Christmas in Korogocho

The Editor has asked me to weave a Christmas theme into this Going Places. Should be easy – because Christmas is all around us these days, isn’t it? What with the fairy lights cascading down the shopping malls, the carols, the office parties….

But whose Christmas? For me, I will be joining the Nairobi exodus and driving the family down to the Coast, staying in a beach cottage and joining up with some English friends to have our traditional Christmas dinner of roast turkey, plum pudding and mince pies. All cold weather fare, really – going with log fires, frosted window panes and a robin redbreast perched on the snowman’s hat. Roast turkey, plum pudding and mince pies never go down quite right in the mid-day heat, looking out over a sandy beach, to the white horses breaking over the reef and white egrets flying across a clear blue sky.

But I have been asking friends: How do typical Kenyans spend Christmas day? (If there are such people as typical Kenyans? But I certainly don’t mean the many of the sort who will be holidaying with us in the Coast hotels.)

The answers I am getting (from a Nairobi perspective, mind you) is that most go back home. Which is mainly to the rural, I guess. I’m told that the idea is to meet up with relatives and do plenty of eating, of goat especially, and drinking – which surprises me somewhat, given the vast numbers who go to churches that so strongly disapprove of the ‘demon drink’.

But what I really wanted to focus on was what those do who don’t, or can’t, get away from Nairobi. Still the answers were about eating – and perhaps going out as a family to one of the hundreds of nyama choma places. And the most mentioned activity was boating at Uhuru Park.

‘Oh, that place is heavy with customers these holiday days,’ said a friend.

‘And what about Nairobi Gamepark?’ I asked – remembering one memorable Christmas lunch with the family at one of the picnic sites, when the Foxes had to do battle with an army of baboons.

‘Yes – but not the park, because you have to have a car for that, don’t you? The Animal Orphanage, maybe – or the Safari Walk.’

And then I got a call from Father Daniele of St John’s Catholic Church at Korogocho, inviting me to the inauguration of a new playing field for the St. John’s Sports Society. Now, I have a lot of respect for what Father Daniele and his colleagues are doing in Korogocho: establishing a community school, encouraging young artists, building an amphitheatre for public events – and now promoting sports for youngsters. I’ve been very impressed at Father Daniele’s recognition of the talent and creativity that you can find in the Nairobi’s slums.

So I gladly went along last Sunday afternoon. I was just in time for the big event of the day – a football match between the young fellows representing the St John’s Sports Society and the not-so-young representatives of the Italian community in Nairobi. I saw one Father on the pitch – well, they were all old enough to be fathers in the more worldly sense of the word.

Age told in the end. Despite the reputation of the Italians for being world champions at football, despite their scoring first, by half-time their legs were going and they were 3-1 down. By full-time they had been whacked 6-2.

In Korogocho this was a nice event to kick-off the Christmas holiday. But I went on to ask how most people in the slum would spend their Christmas Day.

‘Well, many will go to church, of course,’ my friend said. ‘Then, they will go home for a family meal of chapatis, rice and beef stew – for a few, the meat will be chicken or goat. The children will get some new clothes. The father will have bought sodas for his family – but after the meal (and not always to celebrate but often to drown sorrows) he might well go out to one of the bars for a Keg beer, or Senator or busaa, or even chang’aa.

Which is why, I suppose, the painting from St John’s I am showing with this piece is all about Repentence. You can’t miss the man drunk on changaa. But you may not be able to see so clearly that the policeman is busy (perhaps feeling guilty) stuffing money into his pocket.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation