Memories Of Celebrating Christmas In Northern Kenya

Feasting And Dancing On Sikukuu, Christmas In Kenya

Sikukuu (literally, the Big Day) is how you say Christmas in Swahili, lingua franca of Kenya and the whole East African coast. The Sikukuu I have in mind saw me, many years ago, as a young army officer in the deserts of Northern Kenya, not far from Lokitong, near Lake Turkana. I was part of a force from the King’s African Rifles, then Kenya’s army, sent to protect local Somali tribesmen (whom we had just disarmed) against attacks by neighboring Merille tribesmen from over the border in Ethiopia who were still well supplied with weapons left behind by the Italian army after World War II.

As a result, the eve of that Sikkuu was no time for celebrations, preparing feasts, or even midnight Mass. Instead we planned to lay an ambush for the Merille, suspecting they might try a surprise night attack on our camp in the hope of catching us unaware. “They probably think we’ll all be pissed (that is, drunk). So we must be ready for them,” our commanding officer had said.

“But, surely, Sir,” I interjected, “if the Merille think we’ll all be pissed, they’ll just take that as an excuse to get even more pissed themselves.” To no avail.

So an uncomfortable night was spent lying silently in the sand under a thorn bush, a rifle by my side. Needless to say, we saw nothing and not a shot was fired, confirming the old maxim that soldiers spend most their time waiting for things to happen.

However, preparations were already well underway for the feast and dance, known as an n’goma, with which our African soldiers planned to mark the Big Day that followed our abortive night ambush. Earlier I had taken a truck and land rover out into the desert to find a cattle herdsman and persuade him to sell us a scrawny cow to serve as Christmas turkey. The beast was manhandled into the truck and driven back to camp where it was tied up but well treated, with plenty of water and green stuff to eat.

Now the time had come to turn it into roast beef. My African Sergeant Major emerged with an army rifle, took aim, and put a single bullet straight between the cow’s unsuspecting eyes. As the beast wobbled and sank slowly to the ground, a Muslim soldier from the Kenyan coast ran forward shouting “Allah Akaba” (God is Great) and slashed its throat with a big knife, known as a panga and usually used for chopping your way through jungle. This made the meat “halal” and edible by pious Muslims, thus allowing our regiment’s small Muslim contingent to join in the Christmas feast.

Skinned and cleaned, the cow was roasted for several hours in an open pit over a roaring fire of thorn bushes collected from the surrounding desert. It tasted quite good. Beer was served, and spontaneously the African soldiers started to dance around the embers. As planned, Sikukuu was ending with an n’goma.

But suppose the Merille attacked us that night, instead of Christmas Eve, when we were digesting our roast beef?

“Don’t worry,” the officer in the tent next to mine said. “I’ll start throwing grenades. I’ve got a box of them under my bed.” I was far from reassured.

Paul Lewis

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