Christmas is in the air in Kinshasa. Giant illuminated Christmas trees stand in front of hotels and big supermarkets owned by Indian, Lebanese and Chinese hommes d’affaires (businessmen). Perhaps the tallest Christmas tree in the Democratic Republic of Congo is in the Place de l’Indépendance – Kinshasa’s equivalent of Trafalgar Square – by Rawbank, the country’s largest bank. You can hear choirs singing in the squares, appealing for money for different causes. Evangelical churches have put up giant posters around the city, announcing special Christmas spiritual campaigns. Secular musicians are also advertising big concerts.
We are used to traffic jams but now you can’t drive a mile without being caught up in one. So many people have converged on the city from neighbouring provinces to buy early, as prices of essential goods will rise in the run-up to Christmas.
Many weddings take place during the festivities. But I heard of one groom who was late for his wedding because the “Kin-traffic” was at a standstill. He was in tears.
There are crowds everywhere and, according to a lady I spoke to in a taxi, during the season the dead also come to swell the crowds. This is a widespread belief here.
There are few normal buses and getting on board old vans from Europe converted into buses is an uphill battle. I really feel sorry for pregnant passengers.
For me, the more these early Christmas trees light up hotel receptions, fronts of supermarkets and other businesses, the more they remind me of the Advent of Christ, the Light of the World. We must therefore pray that businesses let Him light up every shady aspect of their undertakings (especially those of foreign capital).
On Christmas Day extended families get together after Mass (or church service, for members of other denominations). Usually, parents buy new clothes and shoes for their children, and families throw out old things. Christmas is therefore a time of renewal.
We had hoped to celebrate Christmas in a new church here at St Perpetua parish. But it is still a building site. What puts you straight into the spirit of Christmas is the simultaneous rehearsal by our six different parish choirs. Their beautiful singing reminds one of the first holy night.
The new church structure supersedes the old one where we still celebrate Mass. Works are progressing slowly but surely. We will definitely celebrate Easter in a brand new building.
The Holy Father recently honoured the Congolese Church by naming Fridolin Ambongo Besungu, the Metropolitan Archbishop of Kinshasa, a cardinal. His first solemn Mass as a cardinal took place in a packed national stadium, in the presence of President Félix Tshisekedi.
The new cardinal reminded us that the renewal which the Church and the country need should be spiritual first of all, not just material.
The streets remain filthy with rubbish, especially plastic bottles thrown everywhere, so much so that Kinshasa, once one of the most beautiful cities in Africa, is now known as “the garbage city”, as the popular saying goes here. People build recklessly even in places subject to soil erosion. And when it rains, houses are swept away, families are rend-ered homeless and many lives are lost.
In rural areas, Christmas is a time of plenty because people buy chickens, ducks, pigs, goats and even cows. They hunt and fish weeks before Christmas and preserve plenty of food for the festivities. They also brew alcohol out of maize or fermented banana mash and save many bottles of it for the big days. Fresh palm wine is also handy.
In the village people freely move from one house to another to eat and drink. Therefore, the old, the unmarried, the physically disabled and those with mental health problems also have a field day. Nobody is forgotten.
A big bamboo fire is lit in the centre of the village, and as the canes burst into flame they make a cracking noise and people blow horns, beat drums and shout out: “Noel oyeh ! Bonne année oyeh!” (Merry Christmas, Happy New Year!) The occasion is reminiscent of traditional coming-of-age ceremonies. Drinks (libations) are poured out for the ancestors.
In the big city, beer brewers and nightclub owners will certainly get richer. Some prisoners who were locked up for less serious offences will receive a presidential pardon before the holidays and rejoin their families.
The culture of Father Christmas and of offering individual Christmas and New Year gifts is also taking root in Kinshasa, beside the traditional get-together.
After the Christmas and New Year spending spree, in a country where many people have no savings, January is the longest month. Many people have no money left to get them to the end of the month, when they get their salaries.
For us Congolese Christians – and African Christians more widely – Christmas is a celebration of our ubuntu, or the humanity that binds us collectively together. And that is what Christmas is all about. That is the rich Christmas theology embedded within African culture.
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