That’s Christmas To Me

Christmas in Kenya

Image: Photo © Robin Emery

Author: Robin Emery

That’s Christmas To Me

One evening in early December, I was there on a pile of red dirt appreciating the last rays of orange sunlight bouncing off the still water. As I sat by the lake I threw a small pebble into it, there was just enough light to see ripples spreading rapidly on its surface. And then all went black because night comes fast on the equator. I was left in the darkness of a December night in Kenya. I was wearing a tank top and no shoes. Days are becoming hotter and hotter here. And it is now early December, which means it is soon 2015, and even sooner it will be Christmas. That is when I realized that I had not yet thought about Christmas.

Almost four months ago, I started performing (yep, that word) my Swiss “Service Civil” in an orphanage in western-Kenya and I will spend Christmas here. There are two seasons in Kenya: winter and summer. December is the beginning of summer so it does not snow here on Christmas Eve. Actually, it never snows here. Instead, Christmas takes place halfway through the biggest yearly drought and its oppressive temperatures.

When I first read the e-mail inviting English students to write a text for the “muse” magazine, I was thrilled. I wanted to write about my time in Kenya. However, partly through the message I read “we do encourage you to relate your texts to Christmas or winter season” and I felt sad because where I am, I will live through no ordinary winter and my Christmas will certainly be very different from what I always knew. Well, exactly! I will neither have an ordinary winter nor an ordinary Christmas.

Having that in mind, I began thinking of Christmas and ideas related to it. Whoever is reading this would have the concept of Christmas match others such as “family”, “friends”, “presents”, “generosity”, “songs”, “the cold”, “snow”, “a big fat dinner”, “short days”, “long nights”, “coziness in a chalet”, “the warmth of a wood fire”, “skiing”, “what comes just after essay deadlines”, “what comes just before new year’s eve”, and this could go on for a ridiculously long time. In any case: not drought, sunburns and flip-flops.

So I started wondering whether all collocates for the word “Christmas” in Kenya are really diametrically opposed to ours. But nobody wants to read about a corpus-based search here, hunh. Instead, let’s browse through various thoughts and events that came about in my life here concerning Christmas-related topics.

Snow. “You know, in my country in December sometimes I look out of my window in the morning and where normally there are colors there are none. All is white because it snowed during the night and I cannot use my car anymore until a powerful machine comes and pushes snow away and then there are walls of snow on both sides of the road and the road is slippery. Everything is ice-cold”. When I said those words the kids were staring at me with that concentrated mouth-half-open gaze they have when a magic trick is being executed in front of them. Most of them only saw snow once on a postcard of Mount Kenya.

“But” one of them asks, “can you even walk around outside when it is so cold?” – “Not really, we try staying inside most of the time” – “So… why do you live there in the first place?” Good question. – “Well, when there is snow I go up one of the many mountains not far from home and I go skiing!” – “Go what?” That was the beginning of a loooong talk.

Short days & long nights. I spent every single one of my twenty-two winters in Switzerland. Every time Christmas was approaching it was the same story. Days grew shorter and shorter while the atmosphere and the people became increasingly cold. Depression due to lack of light, the endless waiting for the 24th to open presents and the famous sentence voiced by skiers “at least some snow could fall and make the cold worth bearing!” were all part of the picture. Every year. Not this year.

The orphanage is smack on the equator and on the equator the sun unvaryingly rises between 6:30 and 7AM and sets between 6:30 and 7PM. It is so consistent that there is no need for the hour change we have in Europe, and time is counted differently: hour zero of a day for people here is our 6AM; hence our 9AM is their 3AM. “It’s logical! You wake up at dawn, and when you were up for three hours, you are three hours into the morning: it’s 3AM”!

The days are never longer or shorter, the curfew for children never changes. Days pass by so swiftly that to keep up with a countdown until the 24th would be absurd. I live amidst many smiles and there is no objective reason to be depressed. The only genuine parameter to consider while organizing my days here is whether there is rain or not. And in December there is no rain, in December there is only sun.

The warmth of a wood fire. In Switzerland, I make a wood fire when my chalet’s heating system is out, which seldom happens. In other cases, a wood fire merely intensifies the cozy atmosphere in a room when you have family or friends over or when you are alone with The New Yorker or Paradise Lost in one hand and a glass of red wine in the other, right? Just writing this overwhelms me with this romantic feeling.

A wood fire has a different effect on me now because in the orphanage one makes wood fire every day. Why? To cook. So, “go fetch firewood or else you’ll not eat” says the cook. That’s maybe as close to “pragmatic” and as far from “romantic” as one can get.

Generosity. “When I set the table, I always keep two spare plates in a corner of the table in case someone walks in while we are eating. We never count how much food we make, since we do not know how many people will eat at our table. It is in our culture,” says Lilian, a friend of mine who teaches French in a neighboring village. – “So, do people often walk in and eat with you?” – “Almost never, she answers, but when it happens we have enough food for them”. That is what I call widespread generosity. Just imagine! It is a cultural trend to expect unexpected guests! In contrast, I suppose in Switzerland we are bad at expecting the unexpected…

Generosity is supposed to be a primitive human drive (debate: open) and constitutes a fundamental pillar to a healthy society. Cynically, one could argue that in common Western customs Christmas is the time of the year to be generous and to offer presents. In our collective unconsciousness, the social representation of “generosity” was taken hostage by Christmas! But it’s practical: there is that small time of the year where one is prompted to burst into flamboyant and ostentatious acts of generosity, and then it’s done. The rest of the year, just go back to work or whatever you do for your living.

I am very crude because I consider generosity to be as diffuse as foucaldian power, underlying every word uttered and gesture enacted and to be as quintessential to human understanding as language itself. I see generosity as the tangible part of love, as the emergence through which love arises in humanly perceptible stimuli, and because love is everywhere, generosity is everywhere. Somehow, it is. Generosity is everywhere, always, not only on Christmas Eve. That is why I like the yearlong extra-plate policy here.

Music. In the orphanage the music I hear is nearly always terrible wannabe-American noise from the Kenyan radio. Sometimes children sing, and other times I hear sophisticated phones ringing: Lil Wayne, Sean Paul or Akon. But yesterday everything changed when I heard the polyphonic ringtone of our cook Maureen’s Sony Ericson playing “I Wish You A Merry Christmas”! And I thought of Christmas once more and I laughed and I sang along and Maureen answered the phone and the ringtone stopped so I was singing alone and I stopped singing. She looked at me astonished and after she hung up she asked me how I knew the lyrics to her ringtone. I answered that we have the same Christmas songs at home. Se was puzzled, but I finally found out how I will connect with my habitual Christmases: through music!

Apart from singing, there will be a big party and a big fat dinner and love and new friends and presents and a Christmas tree. But so far from home it will still be very different. You know, neither better nor worse, just different. It will come fast enough, because time flies here. So many teeming thoughts this evening may have kept me away from producing a straightforward account of anything. However, there is a baseline to it, and it addresses all readers: Merry Christmas!

And a happy new year

With love,

Sent from Kenya

The Train

The Train

Image: Metropolitan Transportation Authority © Patrick Cashin. SourceCC License

Author: Sandrine Spycher

I’d been waiting for my train for ten minutes. Josh was walking up and down the platform. I was cold as well, but too tired to move so I just sat on the metal bench. Finally the train arrived and we climbed on. Although it was crowded like mad, we managed to find a seat near the window. I squeezed my overfilled bag under the seat and leaned against the cold window. A fat man sat next to me; I could hardly move without hitting him with my elbow. Noisy kids were chattering a few seats away, and an incredibly skinny person—so skinny I could hardly tell if it was a man or woman—was listening to loud punk music in front of me. Josh looked annoyed. I think he mumbled to him/her to turn the volume down, but wasn’t understood. It was in that uncomfortable environment that I finally fell asleep—I guess I was so tired I could have slept anywhere.

I was suddenly awaken by a loud noise and the train coming to an emergency stop. Everyone looked astonished. Almost every passenger moved toward the windows to try and see what was happening. As we were peering outside, the door crashed open.

“Nobody move!” a male voice shouted.

I was now fully awake. Three figures were standing in between the seats. They were holding huge guns in their hands, threatening the passengers with them. One of the kids started weeping. The one who seemed to be the leader of the gangsters yelled at the poor child, with the only effect of increasing his crying. The gangster then turned to the skinny punk listener and violently pulled the earphones away from him/her. That’s when I made my move. I jumped from my seat, clung to the gangster’s back and hit him on the head. He was so surprised that it was easy for skinny-one to snatch the gun from him. The other two gangsters were quickly overtaken by Josh and the fat man, while the kids’ mother phoned the police. A few minutes later, the gangsters were cuffed and taken away in flashy cars with loud sirens.

I had dozed off again, but at the next stop was woken up by a movement from the fat man. He got up heavily and made a clumsy way toward the door. The seat he’d just left was almost instantly occupied by someone else. He was even stranger than skinny-one. He was very tall, and the only way he could sit without disturbing anyone was by folding his legs under the seat. At that moment I noticed that his legs, just like the rest of his body, looked like rubber. The man was so flexible, it looked as though he didn’t have bones at all. When he saw I was observing him, he turned his round boneless head toward me. I couldn’t help but start up. His face was concealed under a hood, but I could see two blood red piercing eyes, which seemed to be flashing lights.

“I’m not from this world,” he said. “Don’t tell.” His voice was a somewhat strange mixture of hoarse and childish tones. It gave me the shivers and made the hairs stand on my nape. As I looked around, I saw Josh was sleeping, skinny-one was lost in the music, and the mother was telling one of the kids to stop shouting. It seemed I was the only one to notice how weird that man—or alien?—was.

Another sudden stop made me look outside. When I turned back, the alien was gone. I stood up, but didn’t see him. I started walking between the seats.

“Hey Sam, where are you going?” Josh asked in a sleepy voice.

“To see if… erm… if I can find out what’s going on.”

Yet, I didn’t go far. A ticket inspector told me to go back to my seat and wait. Wait for what, I wondered. So I sat down again in front of Josh.

“Look,” he said, “the railway tracks are completely flooded.”

I looked outside to discover he was right. But how could it be? The sun had been shining for a while, and it was way too cold for rain. I was really starting to think there was something uncanny going on with this train. First the gangsters appearing out of nowhere, then a boneless alien with red eyes, and now a flood. Perhaps the three events were linked. They had to be. I was so caught up in my thinking about conspiracy that I didn’t even notice the water level was going up. Passengers were hitting the windows and begging to be let out. It wasn’t long before I started panicking too. The water was freezing, and although I tried to keep my chin above the surface, I felt like drowning. I fought for a few more minutes before fainting.

“Sam? Sam, wake up, we’re here,” Josh said.

I opened my eyes and looked around. The passengers were getting up and gathering their things. A tall man wearing a hoodie handed me my bag. Skinny-one looked at me in a disgusted way. My shoes were soaked.

“What happened?” I asked Josh.

“Oh, that. I’m sorry. There was a sudden move and tipped off my water bottle.”

When I got up, I noted that hoodie-man was wearing strange glasses which were flashing red lights. I was trying to make sense of what didn’t make sense when Josh pulled on my sleeve.

“Come on! What are you waiting for?”

“What happened?” I repeated. “How did we get out of the water?”


“The water. It was flooding the train,” I tried to explain.

“There was no flood, or anything,” Josh said, surprised.

“How about the gangsters?”

“Which gangsters? Oh you mean the teens with their rap music? They got off a while ago. I didn’t think you’d noticed. You slept through the whole trip.”

Margaret Hare’s Sick Tenants

Margaret Hare's Sick Tenants

Image: ‘Heart of Midlothian’ © Neal Fowler. SourceCC License

Author: Elizabeth Leemann

I looked out my bedroom window yesterday morning and saw the Haar roll in. It came down from the sky like a heavy blanket covering the city of Edinburgh. I did not think the day would be different from any other. I had met Burke and his wife several times now and we had become fast friends. They came to visit me that night in my lodging house. I had promised to introduce my husband, Bill.

Once the introductions were made we decided to play cards. When the game was well underway, I realised I had not brought a candle to a client who had requested one. I made my way to his room, knocked and entered. I shrieked loudly when I saw the tenant. He was lying very still in his bed. I stared at him for several minutes, but his chest did not rise and fall with the regular rhythm of breath.

‘What is it?’ my husband said as he ran into the room closely followed by Burke and Helen.

I pointed at the body.

‘My God!’ said Helen. ‘Call the police!’

‘We can’t. If people find out about this no one will come and stay here anymore!’ I said turning back to her.

Burke patted me on the shoulder to soothe my nerves.

‘I think I know what to do, ‘ he said and walked towards the body examining it. ‘Yes, I’m sure they’ll take him. All his limbs are intact.’

We wrapped the body in the bed sheets and the men carried him down the stairs. We had been playing cards for several hours at this point and since card games generally require heavy amounts of liquid to be consumed in the process, the men now struggled with the body. It slipped twice out of their hands as they brought it down. Each time it landed on the wooden floor with a loud thud.

‘Shh!’ I said. ‘you’ll wake the whole house.’

‘These stupid floorboards!’ Bill answered.

I’ll admit the stairs were difficult to manoeuvre, not only because they were old but were in a spiral. Still, I could not help but be angry with the men when, at the top of the first floor, they angled it wrong and dropped it again. The body toppled over itself like a log thrown during a Highland Game and fell all the way to the ground floor.

I heard another tenant groan and a bed creak. We all froze and looked up. Silence greeted us in response. Then, we heard a loud snore. I felt Helen unclench beside me and I wiped my forehead with the back of my hand. We ran down the stairs and picked up the body once more.

The men carried it out into the cold night air while Helen and I looked out for witnesses. I had not been pleased that morning when the Haar had rolled in but now I was thankful for its presence. We made our way out of Tanner’s Close without being questioned by any passers-by, probably because we were hard to see through the mist. The men lifted the body and carried him under the shoulders as if he were passed out after a good night at the pub.

I looked behind us to make sure no one was following. The large black brick buildings surrounding us in the dark seemed menacing in the night. I could vaguely make out the outline of the castle towering above us. The Half Moon Battery protruded from the side of the fortress like a wart growing on a witch’s nose.

I turned my head back to the men who were still holding the tenant up by the arms. Bill was still feeling the effects of his drink. He and Burke zigzagged through the streets, ignoring the fact that the tenant’s feet dragged on the cobblestoned road in a tangled mess.

I heard someone coming towards us and whispered at the men to hide.

‘There’s a doorway over here.’ said Helen.

‘Grab his feet,’ said Burke.

We quickly obeyed trotting towards the side of the street. We shoved the body up straight in a doorway hoping it looked like he was relieving himself.

A young man emerged out of the corner of the next street. I could tell he was a student from the many books he carried in his arms and the scruffy yet pompous look he had on his face. Burke noticed this too and ran out towards him. I tried to yell at him to come back before the student noticed him but it was too late.

‘Excuse me, can you tell me where to find Professor Monro’s office?’

The student gave him directions while the rest of us tried to keep the body up. Bill was not proving very helpful and complained that he needed to relieve himself. Helen held the man from one side while I crouched in front of him trying to push him up with my back. I felt my dark red hat go askew on my head.

The student turned around and looked straight at us. We looked back. I froze mid-shove. I was so stunned that I stood up. I felt the body slip past me and hit the road with a crack. I believe we had broken several of the body’s bones at this point. Helen gave a sharp intake of breath. A tense smile spread across my face as I looked from Burke to the student and back.

‘I don’t think you want Professor Monro,’ he said eying the cadaver now sprawled in heap on the ground. ‘Try Professor Robert Knox in Surgeon’s Square.’

‘Would you mind… ?’ Burke pointed to the body on the ground.

The student looked at Burke, puzzled. Then his eyebrows slowly arched up in comprehension.

‘What? No!’ he said, offended, and stalked off.

‘Worth a try,’ Burke shrugged, looking at me, but I only shook my head at him.

Finally we arrived in Surgeon’s Square and found the Professor’s assistant. He was eager to buy the body from us and gave us a very generous price. Although we were all sweaty, tired (and in the case of Bill, ‘in desperate need of another pint’) we were quite happy with the money.

We made our way back through the streets of Edinburgh and saw a young man dressed in black lighting the streetlights. We walked up the Royal Mile back towards Tanner’s Close. I watched a cat move along the side of a building brushing its tail on the bricks as it went. Burke brought me back down the earth when he turned towards me saying, ‘any other sick tenants?’

Bill and Helen laughed but I stopped walking and looked at him full on. He smiled at me while I worked through the possibilities in my mind.