I spent my last two Christmases in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
I had a wonderful Christmas at home this year. We had an incredible feast with cider glazed ham, stuffed turkey, potatoes roasted in duck fat, sweet roast pumpkin, green beans, and kale sautéed with crisp bacon. I made cherry and apple compote for the ham, and bought a locally made cranberry sauce for the turkey. My turkey pan gravy turned out a treat. For dessert I served Christmas pudding ice-cream, with a swirl of brandy caramel sauce, and almond and cherry Florentines.
But I would like to reflect on my Christmas dinner two years ago. In many ways, I felt lost and abandoned in the suburbs of Kinshasa. I do not speak Lingala, the dominant local dialect, and my French is atrocious. The two professors with whom I stayed were not particularly interested, and I think much of the celebration was lost in cultural translation.
However, there was a young boy who stayed with them. He was the nephew of the head of International Law at the University. He wanted to study art. It was his understanding that in exchange for work around the house his uncle would arrange for him to attend art classes at the University of Kinshasa. We practised our English/French together. Crispin looked after me very well. We went to the Academy des Beaux Arts together and he often helped me navigate the street stalls so I could get my onion omelette and bread roll for breakfast.
Most generously, Crispin took me to his brothers’ house for dinner on Christmas evening. His brother lived in the suburban slums on the other side of the university. I had very little money, but took some bottles of soda to share with dinner. They had killed their scrawny rooster and stewed it for dinner. They served it with cassava leaves and fufu. Cassava is a plant grown in Africa for both its root and young leaves. It has a mild flavour, slightly more bitter than spinach, with tougher texture. Fufu is a staple in southern Africa, made from corn flour and used to scoop mouthfuls of food from your plate. We ate by lamplight around a little wooden table in the middle of their dusty yard. There was no electricity in the slums, and they were worried about my safety on the way to and from their house. I had little money to take a ‘moto’ (motorcycle taxi) home again. But Crispin negotiated a reasonable rate and got me home safely. I felt so incredibly grateful to be welcomed into someone’s house to share Christmas dinner, people who had so little, but were willing and able to share. For me, this was a true celebration of the season. They opened their home to me, so I would not be alone and hungry on Christmas day. I fell asleep happy that night, sweltering hot in my bed.