Into Africa: My First Christmas in Africa

Fr Pat presiding at Mass

Although the Christmas season officially came to an end last week, Fr. Pat Neary, C.S.C., takes us back one last time in his post this month to that great feast as he shares with us about his first Christmas in Africa.

A seminary is a strange place to be when all the men in formation head home for Christmas and the kitchen is closed down for a few weeks. This was to be my first Christmas in Africa. I had toyed with going to spend Christmas at one of our houses in Uganda, the country where most of our Holy Cross men in East Africa live and work. But then I found out that Fr. Jim King, C.S.C., Religious Superior at Notre Dame, would be coming to spend Christmas with me in Nairobi after doing a visit to Uganda on behalf of the Holy Cross Mission Center.

The Christmas that unfolded was unlike any I had spent before, and Fr. Jim would agree. The weather is beautiful here this time of year. On Christmas Eve day, I took Fr. Jim to the Karen Blixen Coffee Garden, where we enjoyed Kenyan highlands tea in the pleasant garden. After visiting the Karen Blixen museum, I purchased a copy of the movie “Out of Africa (1985),” starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, about the life of Karen Blixen, a Danish woman who had a coffee plantation in Nairobi from 1914-1931.

We had Christmas Eve supper with the Benedictine Sisters of Grace and Compassion, who were also visited by some of Mother Teresa’s sisters right before we sat down to eat. The Benedictine Sisters made gifts to us of chocolates and their popular homemade peanut butter.

After Evening Prayer at our formation house, the two of us had a little Christmas social and watched “A Mr. Bean Christmas” on the BBC channel we get here. Clearly our favorite scene was watching Mr. Bean stuff a massive turkey, lose his watch inside the turkey, and then emerge with the turkey on his head as he peered inside looking for his watch.

Fr Jim King, CSC and Fr Pat Neary, CSC in Africa

We wanted to attend Midnight Mass at our parish in Dandora, a slum that is about a 40 minute drive from our formation house, but we were warned that carjackers are active at night, especially during the holidays. So we decided to attend Mass at Dandora on Christmas morning and join the Holy Cross community there for a Christmas brunch. We then decided to watch “Out of Africa,” when we heard the Consolata priests and brothers having an early Christmas Eve Mass with their employees. As they emerged from Mass, Brother Gaetano, a lifelong Italian missionary, insisted we join them for Italian Christmas bread, wine, and other holiday delicacies. We were regaled with stories, even one about a night watchman at the elite Brookhouse School next to our formation house. It seems the night watchman fell asleep, when a hyena snuck out of Nairobi National Park across the street and bit off his ear!

The Consolata property where our Holy Cross seminarians are living temporarily

When we finally got back to our movie, Fr. Jim jumped and said, “Pat, there is a man with a bow and arrow outside the window.” (According to his version of the events, he simply dryly noted – as only a Chicago South-sider could – the irony of the scene on Christmas.) I laughed, as it was one of the night watchmen in our employ. Watchmen can’t have guns in Nairobi, but bows and arrows can be just as effective with thieves.

Our adventure continued on Christmas Day. Traffic is usually horrible in Nairobi, but between Christmas and New Year’s Day it is a dream, as most people head upcountry to their home villages. I drove us to Dandora Parish in record time but got the sense that my friend Fr. Jim was slightly unsettled by my manner of driving in Nairobi. I guess the thrill of empty roads made me throw caution to the wind.

To our consternation, we were given the wrong Mass time by one of the young religious at our parish. The schedule changes for Christmas Day and he got it wrong. On one of the holiest days of the year, we missed Christmas Mass! We decided to stay and enjoy Christmas brunch with our Holy Cross confreres as planned, but then came back to have Mass, just the two of us, in our seminary chapel. As our simple Christmas Mass began, Fr. Jim remarked that he had always wanted to have Christmas Mass in Africa.

I wish I could say that I had prepared a fancy Christmas supper. It basically came down to a repeat of snacks that we enjoyed the night before (i.e. cheese and crackers). We sat down to enjoy our modest repast in the staff lounge, raised a glass to Christmas, and watched the King’s College choir sing Christmas carols, courtesy of the BBC. That night phone calls were made to family and friends, for whom Christmas was just beginning in the States.

I wish I could report that I spent Christmas in a remote outpost of a Holy Cross parish mission in Uganda, but not this year. This was a simple Christmas of simple gifts: a friend in Holy Cross who travelled far to spend Christmas with me, fine weather, Kenyan tea in a garden, homemade peanut butter, empty roads, and the kindness of fellow men and women religious who wanted us to share in their Christmas joy. It seems fitting that Fr. Jim and I spent a simple Christmas together, for the God we love and serve came to us as gift in such a simple way.

God is simple yet not without humor. It was fitting that when we finally opened the box of chocolates given us by the Benedictine Sisters, the brand was, “Out of Africa Chocolates.” I suspect that neither of us will ever forget our first Christmas in Africa.

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