The country of Niger in West Africa is a majority Muslim, desert state. Christmas here does not involve brightly decorated homes, snow, or even gift exchange among the believers! Our church does have decorated Christmas trees, but they stay up all year and just need a good dusting before the holiday season.
This does not mean that Christmas goes uncelebrated by the tiny Christian community! As with all celebrations in Niger, Christmas is about spending time together. While this means many more hours of church than our children enjoy, the warm fellowship and communion is worth it. In addition to the Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services, our congregation always eats lunch together on Christmas Day. For weeks before the celebration, special offerings are taken to pay for the big meal. A cow is purchased, and enormous aluminum cooking pots are borrowed or rented with canoe paddle–sized wooden spoons ready for stirring. The women go to the market to buy mountains of onions, potatoes, cabbage, carrots, and firewood. The cow is butchered on Christmas Eve, and the women stay up all night cooking for the more than 300 men, women, and children who will be served on Christmas Day.
When the service ends, people gather in circles to wait for the food. As is the case in many African contexts, the men will not eat with the women, nor do they sit together during the church service. The men take chairs and gather in small groups in the shade of some trees. The women, young people, and children do accordingly in their separate groups. The young women then carry out huge platters of food and place one in each circle of people. Each platter is piled high with vegetables and different pieces of meat, often including some internal organs. The rice is prepared as “riz au gras,” or Jollof rice, a popular dish from Senegal that can be found all over West Africa. In addition, there will be baguette, salad, and maybe even the Nigerien favorite, tuwo with dried okra sauce. Tuwo is a dense porridge of cooked millet and corn or sorghum flour and is eaten by using fingers to remove a small portion, mold it, and use it to scoop up other food on the tray.
The beauty of the celebration centered around this meal is the energy and enthusiasm that fills the air as different age groups gather. This celebration and meal can be a catalyst for faith-filled discussions. In the men’s group, there are often discussions of how they live and work as Christians in their Muslim-dominated work setting. Sometimes, there will be discussions about how Christ is working in their life or perhaps how they are reaching out to neighbors. After one of these Christmas meals, the church was used as a distribution site for Operation Christmas Child boxes for the children in the community surrounding the church. In addition, Christian families prepare special food at home and carry pot after pot of delicious food to their Muslim neighbors, just as the Muslim families share their goodies with their Christian neighbors during the Muslim celebrations of Tabaski and Eid al-Fitr.
The Christmas festivities are soon followed by the joyful worship service that marks New Year’s Eve. After our church was destroyed in 2015, we celebrated New Year’s Eve one last time in the burned-out shell of the old church. It was a time of forgiveness and letting go as we watched fireworks bursting over our roofless church. The peaceful relationships between Christians and Muslims are one of Niger’s strengths and are reinforced by the exchange of food and greetings around the holidays.
Do you have a neighbor to whom you could reach out in a caring way this year, with a greeting, a gift, or a warm dish of tasty food? You can even try making and sharing this delicious jollof rice.
Riz au Gras (Jollof Rice)
Adapted from blueband.com
- 4 Tbsp. vegetable oil
- ½ pound stew meat, cubed
- 2 red onions, sliced
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 tsp. grated fresh ginger
- 2 habanero peppers
- 2 carrots, peeled and cut in large pieces
- 2 medium potatoes, peeled and halved
- Half of a small cabbage, cut in wedges
- 1 small eggplant, cut in half
- 2 green peppers, chopped
- 3 tomatoes, chopped
- 1 bay leaf
- 2 Tbsp. tomato paste
- 2 tsp. beef bouillon
- 1 tsp. ground black pepper
- 1 cup rice
- Heat the vegetable oil in a large pot.
- Fry the meat. Set aside.
- Cook the onion until soft and then add garlic, ginger, and the whole habanero peppers.
- Add the vegetables, the tomato paste, and 5 cups of water. Bring to a boil.
- Add the bay leaf, the bouillon, the pepper, the cooked beef, and the rice.
- Simmer for 25 minutes, covered.
- Remove from heat and let rest for 10 minutes.