various sizes.

Later in the evening, our mother returned with an assortment of clothes and decoration materials such as tinsel, coloured toilet paper rolls and Christmas bulbs.

Early on Monday morning, my young brother Edison was already awake looking forward to the three-hour journey to Masindi.
“I’m going to see Ismail,” he spoke with a smile. Our cousin Ismail was his best friend. As we walked through downtown to the bus park, there were people everywhere. Our mother had to pay close attention not to lose sight of us. We walked single file ahead of her with Dino bags wrecking our bags as we manoeuvred the crowds.

The journey to Masindi
Finally, we made our way to Baby Coach. It took the bus a few minutes to start the journey due to high demand for travel.
Baby Coach was packed to capacity. A mix of smoke, body odour, and sweat from soaked clothes filled the air. Shrieks of children pierced through the ears.

The most memorable moment is the stopover at Kafu before we turned left towards Masindi town. Once Baby Coach slowed down, vendors clad in blue and yellow gowns surrounded it. They shove the shimmering skewers of mchomo, roasted bananas (gonja) and roasted cassava right in the faces of heedless travellers.

At the rate of food and drink consumption on the bus, it was obvious that some passengers had full bladders. People quickly stood up, and ran off the bus to the nearby bush. I was seated by the window, gazing out, when suddenly. I saw a woman, her dress lifted to her waist, squatting in an open view. I could not resist laughing. Mum noticed and twisted my ear. Edison burst into laughter as I cried. Window seats were my favourite because I was fascinated by moving objects on the outside during the ride.

Upon arrival in Katama Village near Masindi Army Barracks, there was excitement and ululation. Christmas was going to be livelier; I cannot think of anything more exciting than the image of the boys preparing the Christmas tree or the girls fixing the Christmas dishes.

On December 22, we embarked on the search for an evergreen spruce, the big boy Ronald identified it, shaped it and placed it in the corner of the living room. Under supervision of mum, we blew balloons and decorated the tree with toffee. We made the tree sparkle with disco lights and prepared ourselves for the birth of Jesus Christ.

No pork and reprimanding us
It is a Christmas tradition in Uganda that every December 23, is a pork feast. We watched pigs being carried to the slaughter slabs using bicycles. Our mother forbade us from visiting Christian homes because there was a high chance that pork was on their menu. I had no problem with munching bacon; the only challenge was most of our relatives are Muslims. If I was with out father in Kampala, we would celebrate the feast.

On the eve of Christmas, everyone was restless. Our mother realised that she had left groceries on the bus and she sent for some, meanwhile, we were sent to buy beef from the butchery.

“If you return after the spit has dried, strokes of cane await you,” warned Aunt Rehema. Before she could blink twice, Ronnie and I dashed off to Kamdini, the nearby trading centre. Quick as our legs could carry us, we bought the meat and returned worried about the next step. The spit had dried, but aunt just gave us banana juice and asked us to sweep the compound. The girls were all preparing food for the next day.

Christmas Day in the vicinity
Friday December 25, 1998 was the long awaited day. We woke up to the aroma of delicious dishes. The Christmas morning breakfast was light because a lot of food lay ahead in the day. After our big cousin Vauline ensuring that we were spotlessly clean, we got dressed up for church in similar fashion: It was a combination (combinay) of floral shirts and shorts. What differentiated our clothes were the colours!

At the house of the lord, nearly the entire village was present. “Hallelujiah, Hallelujiah…Jesus is born,” chanted the head of laity. Kyema Church of Uganda was a convergence point for worshippers from all the neighbouring villages of Kigulya, Kisarabwire, Katama, to name but a few. Kyema Church set up near a primary school fringed by age old trees was a tranquil place.

The church was a hub of village social life, a place where announcements varied from wedding plans, funeral arrangements, leadership appointments, and high profile visits. The church had a practice of stand-and-greet for first time congregants, and those who had travelled from Kampala to celebrate the most anticipated calendar date. During the service, the head of laity recognised the presence of Kasumali. “Tutangiire Omunyoro Kasumali. Akasumi karabireho tutakumurora omukanisa,” he announced in Runyoro. Translated as, “Let us welcome Mr Kasumali. It has been long since we last saw you in Church.” In his 50s, Kasumali prayed once a year and that was on Christmas.

On this occasion, he wore a white tunic and black shoes. He had a stylish haircut, and dyed his hair black. He was before the Lord to thank him for his goodness.

After service, we strolled home as the elders animatedly exchanged pleasantries and small talk.
The walk took longer because there were lots of stops as our mother would kneel to greet the elderly, and then engage in chit-chat about home and the children. “Edrine (as I am popularly called at home), come and greet jjaja,” our mother commanded. I walked closer to the grey-haired man, and he patted my head.
“My grandson how are you,” he asked in a frail voice. I was a darling to the seemingly 80 –year- old plus.

Chicken was a must
No sooner had we parted ways, than I dashed home to enjoy a delicious range of Christmas food, drinks and snacks. We would never celebrate Christmas without chicken, soda, and rice. A few minutes after the meal, Uncle Safari, the family DJ, brought out his favourite radio and cassettes with music collection for a dance challenge.

His music comprised the best of Afrigo Band, Chance Nalubega’s Gomiba band, Sarah Birungi of Iro stars, Madilu System, Awilo Longomba and Zaiko Langalanga.

Later in the evening, the boys were granted permission to go watch a translated film at the local video hall until late in the night. For Shs100, we watched Deadly Prey, a story of former soldier who is kidnapped for participating in human hunt.
As I recount these fond memories, and compare the latest trends. I believe that 1998 had one of the Christmases I miss.