A lot of people get mad about Christmas music-not so much at the songs themselves, but from hearing the same songs over and over again beginning November 1. But not me. I love listening to Christmas music all day. But this year, there’s one song in particular I’ve got a beef with.
It goes like this:
“It’s Christmastime, there’s no need to be afraid
At Christmastime, we let in light and we banish shade
And in our world of plenty we can spread a smile of joy
Throw your arms around the world at Christmastime
But say a prayer, Pray for the other ones
At Christmastime it’s hard, but when you’re having fun
There’s a world outside your window
And it’s a world of dread and fear
Where the only water flowing
Is the bitter sting of tears
And the Christmas bells that ring there are the clanging chimes of doom
Well tonight thank God it’s them instead of you
And there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmastime
The greatest gift they’ll get this year is life
Where nothing ever grows
No rain nor rivers flow
Do they know it’s Christmastime at all?”
-“Do They Know It’s Christmas?”
This song was written at a time when the media was covering a devastating famine in Ethiopia and Eritrea in the early 1980s. While I appreciate someone trying to bring attention to issues in Africa, I’m really over people generalizing Africa as if it’s one country, one people group, one problem. I’ve experienced this first hand over the past year from Americans who try to warn me of the Ebola and terrorism they assume is in Uganda, (Ugandans laugh when I bring this up to them).
I heard this song my first full day back in America of my Christmas holiday. I’ve never had the experience of a Christmas song make me angry before. But come on really? “bitter sting of tears?” “clanging chimes of doom?” Okay so they’re painting a picture, and in some cases (such as a detrimental famine) that might be justified.
What bothers me is the insinuation that Africans don’t know about Christmas and that they don’t celebrate it. And that people think “chimes of doom” can refer to people across the entire continent.
Now before I go into a mini-rant, let me first say, I do have very limited experience of African culture, having only lived in one country over the past 7 months. So I can only speak on behalf of what I have experienced in Uganda in that short time.
I’m very bothered by the idea that Americans listen to this song every Christmas, feeling bad for people across the world, thinking they don’t know it’s Christmastime, which is ridiculous. Yes it’s true, we don’t get snow in Uganda (except the peaks of the Rwenzori mountains) but I’m pretty sure snow didn’t fall the night baby Jesus was born in Bethlehem. And let us remember the record heat we’re having this year-we don’t have snow in Michigan this Christmas either. If anything, Hollywood has made us associate Christmas with snow, and makes us feel like Christmas is incomplete without it. And “there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmastime” is not even a blanket statement that can be used legitimately after Cairo, Egypt was in the news two weeks ago for receiving their first snowfall in 112 years. 1
“Where nothing ever grows”? Don’t these singers know the huge amount of natural resources Africa is blessed with, such as coffee, grains, oil, and gold, just to name a very few. “No rain or rivers flow”? When I left Uganda a week and a half ago, we were still pretty immersed in the raining season. And do I really need to mention rivers? What about the Congo River, or I don’t know, the Nile?
It’s unfortunate that people think they can say what they want about Africa in such a negative way, and in this case, their words get played in melodic form for the next thirty-some years. Because of this, stereotypes about Africans are not going away like they should be, such as Africans are all too poor and dismal to celebrate Christmas or too oblivious to even know when it is.
According to the most recent census, 85% of Ugandans are Christian, while only 12% are Islam. This would mean the vast majority of the population celebrates Christmas. While Africans often have much less access to good education, they are still very intelligent, and they do own calendars! They definitely know when Christmas is.
From what I’ve seen, people that live in rural villages celebrate Christmas. It’s often the one day of the year that people buy meat and soda for their family. They don’t exchange gifts like we do, but just because they don’t celebrate like we do, doesn’t mean they’re not celebrating. Ugandans go to church on Christmas Day, no matter what day of the week it is. If anything, they understand and celebrate the true meaning of Christmas better than we do.
Let’s not forget that there are 1.2 million people living in the city of Kampala, and those of them that are Christians are definitely celebrating. In the city there are Christmas lights, Christmas music, churches do Christmas productions, and you can walk into a large retail store and buy a fake Christmas tree, just like the ones we have here in America. Christmas is a time when most people living in Kampala leave the city and go visit family that live in the villages.
The tribal languages of Uganda that I have been introduced to even have their own word for Christmas-‘Sekukulu’ in Luganda.
I’ve read a little bit about the mixed reception this song had when it first came out in 1984, and although it became the biggest selling hit at the time it was released (Music Week, 1985) I’ve read several articles in which one of the writers, Bob Geldof, is quoted saying it’s a terrible song. After starting conversations, I found my Ugandan friends do not know the song, but the idea of it is insulting to them.
What I’m wondering is how the conversation about Africa has not changed in the last 30 years. This song is still played on the radio and still covered by other singers at Christmastime today.
Maybe some people think this song raises awareness of African lifestyle but they would be wrong. This song over-generalizes and promotes stereotypes of African people.
Pitying the continent as a whole does nothing to empower African people.
In a 2014 ‘The Guardian’ article about a revival of the song to raise awareness for the recent Ebola outbreak, the author states “I, like many others, am sick of the whole concept of Africa – a resource-rich continent with unbridled potential – always being seen as diseased, infested and poverty-stricken. In fact, seven out of 10 of the world’s fastest growing economies are in Africa.”2
The West has a certain negative mindset about Africa, and they only see it that way. Often when I tell people I live in Africa, they have a hard time believing me because the words Ebola, Terrorism, Famine, Disease, Poverty, run through their heads. They have no idea that in Kampala, I go to the movie theater, I go for jogs around my neighborhood, I go to the grocery store. It’s a very normal place and I feel very safe there.
Let’s change the conversation about Africa and African people. We can start by remembering there are different economic levels in Africa. I really do not want to diminish the pain that people do go through in many places around the vast continent. Approximately 50% of people in Sub-Saharan Africa(that’s every country except Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, and Western Sahara) live on less than $1.25 a day.3 Millions of people live in poverty we cannot even fathom. But, there are also many wealthy people in Africa. There are many people that live very affluent lifestyles. In 2011, a report was made saying 1-in-3 Africans are considered middle class.4 While the average income is certainly well below the average income in America, the cost of living is also much less, so people can get by on smaller incomes, while living comfortably.
Also, when talking about issues in the continent, try as best you can to discuss people groups, specific countries, because there are still many people who believe Africa in itself is one country-wrong!
So please, by all means, give generously to organizations that take care of the needy people of Africa. But Africa as a whole doesn’t need your pity. They need your compassion and they need for you to be educated.
If you would like to read more on this topic, here are the links to some articles I have really enjoyed:
Global Citizen: “Africans Are All Poor and 15 Other Myths”
Relevant Magazine: “You Need Africa More Than Africa Needs You”