A series about how families in other countries celebrate Christmas.
I love Christmas. I love thinking up creative and surprising gifts for loved ones. The best bit is spending time with my family, eating way too much and curling up in the front of the fire, overfed, safe and warm.
Working in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where hundreds of thousands of people are planning a Christmas in temporary shelters far from home, makes the upcoming celebration hard to get my head around as I go back to the United Kingdom to be with my family for the holidays.
I’ve spent a lot of time in camps speaking to people who have fled fighting and who are now struggling to live without the very basics.
For them, Christmas will be spent much like any other day. Sixty-two-year-old Sengoko will celebrate with peas and maize provided by aid agencies like World Vision. “We don’t have money to buy food for a celebration,” he said. “We don’t have farms. We don’t have livestock. Where can we get money to celebrate?”
As we speak, he is industriously making a small table out of branches to sell for less than a dollar. When I ask him what he wants as the New Year approaches, he hopes for something intangible yet simple.
“Next year, I would like to see peace being established here, because we are tired of seeing our children without education and huts without plastic sheeting. We want to return home and rest. We want peace,” he says. “We can’t continue living by distributions. We want to go back. We used to sleep on beds but now we are sleeping on volcanic rocks.
“We want peace so we will return back to our homes, so we can farm and live a better life.”
A year of peace
Everyone I speak to says the same thing.
“I would like 2009 to be a year of peace, a peace that would allow us to return home,” said sixteen-year-old Michelle.
A woman who was raped while she was collecting firewood for her small stove would also like to go home. “I hope we will go back to our farms next year,” she said. “Then we shall get food and be happy and thank God.”
People in eastern Congo want the same as me as the year draws to an end – to be safe, to be with their family and to eat good food. They want clothes and to be warm and dry, without the heavy rain that seeps through their banana-leaf huts.
While conflict continues to separate families as they flee fighting and armed groups continue to rape girls and women, while people are too scared to return to their farms, families will be forced to celebrate Christmas with the very little they have.
As I speak to another man who asks, “the Government and you people to join your efforts, so we can go back home in 2009,” I make a new year’s resolution. Instead of eating less chocolate next year, I think I will make every effort to join the amazing people I meet in Congo and call for peace.
—Reported by Anna Ridout, a senior emergency communications officer for World Vision UK working in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
[editor’s note: This article was written in December 2008.]