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Christmas in Lagos
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Christmas in Lagos

The love of God can shine through in the bleakest of circumstances.

Our dusty African nativity set is showing its age. One wiseman’s detached head rolls on the ground near the manger; another worshipping king’s body has come unglued from his feet. The cow is permanently missing one of its curled long horns. In our second pandemic-fraught holiday season, the scene reminds me of a Christmas long ago that was far from “normal.”  Wrapped up in that memory is the hard-won understanding that, in the bleakest of circumstances, the gift of Immanuel, God incarnate, can still shine.

It was 1979 when this manger scene became part of our Christmas decor. Our home that year was a flat on the campus of Lagos University Teaching Hospital in Lagos, Nigeria where my husband, David, was teaching medical school, and I was an elementary school music teacher. This was our toddler son’s second Christmas, but all the familiar markers of the season were missing: no cards, no decorations, no homemade baking, no family get-togethers. We were determined to improvise.

In mid-November that year, I composed a blithely cheerful poem about what Christmas in Lagos was going to be like.  I transcribed the lines onto several dozen onion-paper-thin, pale blue aerograms using red and green ballpoint “biros” found at a stationery stall in the market. This small festive flourish felt like a huge achievement. Christmas cards—done! 

On weekends we often went to the “Bar Beach” where powerful, white-capped Atlantic waves crashed on the sand and vendors strolled by with fruit, fabric, and crafts. As Christmas approached, I spied a seller with a handcrafted nativity scene: African figures carved from contrasting light and dark thornwood. He finally agreed to a price I could (barely) afford.

Driving to Bar Beach meant navigating car-clogged roads: “go slows.” Eager touts bent to display their inventory through the side windows of captive cars. In early December, one young man cheerfully sold us some of the thick ropes of sparkling tinsel he had wrapped around his neck and arms. When we got back to the flat, we set about creating our Christmas tree. For a now-unfathomable reason, we had used some of the precious shipping space allotted to us to make sure a plant stand followed us to West Africa. Full of Christmas enthusiasm, we adjusted its movable pot supports to outline the shape of a small Christmas tree, and then draped our shiny silver-green garlands round and round the wooden frame. A few meters away, with eyes squinted, it looked amazing. 

Presents were a special challenge that year. Not many naira to spend, and few choices. Yet, these constraints yielded gifts that my aging brain recalls with ease 42 years later, while most of the more extravagant purchases of the intervening Christmases escape me. For our little boy there was a small, dusty toyshop find: a Matchbox forklift truck.  My husband secretly commissioned a creative neighbor to make a beautiful, silky wrap for me. At an expatriate garage sale I found a great quality T-shirt still in its cellophane packaging for him. 

The December weather of our Nigerian sojourn challenged all our traditional memories of how Christmas should feel. Heat and humidity replaced snow and windchill. We watched resilient palms bending almost double in tropical rainstorms instead of  snow-burdened pine branches snapping under the strain of blizzard winds. 

But the hardest adaptation of all was celebrating Christmas so far away from family and friends. There was no internet; international phone service was sporadic. We had to book a call and travel downtown to telecom headquarters to be sure of a holiday conversation.

And then, malaria arrived just in time for Christmas. When the dusty harmattan winds swept south from the Sahara, David got bronchitis. Although we took preventive medicine for malaria, the bronchitis weakened his immune system, and malarial fever took hold. The sequence of chills, fever, and delirium followed by a return to almost-normal raised our hopes that he had recovered, until the next cycle occurred. A friend found him walking along the road of the compound that afternoon ranting irrationally about needing to find airline tickets to send his wife and child home. I took him to the hospital clinic for a blood test to see if he had malaria, and to get treatment, but the sample was lost.  So was any ersatz Christmas cheer we had been able to manufacture. I worried that we would have to cancel our Christmas telephone call home; there was no way I would be able to talk to our families without bursting into tears.

And then, God incarnate showed up to rescue us through the love and kindness of others. Our little network of new friends reached out to support and care for us. A Nigerian doctor friend appeared at our door, took another blood sample himself, carried it to the lab, and waited for the results. Within a few hours he was back not only with news—yes, it was malaria—but also with the right medication and a treatment plan. Gradually, my husband began to feel better. On Christmas Day, we walked slowly across the campus and carefully up three flights of stairs to the flat of our American friends who had prepared dinner for us. Their Southern Baptist missionary supply chain had worked its magic: Christmas was delicious, complete with shortbread cookies for dessert. 

The next day we made it downtown and phoned our families. I don’t remember exactly what we said, other than to explain that David had been really sick, but was now OK. I know I didn’t cry. 

And so, we survived and managed, with the love of God displayed through the kindness of strangers who became friends, to celebrate a Christmas that was far from normal. Its very oddness became the source of a new kind of strength and resilience. We had to appreciate what we did have, and the people who were there, rather than focusing on what was missing. This awareness, like our memories of that year, has persisted well beyond our time in Nigeria.  It brings hope to Christmas 2021.