Celebrating A Kikuyu Christmas

Mount Kenya i i

An aerial view of Mount Kenya, known as Mount Kirinyaga to the Kikuyu. The Kikuyu entity Ngai has lived for millennia atop the Kenyan mountain. Its snows, mists and clouds were representative of Ngai's breath, spirit and conversation with his people. Simon Maina/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Simon Maina/AFP/Getty Images
Mount Kenya

An aerial view of Mount Kenya, known as Mount Kirinyaga to the Kikuyu. The Kikuyu entity Ngai has lived for millennia atop the Kenyan mountain. Its snows, mists and clouds were representative of Ngai's breath, spirit and conversation with his people.

Simon Maina/AFP/Getty Images

There's no snow in the tropics, and Santa doesn't come down chimneys. But my tribesmen in Kenya, the Kikuyu, are for the most part Christian, and we celebrate the birth of Christ with typical African jollity, loud music, and laughter. Christmas is a time for kuchuma nyama and kunywa pombe... the roasting of slabs of beef and the drinking of lots of beer.

For the wealthy, Christmas is also a time to buy and exchange exotic presents from exclusive European shops.

The children at my sister Mary's orphanage in Nairobi do not expect such a sumptuous Christmas. Their Christmas is toyless and meatless. They pray and sing and they're thankful for the little that's offered. They have few expectations.

Neither do other poor Kikuyu. All across Africa, droves of the poor have joined Pentecostal groups with their promises of a better afterlife. And the Catholic Church with its colorful liturgy grows in leaps and bounds.

Pius Kamau i i

Pius Kamau is a surgeon born in Kenya. He currently lives in Denver. Courtesy of Pius Kamau hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Pius Kamau
Pius Kamau

Pius Kamau is a surgeon born in Kenya. He currently lives in Denver.

Courtesy of Pius Kamau

And yet for all Kikuyu, there's a magical paradox about Christmas. This white baby, Jesus, is a European import. He may be the European Christians' only God. But for the Kikuyu, he exists alongside an older entity, Ngai, who has lived for millennia on Mount Kirinyaga. The mountain's snows, mists and clouds were Ngai's breath, spirit and conversation with his people.

Of course, many Kikuyu agree with the old European missionaries, and have left Ngai in the dreams of the past. But for others, Ngai is the face of God the Father in the Christian Holy Trinity. Some hold fast to the notion that ancient traditions are best, and the Kikuyu Ngai is even more authentic than Jesus.

An arc of faith exists among the Kikuyu to complete the circuit between the Christian God and the Kikuyu God. I refuse to think that because our Ngai was black, he was inferior. To my mind, the white God is different from the Kikuyu Ngai only in name.

We celebrate Jesus' birth and Ngai's continued presence, reminding ourselves that they're the same entity. We enjoy our Christmas, remembering Ngai in our hearts and our white God, Jesus, as yet another expression of Ngai's magical powers.

Commentator Pius Kamau is a surgeon born in Kenya. He currently lives in Denver.

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