Christmas in Karamoja. That phrase, as I look out the window at the heat of the day, the dryness of the bush that surrounds our compound, and smell the burning grass and see the smoke wafting across the horizon, presents itself almost paradoxically. We are a long way from a winter wonderland, from overcrowded mall parking lots, from Christmas trees and heavy coats and festive lights everywhere you turn. But it runs deeper than that. We are so accustomed to Isaiah’s description of Christ, “Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace,” that the repetition diminishes the terrible shock of the words. At Christmas, we celebrate the entry into the world of the Prince of Peace. But Christmas in Karamoja is too often a time to be fearful. Everyone is alert in case of robbery or raiding party. Indeed, some of our friends from a town northwest of Nakaale had their compound broken into and one of their workers shot to death. And while life has been less dramatic here, there was a community meeting this week to discuss what to do with a man who had stolen one million shillings (circa $400 or 400 days’ wages for an unskilled laborer). As they say, the holidays really brings out the best in people.
While it isn’t exactly American, the atmosphere here is becoming a bit festive as many men are donning new blankets and many women are sewing new skirts and everyone is eager to get to the market in order to have something special for Christmas dinner.
In my family tradition, extensive gift giving is a central part of our Christmas celebration, so when Christmas rolled around this year, Chloe and I had a number of African friends to whom we wanted to give gifts. This presents a number of problems, not least of which is the tension between what we are able to afford and what is appropriate within the context of Karamoja (a pineapple—our gift of choice—costs us a lowly buck, but in local parlance, a days’ wages for a laborer). Once we’ve navigated those waters, there is the further problem that if we choose to give gifts to some and not all, people will inevitably complain or come by the house wondering where their gift is. Others have come asking for advances on their salary, which we can’t give, or fruit from our fruit trees, which I would be happy to give, but this—again—means that everyone is going to want something and then we end up never tasting any of that fruit we’ve been anxiously waiting for months to ripen. And so, to avoid accusations of favoritism and to avoid hostility growing up in our friends and workers toward us and and one another, we are forced to act differently than we would like. Our desire for generosity and festivity provokes sin and so we are torn between our own good aims and the inevitable temptation that follows.
But it’s out of this tension that the Christmas story springs. We are reminded of God’s desire to give his people many good gifts that was perpetually thwarted by the sin that these blessings elicited. God, who longed for communion with his creatures, was forced to act otherwise than he desired and his answer to this dilemma was the Incarnation. We are reminded during Advent that, like our Karimojong friends, we all have been blessed with an abundance of gifts that each of us have spoiled and corrupted. And as we repent of these sins, we look forward to God’s definitive response on Christmas day, The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. For unto us a child is born.