Last year, the Christmas season felt more like summer to me. After arriving in November, it was my first Christmas in Sierra Leone. I was still in the midst of a great deal of culture shock. And it was HOT. So it’s fair to say I was pretty disoriented. Like disoriented enough to ask a friend back home how her summer break was going. It just didn’t feel like Christmas.
This year, I decided to make a concerted effort to make it FEEL like Christmas. I downloaded a bunch of Christmas albums and, along with the air conditioner, have been blasting them in my car. I bought a tree off of an expat friend who moved back to the US this month. I even found an Africana fabric that is Christmas themed which is serving as my table cloth for the season.
I also participated in the Christmas caroling fundraiser for the Prison Ministry. Last year I practiced with the group but didn’t end up going house to house. That was when I learned my first Christmas song in Krio. Christmas tem don kam, wi fit gladi. Christmas tem don kam, wi fit enjoy. Bicos God don sen in wan gran boy pikin foh mek i pul wi pan yagba, foh mek i pul wi pan yagba! (Christmas time has come, we must be glad. Christmas time has come, we must enjoy because God has sent his one son to save us from struggle, to save us from struggle.)
This year, I learned a few songs in Mende (one of the local tribal languages) to add to my repertoire. Yesu lor wama mu sene venge we. (“Jesus is coming, let us prepare ourselves.”)
After a year, I’m learning more and more what it feels like to experience life the Sierra Leone way. And it’s makes more sense to me day after day. I’m still who I am—an American. But I’m being changed day by day. So I’ve found ways to integrate my American with their Salone. Christmas is no different. It’s a little of mine and a little of theirs.
In that vein I learned a new song this week. It’s a Krio song. It goes Happy Christmas, mi no die-o. Happy Christmas, mi no die-o. (“Merry Christmas, I didn’t die.”) That’s it. That’s the whole song. Sometimes you start high. Sometimes you start low. Sometimes you say I. Sometimes you say we.
We sang this song to start our Prison Ministry meeting before we went and fed the boys and girls at the juvenile detention center. And I remember thinking to myself, Is this song for real? But sure enough it’s for real. Over and over we sang joyfully, “Happy Christmas, I didn’t die.” After we sang the song, Finda Quiwa (a senior missionary) exhorted the group to celebrate and be glad that we have reached Christmas still alive. After all, there are many who started the year with us and did not live to see Christmas.
Now this might seem morbid to a western sentiment. And maybe it is. But after living here a year, it makes sense to me. I noticed early on how often we give thanks here for waking up “in time rather than in eternity”. There is a constant awareness that this day is not guaranteed. That this life is not guaranteed.
Part of the reason for that is because death is so much more prevalent here. The life expectancy in Sierra Leone is 52 years (as of 2016). Compare that to 62 years in neighboring Liberia and 79 years back home in the US. Death is just a fact of life here. It’s an every day experience. Just this year, I know someone who’s brother lost all three of his children in one motorcycle accident. Little children. I know people who at 24 went in the hospital and did not come out. Last week I attended the funeral of Rev. Maurice Lawson, a 39 year old father of three and a talented and promising young pastor. When I asked how he died I was just told, “He was sick.” No more details than that. That gives you an idea of the thoroughness of medical care most people can afford here.
On the one hand, I look at this and recognize the profound injustice that, simply because of a lack of resources, the people of this country live with early death every day. It’s not ok that in 2018 there are people without access to good medical care. An entire country suffers. There is too much grieving and too much loss. And during worship last week, it was an Advent longing that I turned over to God, asking once more that things would be made right here.
But on the other hand, doing life among people for whom loss is a daily truth has taught me a few things. It’s taught me how to hold things lightly. There is life. There is death. There is life beyond death. Thanks be to God. In the west we do a good job of distracting ourselves from the truth of our mortality and limitations. But here I’m learning to live what life I have to God’s glory and for the joy of the moment. And every day I find myself believing more and more that that is enough.
It has also taught me to hold life more preciously. To see every day as gift. I’m not promised today. Or tomorrow. And so every breath truly is the grace of God.
So here we are at another Christmas. And we’re still alive. We still have this day. We still have life and breath and laughter and sunlight and coffee and young love and babies and the color red and each other. It really does feel like a reason to sing.
Happy Christmas, friends. We didn’t die. Thanks be to God.
Let’s make some good food and have a party.