Do we know it’s Christmas time at all?

“Do you want me to bring anything else when I meet you at the airport?”

Georgie’s reply was as rapid as it was surprising: “Pret a Manger Christmas Sandwich. Actually, any Christmas sandwich. Christmas sandwich!”

Apparently, despite having been in West Africa since October, Georgie knows it’s Christmas time, an’ all.

And judging by the emails and texts I’ve received this week, so do most of our friends over there.

I decided I wasn’t going to weigh in on the debate about Bob’s latest version of the Band Aid single. I didn’t feel at the time that I had much to add to the conversation and I think perhaps the most valuable result of his intervention was that it revitalised a news story that was then in danger of dropping out of the news.

This has always been the problem with ‘news’. Once something’s been happening for a while it, by definition, no longer qualifies as such. Even for me – even for Georgie – it’s become increasingly difficult to bring you fresh stories that present a different angle than one you’ve read a dozen times already. Despite the tragedies and minor triumphs Georgie experiences every day, we get tired of reading the same things, even when they affect us directly. And so, by our silence, you’d be forgiven for thinking that things are getting much better in Sierra Leone. But of course, that’s not the case, as demonstrated this week by the President’s announcement that Christmas celebrations across the country would be cancelled. Apparently he, too, knew it was Christmas time.

I suppose my problem with Bob & Midge’s contribution is that line: “Say a prayer, and pray for the other ones.” It’s an innocuous enough line at first glance, and not one I’ve ever given much thought to before, but in the context of my experiences this year I think it’s important. It once again reinforces the idea – quite literally – of the “otherness” of people in Africa (or in this instance West Africa). I’ve talked about that before here. It adds up to a picture of a hopeless group of joyless people. Apparently a man calling himself Fuse ODG agreed with me, and he wrote this rather excellent article explaining himself and his reasons for declining to participate in the singalong far more eloquently than I.

For the past four years I have gone to Ghana at Christmas for the sole purpose of peace and joy. So for me to sing these lyrics would simply be a lie.

– Fuse ODG

I don’t know who Fuse ODG is because I have apparently now passed this threshold but his article is worth a read.

Actually, in the course of writing this, I’ve gone back and read it again and it really is a good piece. So here’s the link again in case you didn’t click it the first time.

I suppose I was of the opinion that any money raised for this cause was automatically a good thing, but Fuse makes a really valuable point about the opportunity cost of that money.

With decades of such imagery being pumped out, the average westerner is likely to donate £2 a month or buy a charity single that gives them a nice warm fuzzy feeling; but they are much less likely to want to go on holiday to, or invest in, Africa… though shock tactics and negative images may raise money in the short term, the long-term damage will take far longer to heal.

– Fuse ODG

So there won’t be snow in West Africa this Christmas (which Bob, admittedly, acknowledges, omitting the line from this year’s version). But even with Betfred offering odds of 5/1 of a white christmas (a single flake observed in a specific place), the thing is: there’s never been much chance of seeing a lot of it here, either – in fact, there’s only been widespread snow on the ground on Christmas Day four times in the last 51 years.

And as for whether they know it’s Christmas or not, with a rapidly declining population of UK born Christians, the large and active Christian population of Sierra Leone might be equally justified in asking the same question of us.

It’s going to be a tough Christmas in West Africa, for sure, but when we make an area the size of Europe into something to be pitied we put the people who live there beneath ourselves. And whilst there’s certainly plenty of struggles and challenges to be overcome out there, with Ebola just the latest of these, pity is not the way to address the problem. And before we should go “praying for the other ones,” we should consider our own place in the world.

The first Band Aid raised awareness of poverty and starvation in Ethiopia. Now, in one of the richest most developed countries on the planet, “in our world of plenty”, if you like, families are contemplating a Christmas without food, as UK food banks see record demand for their help. And we have over 80,000 ‘homeless households’ in England alone. In our world of plenty where, as The New York Times reports, the wealth gap between white and black Americans is greater now than it was in South Africa at the height of apartheid.

And when One Direction sings, “It’s Christmas time, there’s no need to be afraid” I cannot help but wonder, does that include families like this one, contemplating a new year where they are forced out of the country? Or the families of those bereaved in Sydney this week – or the Muslim population there that now fear retribution?

I think Bob Geldof, Midge Ure, Bono and all the rest set out to do a good thing. I don’t buy the argument that this was an ego project, or even that they could have donated the same amount themselves without the rigmarole of re-working a song that over the course of thirty years has helped to raise millions for good causes. And I think there’s something great and entirely laudable about creating an uplifting song with a message that speaks of bringing help and comfort. But I do think that the song says as much about us as it does about the people it’s intended to help. The implication of the song, that everyone here is just fine, ignores the massive problems we have of our own and I don’t think this is a trivial concern. When you allow yourself the complacency of suggesting that back home we have nothing to complain about it is not only a backhanded insult to the great many people here who are suffering, and it’s not just that it might diminish the very people it seeks to help, but by suggesting we have all the answers it risks blinding us to the mistakes and errors of our own society.

Back in Sierra Leone, Moses always found it strange to think that my family was spread all over the UK – across the world, even – and that simple fact, perfectly normal to me, that we wouldn’t all be together in one place for Christmas seemed to him to be something deserving of his sympathy. I’ve watched news reports where doctors marvel at how the kids in the Ebola treatment centres take care of each other – remarking on the extraordinary behaviour of a ten year old child who provided support and care to a child half his age. And sure, in the UK we might consider this extraordinary but most people in Sierra Leone would consider this perfectly ordinary. It’s how kids are raised there, to know their place in the community and the responsibilities that entails. Georgie and I have watched families and communities working together, supporting each other and sharing everything they have. As immigrants we were welcomed and made to feel at home, treated with warm hospitality and shown around proudly. I’ve seen people with almost nothing sharing with those with even less. I’ve seen people laugh and dance in the face of adversity, shrug it off and start all over again. I’ve seen Muslim prayers read in the Catholic university and co-existence between peoples who went to war against each other.

Sierra Leone only gained its independence from Britain in 1961. They share a long history with us and look to this country with affection. They share our language and our sense of humour and you can buy Marmite and tea and watch premiership football there (though why you’d want to do two of those three is beyond me).

And yet, when we ask, “Do they know it’s Christmas?” we’re suggesting that the people of Sierra Leone and Africa are not like us. That they’re different, held at arm’s length. But they’re not different, and as Fuse ODG suggests, we should ask ourselves why we see them that way. As long as we continue to portray Africa as a place of “Dread and fear” we are unlikely to alter that perception.

So what is my point? The world is a messed up place. And we shouldn’t kid ourselves that we are any better or any worse than anyone else on this tiny planet that we share, and we shouldn’t presume to pity those we share it with. I suppose my point, such as it is, is only that wherever you are, and whoever you worship, or whatever circumstances you happened to find yourself in by the pure chance and miracle of birth and DNA replication, we are all not so different and are all equally deserving – not of pity, but of the simple human compassion with which you would treat a neighbour – at this time of year or any other.

Perhaps, despite my reservations, when all’s said and done Bob and Midge actually sum it up pretty well:

Throw your arms around the world at Christmas.

The people of West Africa know it’s Christmas. For some of them, as for some over here, it will be the worst of their lives. But still others will come together to celebrate and to look forward with hope to a better future.

I wish them, as I do you all, an excellent Christmas, and a happy and healthy New Year.


*Which Bob apparently acknowledges, omitting the line in this year’s version


3 thoughts on “Do we know it’s Christmas time at all?

  1. pipcocampbell says:

    Heart felt article, Ian. Very true about how the people look after their own .. humbling in many ways, and yet for some families the very cause of the spread of the disease. Conflicting values, which are certainly testing the whole world — and especially those trying so hard to help. Georgie is at least getting her first proper break, be it only 10 days, after all the hard work she, and emotional effort you ,have put into it all. May they all have some form of Christmas,even if Sierra Leone does ban movement home to help stop any further spread of the disease. Philip


  2. Nina Murray says:

    My sentiments exactly (but much more eloquently put by you, Ian!). Have just been catching up on the last few blogs in awe, horror and sadness. But so pleased to hear that Georgie will be home tomorrow and that you’ll be spending Christmas together. Huge hugs to you all and have a lovely couple of weeks xxx


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