Feasts and celebrations in Africa

  • Dec. 19, 2007 2:00 p.m.

Submitted by Elizabeth Condrotte–As Christmas approaches, it is much harder to get in the spirit here than at home on Haida Gwaii. I have yet to experience a South African Christmas but I am told it’s not the same celebration that it is in Canada. Perhaps that’s a good thing. Without the commercialism that has influenced our North American Christmas, it’s here a day for the families to get together, share a meal, and for those who are Christian a day to go to church. Because Christmas falls at the beginning of summer, it comes shortly after school gets out and is part of the summer holiday.Just as we do at the end of the school year, South Africans celebrate graduations and also AIDS Awareness Day which fell on December 1 this year. Not knowing any of the protocol for these celebrations, I happily accepted invitations. My first was to the grade 9 graduation in Ndawana. Carolyn, Fiona, Janine and I arrived at 10:00 AM for a 9:00 start time but we knew that things rarely start on time here so we thought we’d be OK. The event was to be held outdoors and at ten they were just setting up the tent. We were asked to be an audience for the graduating class as they practised their grand march and their songs. The harmony and beauty of their singing was very moving but their grand march needed some work before their teacher was satisfied. At 1:00, the tent was up, the chairs were set out facing a beautifully decorated table and we Canadians took seats in the middle of the crowd. To our horror we were led to the head table. This honour was made all the worse by the fact that we were going to have to leave to get back to Underberg by 4:00 and we would have to vacate with all eyes upon us and even worse before the food was served which we were told was a terrible insult. The program, which interspersed speeches with the school’s choirs, was not even half complete when we slipped away, filling our empty chairs with our team members and teachers from our creche. At least we were there for the perfected grand march with the grads looking splendid in their pristine uniforms of white shirts, black ties and black skirts or trousers, and we saw them receive their award certificates. The next celebration was actually Edzimkulu’s so we did have a bit more control over tent readiness and start time. This was our AIDS Awareness Day on Nov. 24 in Mangeni, which is the community over the mountain where Edzimkulu has expanded its outreach and is starting to provide the same care for HIV and AIDS that it does in Ndawana. The road is being gravelled (with large sharp rocks) which actually made the trip worse than when it was just mud but we made it around the machines and the celebration began. The entertainment was a contest with judges and prizes for the best poems, choirs, plays and traditional dances from the surrounding schools and communities. Even though the poems and plays were all in Zulu, I was enthralled with the passion and talent they displayed and the music and dancing were magnificent. We thought to shorten the day by starting the food early but with almost 1000 people, it was still pretty late when we headed back but all agreed it was a very successful celebration.On Nov. 26, the Canadians, Creche teachers and Zanele from the team were invited to Tsawle’s grade 9 grad, which was just over the hill from Ndawana. This one was only a couple of hours late to start and we knew the drill. Head table, special treatment and Carolyn was on the program with greetings from Edzimkulu. Then the bombshell: I was asked to give the keynote address which was not named on the program and so with a few hastily scribbled notes and Zanele interpreting for me, I stumbled through. The grads and other class choirs sang, several speeches were made and just at the end, a fierce dust storm swept across the schoolyard. Luckily the feast was inside and we knew we had to stay. It was worth it.Our own Creche/R graduation was next on Nov. 28 and Tsawle Creche grads came over the hill to join us as has been the custom. In spite of all our Canadian efforts, we did not start on time and there was chaos everywhere. No-one cared. The little 5 and 6 year olds were dressed in their finest, (Tsawle in the new school uniforms of black and white they will wear in grade one) and their parents couldn’t have been prouder. Then they put on their little caps and gowns and marched in front of the crowd in the tent to get their certificates and pictures taken. Their teacher looked magnificent in her own graduation gown. This time we Canadians were not at the head table and only Carolyn was asked to give a speech. The parents prepared the traditional food which we were asked to partake of with the head table and another successful celebration ended with another delicious feast.The final celebration I attended was here in Underberg. It was the graduation from the Family Literacy Program. The grads were mostly gogos who have improved their own literacy in both English and Zulu so they can read with the children they are looking after. There were groups from different communities around Underberg and the facilitators and their students entertained the audience with outstanding choral harmonies and traditional dancing in beautiful costumes. To the rhythm of a large cowhide drum beaten on both sides, the dancers moved faster and faster until they began a series of very high, snapping kicks sometimes up to their hands held over their heads. The young facilitators were amazing but who really inspired me were the gogos kicking almost as high as the young women did. Between the songs and dances were speeches and certificate giving and at the end of the program an untraditional feast of a brown bag lunch.Although Christmas is not a time for a great deal of gifts under a tree (or even a tree), especially in the villages, graduation is. At all the graduation ceremonies, gifts for students and teachers are placed on a large table and handed out just before the feast. Some are even wrapped in Christmas paper. There is a high value placed on education and these celebrations of achievement are very meaningful.We at Edzimkulu have our own reason to celebrate the support of friends and the kindness of strangers. The Komby was found and returned to us which means that over the summer (Christmas) holiday, Jim and Chris will use it and their own car as a small down payment for the new vehicle we must get. The Rotary Club wants us to put our logo and acknowledge their contribution on the door of the Land Rover. I’m hoping that we will have enough donations from Haida Gwaii to have your name on the truck.One small request: please send me your old calendars if they have simple pictures on them such as a car or an animal. We need them for our creche next year. My address is c/o Box 139, Underberg, KZN, South Africa, 3257. Thank you.Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. I will be missing you and the feasts and celebrations of Haida Gwaii.