Christmas is that time of the year when Jesus Christ was born. But when I was young it was something else. It was more than just the birth of our saviour, it was an emotional jamboree. And we enjoyed it more than our parents twenty times. It began with advent and everybody was getting into the groove. We noticed it (we mass servants) when the priest started wearing a purple chasuble during mass. Then it was on. First we would fabricate a small wooden box with a hole in the middle which we called “bank.” Next we would start saving for the big day by inserting coins into it. Any little coin we had; 25frs, 50frs went straight to the bank. And we made every effort not to count what we were inserting so that we would have a surprise on Christmas day.
The Christmas carols went blaring from the radio sets from provision stores and shops. Not discs then, cassettes. “Felix navidad” which we changed to “Felix no fit die,” and many others. This was the only time when balloons better known in pidgin English as “bolo bolo” were sold at 10frs each. We would pay the money and would be given a card to pick a spot representing a number. We would choose hoping to get the big balloons in the balloon set. But we never never got the big ones! (its only when I grew older that I realized that the bolo bolo sellers used to remove the numbers that correspond to the big bolo bolos and sold the big bolo bolos for 100frs or 150frs.) Next we would blow blow blow the bolo bolo to fullness while we developed numb jaws. We would play with it hitting into the air, bouncing it until it touched the apex of bahama grass and poof, it exploded. Or a mischievous friend would prick it with a broom, poof. Everybody around you would start singing that very annoying song, “bolo bolo boss, ten franc go, small pikin loss, igbo man gaaain.” Damn it, shut up, fools. I’m mourning my bolo bolo!
The real intention of the bolo bolo was for house decoration on the Christmas tree or a rope across the parlour ceiling where Christmas cards were hung with the words, “Especially for you at Christmas.” The full blown bolos bolos on that would get smaller and smaller everyday and I would wonder why they grew smaller. As D-day drew ever nearer our banks got wealthier and our parents would buy us our Christmas toys and hide them from us, only to be given on that day. Same with our Christmas dresses. On the 23rd a once in a year thing was done; frying chin chin. The rich mixture of yeast, eggs, milk, margarine, sugar etc and water was cream white, elastic and rubbery like chewing gum. It was very very sweet. We would chew and chew and swallow despite warnings from our parents that it would cause stomach ache. Who di hear that one! We continued chewing. The thing is even sweeter than the chin chin itself. Next, the “belleh bite” came and we are beating our stomachs with our hands and visiting the toilet and squatting for a shit. Lucky us, the mixed yeast did not ache for long. When the chin chin frying was complete, we would eat a handful and it would be locked up in a cupboard out of our reach for the big day. Everything was for the big day.
Another thing which was very common during this season was the Christmas bomb –knock out. Whoa, for us boys it was the ultimate. The best was the three rounder that exploded thrice with a deafening sound. We shut our ears with our palms and took off while the neighbours jumped, shook, gasping for air and rained insults on us. Everywhere you went you would always hear baam baam baaam. Man, my homeboys Fonkem Stephen, Maya, Nickson, Ajong, Bobo, Tumbu, Paulo, Fuh, Mbou and I were the Christmas Bin Ladens of Akale street, Fiango, bombing the whole neighbourhood and running away as fast as our little legs could carry us before the Americans (our parents) caught us. Maya had a tiny bicycle like a shiwawa dog that all of us learnt how to ride on and rode in shifts causing havoc and riding away. Sometimes we were caught and walloped on the head but no way, Christmas fever was on and we the Christmas terrorists made sure the Christmas terrorism went on –we went on bombing and laughing at old adults running for their lives.
24th night: We were given our Christmas dresses which were new and glittery. We were given our toys; either a multi coloured gun or car. Since we were the Christmas terrorists we preferred guns, to shoot everybody dead especially the neighbours we didn’t like. Cars were not easy to carry around too especially lorries. Don’t forget our plastic specs and watches! We jumped up and down happily admiring our new goodies until we were chased to bed but woke up again at midnight when everybody screamed “merry Christmas!” and knock outs were blaring.
Next morning, we bathed and dressed up for church. Gosh, we were like multi coloured tailed peacocks, new Christmas dress; green or purple or yellow specs on, blue watches on the wrists (did I mention that those watches had a stationary time of 4.00 o’clock? Lol, whether it was 4AM or 4PM I would never tell now.) Who cared then? We read the time every now and then. In fact, we knew our watches were better than our parents’. Our specs were more important than their reading glasses. Gun in the hand, off we go. We didn’t hear any single word in church. We got out often to compare clothes and toys with other children.
After church, we went to a photography studio for photos. In my home town of kumba, it was none other than SAKA 39. We stood with our guns ready staring from our specs and tilting our wrists projecting our watches. “Children smile and say cheese,” “cheeeeeese, cheese, cheese” and we are firing our guns as Saka takes the photos such that our teeth will be visible in the pics. At home, we broke open the bank and counted our millions. I remember one time I had 1700 francs in 1995 and I was feeling like Fotso Victor, the richest man in Cameroon. I stuffed all those coins in my pocket and as I moved they jingled displaying my wealth. Damn it, I was the richest person in Cameroon.
Time for lunch at about 1:00pm and we ate rice and stew with a big slice of chicken. We ate saucers full of chin chin and drank sweet drinks like Top Ananas, Top Orange, Top Citron, UCB pamplemouse, Djino, Sprite, Fanta, Coca Cola. We never thought of beer then. Any kind of beer tasted very bitter. We willingly did not eat to our satisfaction because there was still a lot of eating to be done out of the house during the numerous visits.
Next the visits at about 2:00pm. But before that, we had to buy about two packets of knock out (Christmas bomb). A packet-250 francs and one -50 francs and bomb the neighbourhood first baam, someone jumping, insult, we take off, bam, an old adult running, insult, we take off laughing. The knock outs caused chaos to the extend that they were banned but we continued underground. One Christmas before the visits, I went into a store to buy a packet with my kid sister Maureen. As I took it from the counter I passed it on to her so I could get money from my pocket. All of a sudden we heard a hoarse voice, “HEY YOU PEOPLE WITH THE KNOCK OUT DON’T MOVE!!” we turned and saw a tall police officer at the door with both hands in the air ready for the grip. I sprinted like Usain Bolt, bent and passed under his armpit and through the door as he missed me completely (I was as short as a tortoise then!) Maureen followed suit but she was not lucky. He caught her arm and brought her out as she kicked furiously at him. He held her in the air with one arm only. She too was like a fullstop. I was shivering like a leaf in the wind as I knew that he was taking her straight to prison and life imprisonment. She tried one last desperate kick and fell off his hands but he managed to seize the knockout before she took off like an antelope. We calmed down and started the visits.
But that did not stop the Christmas bomb. I slowed down a little but my home boys did not. I saw Ajong light up his bomb and threw it into the open window of a moving taxi before evaporating. I could only imagine the panic and shouting as the bomb exploded thrice in that car. We visited our uncles, aunts, family friends displaying our guns, specs and watches along the way. Children, children everywhere. It was like a new Cameroonian republic of children that day. And everywhere we went, we ate and ate and ate and drank and drank and drank and developed bulging bellies like we had swallowed giant footballs. We the boys became pregnant with food such that we couldn’t walk. And they played us music for us to dance. There was Zaiko in 1994, “Asa kiseeh, mboss mboss mboss, mama, papa tuni na tunini na yoh, Ah yah, yah, ca c’est bon ca!” There was Meiway’s Zoblazo “La Zob, la zob, Zoblazo on a gagne!” There was Michael Jackson for us to moon walk.
As we concluded the visits, we continued by wandering all over town aimlessly at about 5:30pm. We emptied our pockets on biscuits, Jaco, chewing gum, Christmas bomb. We showed off clothes, toys, specs, watches, threw bombs, caused mischief, did anything worth remembering later. And in the evening when night came, there was no clubbing. But some bold children paid 100 francs and got into the only very popular dancing spot for children called Youth Centre Fiango. My parents were strict, so by 7:00pm I went back home to avoid any scolding and thrashing. But those children with parents who were not from strict homes danced in Youth Centre till they closed. Other children from strict homes who stayed in Youth Centre for too long had their parents pulling them out of the place with knuckle knocks on their foreheads “cracks” and slaps. So I went to bed on Christmas day at about 8:00pm with a pregnant stomach, tired but also willing to be in Youth Centre. My childhood Christmases were the bomb. It’s a far cry from now when I worked very hard at the airport on Christmas day in 2011 and 2012. The flights I was scheduled to work on weren’t cancelled. Besides, that child like enthusiasm for Christmas has simply gone away. Now I’m admiring these young ones celebrating instead.
NB: I credit my Nigerian/Cameroonian facebook friend, Elias Ozikpu for making these memories stroll back after I read his facebook post about his Christmas experiences in Souza, Cameroon.