December 16, 2006 lia

It’s Beginning to Look a lot like Christmas: Christmas on the Equator

-X-mas [pronounced “x” and “mas”] is in the air. Can’t you feel it Obaa yaa?
-It’s really hot this week – I can barely even sit at a computer for more than an hour. This is the hottest week since I’ve been in Ghana. To me, Christmas is inseparable from snow. The only thing I feel in the air is the Hamatan.
-Exactly! The Hamatan means X-mas is just around the corner!

The Hamatan is a fog that blows in from the Sahara desert during the month of December and lasts about a month. Though it is far more noticeable up north, away from the mitigating effects of water and forests, where the desert air is transformed during the Hamatan season. While I was up north for two weeks, my nose was bleeding, my lips were chapping, and my eyes would dry up easily. Not exactly Christmas-inspiring.

I think I always imagined the Equator kind of like a red clay Arizona desert, where the ground is cracking, vegetation – and signs of life in general – is lacking. Though where I live in the mountainous jungle is actually closer to the Equator, the north of Ghana really looked like how many people imagine desert savannah [and poverty] in Africa. And much like how the rain is blamed for everything during the rainy season where I live, anything that goes wrong in the month of December is blamed on the Hamatan.

-I keep forgetting to write Christmas cards because it’s too hot to remember that Christmas is around the corner.
-You are not a Christian. You can’t send CHRISTmas cards!
-Well, I’ve had no luck finding ‘season’s greetings’ cards. What must I do?
-I don’t think you should send X-mas cards if you won’t accept Jesus Christ as your saviour.
-You are intolerant.

As usual, Personnel Officer is testing my belief system, systematically trying to find holes in it so that he can pounce with a Christian explanation. He has recently enlightened me to the fact that capitalism is indeed a Christian construct, and we are still in heated debate regarding how much of an influence Christianity has on democratic values of equality and the Enlightenment.

-Evelyn, don’t invite Obaa Yaa anywhere for Christmas. If she’s not a Christian, she shouldn’t celebrate Christmas. What do your people celebrate anyways? Do you worship the sun?
-Yah, kind of. In the bleak mid-Winter, I usually go somewhere hot to soak in some vitamin D, and my sister and I try to remember to celebrate the winter and summer solstices. I also celebrate Hallowe’en and Thanksgiving. And for Easter, I try to eat rabbit. Oh, and I celebrate Buy Nothing Day.
-What’s that?
-It’s a day you don’t buy anything. It’s intended for us to re-think our consumption-based economy. In my culture, everyone’s trying to buy their way into happiness. If I have this, I can do this, and be happy. We’ve completely lost sight of what is supposed to be the end goal, distracted by all the stuff we’ve forgotten we don’t need.

Last week I was doing field work with my boss Michael, going to villages in our municipality and inaugurating Community Implementation Committees for the European Union’s Micro-projects programme. Between inaugurations, I found myself in the village of our driver, Mr. Ankara [who also happens to be my Ghanaian father], drinking palm wine and shopping for goats at 10 am. I, of course, got no explanation about what we were doing.

-I’m certainly happy to sit here drinking palm wine all day, but I must ask, what the hell are we doing here?
-I’m looking for a goat for my father for Christmas.
-How much does a goat go for?
-Depends on the size. He wants 500 000 for that one, I’m giving him 350 000 [$50 and $35 respectively].
-Can you get a female? Then I could come over and milk it.
-Why would you want to do that?
-I’m allergic to cow milk and the store hasn’t had any soymilk in almost a month. It’s such a waste that there are so many goats everywhere, yet no one seems to drink their milk. Every morning I wake up to a goat belting at my window from my front porch, yet I still have to drink my coffee black!

He bought one male goat for himself and made plans to come back for three more goats for family members. We took the goat in the boot of the truck and went to inaugurate some more committees. I sat in the truck delighted by what had just happened – a goat! As a Christmas present.

Every year around this time, I compile a list of alternative holiday gift ideas. Eventually, I turned this list into a website, but apparently I don’t have a website anymore. The list is nothing original – plenty of websites exist that are all advocating for a more reasonable and responsible way to exercise the spirit of giving. Some argue environmentally-friendly giving, some argue socially-responsible gifts, some argue to give services rather than stuff, and others say not to give anything at all

I have been very fortunate to be constantly inspired by ideas and discussions that happen at my dinner table back home. I remember when I was a teenager, my sister, brother and father finally had enough consensus to democratically defeat my mother and my traditional values of having a real Christmas tree, and we have had an environmentally-friendly fake Christmas tree ever since. Over the years of birthday, Christmas, and travelling presents, we have grown to a position where we are allowed to give each other things only if it’s something that really leapt out and struck us as being something the receiver would enjoy, or if it was some sort of service.

An example is that last year for my father’s birthday, we all chipped in and had the piano tuned for him. My father loves to play the piano, and anyone who knew me in Vancouver is familiar with the sound of a piano playing in the background whenever they spoke to me on the phone. Rather than contributing to the pockets of some multi-national corporation who needs our money less than we do, and rather than contributing to the mass amounts of wastes that are produced annually from consumerist goods, we contributed to the local skilled-labour economy and hired a service. [And having the piano tuned also has obvious selfish benefits for the gift-givers too!].

So, next time I feel like it’s Christmas, you’re all getting goats, as long as you don’t mind if I come over to milk it every now and then. Under certain conditions, it can be as good to give as it is to receive, and livestock is certainly a gift that keeps on giving.