Mary Walker: Celebrating Christmas in Kenya
December 5, 2012
This year will be my sixth Christmas with a group of very special Maasai girls in Kenya. Although my routine has changed a bit throughout the years as I focus on the girls in college and university, I still intend to spend Christmas with the 50 to 60 girls in primary and secondary school who live at the rescue center.
Celebrations at the rescue center focus on Christmas dinner, which is served anytime between noon and 9 p.m. depending on how motivated the girls are to do all the preparations. This lack of emphasis on time is very Kenyan and frustrates the heck out of me if I let it. A group in Steamboat usually provides the funds for me to purchase the food for the dinner, and I use a Maasai friend as a go-between to keep the price down. I usually can buy a good-size goat for about $100, and everything else (including milk, sugar, tea, vegetables, potatoes, rice, flour, eggs, cooking oil, juice, soda, fruit, etc.) for another $100 or so. Usually, I can manage enough food for two meals for the 50 to 60 girls at the center with this gift. Hey, "Ten Dollar Dinners" host Melissa D'Arabian, how do you like them apples?
Some years, things go very smoothly if the girls organize themselves into groups in the days leading up to Christmas: maize and peas preparation group, mandazi (similar to donuts) group, chapati (similar to a tortilla) group, mokimo (mashed potatoes but much more delicious) group, stew crew and goat group. The goat group includes the askari (watchman) for the rescue center, Ole (Mr.) Kunguru, who is in charge of butchering the goat. Other years, the girls are not so motivated, and I have to cajole them into action or worse — end up in the kitchen myself with a couple of the most devoted girls doing most of the work ourselves. It can feel very much like Tom Sawyer as we cheerily go about preparations making it seem as enjoyable as possible so that gradually more and more girls will join in. I usually have to add in some incentives like sweets, peanuts or chewing gum for those who help out. Kunguru, in particular, can be very stubborn, sometimes refusing to butcher on the day before Christmas (for some sort of vaguely described cultural proscription from what I understand from the girls). When this happens, and he doesn't butcher the goat until well after tea on Christmas morning, things can get really delayed because every part of the goat, including the stomach and head, is used and must be prepared in a certain way.
One year, I made spinach souffle for everyone on a charcoal fire; take that "Barefoot Contessa"! The girls loved it as a nice change from the usual boiled cabbage, spinach or kale. Another year, I succeeded with a cake that I cooked on the charcoal fire in a huge pot encased inside of sand inside of an even larger cooking pot. It was a big hit. Take that, Giada.
Once all of the food is ready, a group of the oldest girls sets up a buffet line of sorts and dishes out the food in precise and exact portions to the horde of girls who suddenly have appeared. (It took me a couple of years before I figured out that a girl leaning out the dining hall window and shouting "Chakula imieva" means "Come and get it.") One girl always monitors the soda bottles so that I don't lose out on about $50 in deposit money. I can't bear to watch when girls use their teeth to open the bottles, so I usually donate my precious Swiss army knife, which is never to be seen again after it disappears into the abyss of girls. Come to think of it, I never seem to make it home with any of my flashlights, hair bands or favorite pens, either.
It is only when the food coma sets in among all the girls after dinner that I get the peace and quiet to reflect. Every Christmas for the 20 years before I started going to Kenya, Michael and I would go north of Hahn's Peak, snowshoe into our special stash and cut down a tree that I decorated while he sat in his father's favorite chair and sipped Scotch. I miss that a lot. Christmas is very different for me now, but I value my new ritual just the same.
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Mary Walker, a resident of Clark for 25 years, started as a volunteer five years ago at the Tasaru Girls Rescue Centre, which rescues Maasai girls from female genital mutilation and child marriage in Kenya. She now provides college and university assistance to several Maasai girls. Mary can be reached at email@example.com.