Christmas in Liberia

“My Christmas is on you!” is the greeting I heard most often during the Season in Liberia! At first I was confused. What has your Christmas got to do with me? ‘People, we have to take care of our own Christmases’, I thought. And after four Christmas seasons spent as an expat in Liberia I think I eventually ‘got it’ in the end.

Christmas is a very important celebration.

The majority of Liberians claim to be Christians (about 80%). Church attendance is a priority and after the mass or Sunday service people spill out onto the roads in their Sunday finery, greeting friends, blessing each other, and searching for a ride home. Christmas Day is spent with the family and people go all out to enjoy a nice meal and share some small gifts for the children.

Family time is very important and after sharing the special meal families will go to the beach or somewhere special to visit and pass the time together. Interestingly, Christmas is not always celebrated on the 25th December. If, like this year (2011), the 25th happens to fall on a Sunday then Liberians will celebrate Christmas on the public holiday.

Christmas shopping is stressful all over the world!

The RedLight market area in Monrovia may not be Woolworths or Marks and Spencer, but the stress for the shopper on the hunt for a bargain is the same the world round, and more so at Christmas! (The photos tell the story!)

Now you cannot compare the Christmas consumerism of a typical Australian with that of Liberians because the two are quite different contexts. However speaking only from my observations, many Liberians seem to face more pressure than most Aussies would experience during this time of the year. In Liberia, where 85% of the population do not have regular jobs or salaries, the urgency to hustle and beg is an incredible burden for many. I can’t really imagine how it feels.

“My Christmas is on you!”

So here’s where the saying “My Christmas is on you” starts to make sense. The security guards say it, the office cleaning ladies, the parking attendant at the shops, government interlocutors, and even my colleagues at work! Everyone looks to their connections, no matter how thin, to ask for money.

Of course, expats are a natural target as everyone assumes we have money to give away to anyone who asks. But the Liberians with a stable job and salary are constantly chased by the unemployed family members, long-lost cousin ten times removed, and neighbours who they barely meet throughout the year. Imagine how much pressure that is!

While the hustlers might accept a negative response from an expat, they do not let up with their Liberian brothers and sisters. They will hustle until the family member gives them some money, and they will shame them if the amount they give is not enough. (I’m not sure that this makes any sense until you have lived in Liberia.)

 

How to respond 

At first when people greeted me with “My Christmas is on you” I used to smile and say “Bless you”. I felt that if I gave to one person I would need to give to everyone. And so the well reasoned mantra, ‘I can’t help everyone, so I won’t help anyone’ justified my inaction on too many occasions. (Thankfully, not on all occasions)

Once I understood the Season greeting would come every December, I thought about who was important to me and what they might need. I planned ahead so that for some people I could give more than a ‘bless you’.

The spirit of Christmas in Liberia

I eventually  realised that the consumerism and pressure people faced at Christmas time in Liberia came from the same source as everywhere Christmas is celebrated – a desire to celebrate a special occasion and have time with family.

That is the same heart and motivation many people have across the world. It is the spirit of Christmas!

So when Liberians greeted me with ‘My Christmas is on you’ they were actually voicing in a unique way, their desire to celebrate and their need for help. I would rather hear that greeting than “Hey big mama! You got money for me!” Yes, I did hear that statement in Liberia too, but never at Christmas time!

I hope that my comments as an expat have captured some of the reality of the challenges that come with celebrating Christmas in Liberia. And I hope also that when someone greets you saying, ‘My Christmas is on you’, you can feel the heart and need behind the expression.

I wish I had caught on to that heartbeat much sooner!

MERRY CHRISTMAS everyone and richest blessings for the year to come!

 

The President signs the Education Reform Act, Liberia

Without being flippant about a serious event, here are some photos of the President actually putting pen to the Act. This is how the grand lady enacts laws! You can see that she takes the following important steps:

1. check that the pen is a suitable writing implement (Hmm no gold fountain pen – I’m disappointed),

2. write something to be sure the pen works,

3. check the wrist watch to get the right time and date; and finally,

4. add the autograph! An act becomes a law. 8th August 2011

(Apologies for the incorrect focus – I was forced to hold the camera above the crowd and just shoot, so most of the images do not have the President in focus.)

There are some who might suggest that the signing of the new Education Reform Act on 8th August 2011 was just another election-related ploy, but there are some worthy components within it which if implemented could benefit the Liberian education system. The biggest plus of the Act is that it devolves a lot of responsibility for education matters to the County level, and eventually even to the Districts. Anyway, my policy is not to delve into Liberian policy and politics in this blog. What I really wanted to do was to add a few photos from the signing event which I attended. Unfortunately, I cannot post video here, because I recorded an incredible young man singing with the school choir. The song, “That’s the sound of victory” was inspiring.

A personal observation: the Lady is strong! I don’t know how well I’d stand up to her gruelling schedule. She sits through events and listens to speech after speech, and sometimes she must be as bored as bored. But when its her turn to respond, she’s as sharp as a tack. She refers to previous speakers comments, she makes jokes, she gives sharp messages, and she’s as quick-witted as ever.

Now let’s watch the implementation of the Act…

Liberian Flag Day

Today is the 164th celebration of Liberian Flag Day, the National holiday to celebrate the significance and symbolism of the Liberian flag. In honour of the day there is usually a parade before the President and other events, but for most it is just a holiday. My security guard did pronounce that “today is da proud day for the Liberian Flag”, although he could not tell me what made it a proud day. I was probably asking too much.

The Liberian flag, in case you haven’t noticed is very similar to the flag of the USA, but with only a single star, otherwise known as the ‘lone star’. I wonder what the average Liberian has to celebrate about the current flag and all the national symbols? They are celebrating the birth of the nation by freed slaves sent from the USA courtesy of the American Colonisation Society and their close national links with the States. Perhaps for most people that is no longer relevant or a point worthy of celebration. It might be time to design a new flag that captures a fresh and modern symbolism for the identity of this nation…and before you ask, I have no idea what that might be!

Until things change, I attach 2 photos:

(1) the President of the Republic of liberia seated on her gold chair with the flag on the gold table in front of her; and,

(2) the flag on a pole outside the Administration building in Harper, Maryland County.

And since we speak of flags, Liberia is also a flag of convenience country which allows shipping companies to register ships and sail under the Liberian flag without ever sailing into the Liberian port. I think I have an amusing photo for this situation – a boat flying the Liberian flag in Lamu Island, Kenya. 🙂