Christmas In The Tin City – Alex Byanyiko | Short Story
Growing up in J-Town, that picturesque but chilly town popularly called Tin City, Christmas announced its coming to you in many ways before it eventually arrived. The period between November and February was extremely cold and breezy.
The harmattan whistled and sang furiously as trees and grasses danced just as furiously to its rhythm. The dance was so fierce that the trees and grasses lost their greenness and shed most of their leaves in the process.
The harmattan’s breath also left in its trail cracked lips and feet with sagging skin like disturbed fish scales – you will understand this, if you’d ever seen a tilapia fish that had been out of water for some hours.
Some people had cracks in the soles of their feet so deep you could hide two 10 kobo coins in them. But all this didn’t reduce the joy that came with the Christmas season. Nothing ever felt as beautiful as that, I tell you. Nothing.
The harmattan breeze dried the stalks of corn and other plants after harvest. Most early mornings, we would gather the corn stalks and make a fire. Then we would huddle around it and absorb the heat to chase away the cold while we chatted about the fast approaching Christmas and the places we would visit on the D-day.
To enjoy the warmth of the burn fire and partake in the dreamy chitchats, everyone who came around was required to go fetch a reasonable measure of corn stalks to beef up our fuel reserve.
During that period, you would see most of us looking so white like we took our bath without rubbing Vaseline. Some children went about with snotty noses with most people spotting dusty hair, eyelashes and brows.
I always wondered whether the harmattan was made for Christmas or Christmas for the harmattan, the way it heralded the Christmas celebration. To date, no other season feels quite like the Christmas season even though many of us didn’t understand the real meaning of the celebration.
As kids, Christmas was just a time for our parents to buy us new clothes and shoes, and rubber wrist watches and eyeglasses. It was also a time to give and receive gifts from neighbours and relations.
My mother usually bought our Christmas dresses around October, and after we’d tried them on, she would fold them and keep them neatly in one of her metal boxes – the black one with a red crescent pattern all over it.
But first, she would spread some of my daddy’s old newspapers inside the box before laying our dresses and her own precious clothes in it, the ones she wore only on special occasions like weddings and thanksgiving services in church.
But I wasn’t the sort to let my Christmas cloth rest in my mother’s box till Christmas day when I was supposed to wear it. The mere thought of it lying fallow at the bottom of my mother’s box tried my patience and made me restless.
Each time my parents left the house, I would open the box, bring out the outfit and wear it again to see how nicely it fit. Sometimes I would sneak out in it and flaunt it to some of the kids in our neighbourhood.
“See my Christmas cloth!” I would say with pride.
On one particular Christmas day, we were getting ready to go to church before the usual Christmas visitations. My mother brought out our cloths from her box and handed them to us. Mine was rumpled, with stains in a few areas.
She looked at me with a slight frown. “What happened to your cloths?”
I don’t remember my response but my younger brother, Ayenajeyi, who had this annoying habit of sticking his mouth in other people’s business, answered before I could warn him with my eyes to stay out of my business.
“He used to wear them and go out when you and Baba are not around!” he said.
Before I could deny what he had said, I felt my mother’s palm hot and sharp across my face. I didn’t see her hand coming. What I saw were stars dancing before my eyes like they were bumping into each other and producing sparks. I bolted outside.
I knew her well enough to expect more stings from her hand. My mother never slapped you just once when you provoked her to the point of hitting you. She would let you catch your breath after the first slap, then the subsequent ones would land all over your body in rapid succession.
That day, my mother was so angry. She insisted I wore the dress the way it was, stains and all. I wondered why she was so worried. I saw nothing wrong with my dress. I wore it and was just as excited as all my friends, and we left for church.
“Why were you crying? Don’t you know today is Christmas?” One of my friends, David, asked as we walked to church.
“My mother said my Christmas cloth is dirty.”
“That’s why she was beating you?” he said, looking at my shirt.
“Is it not Aye that told her I was always wearing my Christmas cloth whenever they were not at home?” I said.
David laughed. “Shege…Aye…”
If the harmattan cold failed to inform you about the impending Christmas season, Plateau Radio and Television Corporation (PRTV) and 90.5 FM, Jos drew you into the feel of it.
From the first day of December, the airwaves would be agog with Christmas carols. Turn on your TV and it would nourish your eyes with colourful images from various seasonal programmes and Christmas carols, mostly foreign. Even Nigerian Television Authority (NTA), boring as it was, hopped along to make their screen colourful.
Back then, rice and stew were not a regular meal in many households. It was a delicacy reserved for such special festivities as Christmas and New Year. So, apart from new cloths, another source of happiness was the rice and stew that would be prepared and shared to neighbours by almost every family in the neighborhood. Even our Muslim neighbours took part in this rare joy.
But there was usually an icing on the joy that the quintessential Christmas meal brought to our palates. It was the responses we got when we said, “happy Christmas” to our uncles and aunties. They would beam a smile at us, dip their hands into their pockets and come up with gifts of crispy naira notes that simply transported us to the shores of heaven itself.
That was the very height of Christmas celebration, I tell you. Christmas had no place for sadness, sorrow, or stinginess. Everyone was happy and generous. Most of us were in public primary schools, so our parents were not bugged down with the pressure of having to pay so much as school fees immediately after the Christmas celebrations. So they spent a bit more liberally.
Christmas was also a time when my parents allowed us to go to some distant places to visit relations and friends. It was a time packed tight with various cultural dances and displays. My parents couldn’t afford to take us to the amusement parks or the television stations to see Santa Clause whom we called Father-Christmas.
So we threw ourselves into the various cultural activities in our neighbourhood. We danced. We sweated. We squealed in delight at the privilege to partake in the reckless joy of yet another Christmas. No matter how poor your parents were, there was something to amuse you at Christmas, I tell you.
Today, my kids have slightly different stories being stored in their memories. I am terrified to let them eat or drink from the next-door neighbor. I can’t even dare to let them stay outside for too long, let alone go visiting anybody on their own, whether during the Christmas season or not.
Christmas eve was another matter altogether. It was an endless night. Always an endless night. We would all be awake way past our usual bedtime, to assist and watch my mother fry the Christmas chicken and sometimes, when daddy was buoyant enough, the chin-chin, too.
On one particular Christmas day, as neighbours kept bringing food for us, as was the custom, I decided I would have a taste of every food brought to us by our neighbours and relations.
Against my mother’s warning, I ate and ate till my belly distended to its limit and became so taut you’d think it would burst at the slightest touch. We went to church, and in no time, my stomach began to twitch and rumble like there were two stubborn people fighting inside. I ran to the toilet. But before I could pull down my trousers, my bowel had given way and soiled my pants. I went back home in shame and changed into some old clothes. The other kids looked at me in a funny way when I got back.
“Good for you!” my mother said as she noticed how gloomy I was, holding the pair of old, faded blue jeans she gave me. “From today, you should know that sometimes having plenty of anything can even be worse than not having it at all. If you cannot discipline yourself in the face of abundance, you will easily destroy yourself. I hope you’ll always remember this when you grow up.”
Is this how Christmas will be ruined for me? I’d thought, as though it was someone else’s fault that my outfit had been messed up. I begged my mother to wash the soiled pair of jeans trousers and give it back to me to wear again.
“Are you okay?” she’d asked, frowning. “You want to wear a wet jean and go out?”
That was my worst Christmas as a child because though I got one of my favourite shoes of all time from Bata stores in Bukuru that year, I couldn’t go out for the much anticipated Christmas day visitations. I hated the old jeans that my mother gave me to wear.
She must have done it on purpose because of how angry I made her the previous day when we went to Bata stores to buy our shoes. I’d seen this canvas with a beautiful red and green design and insisted it was the shoe I wanted. It was much more expensive than all the other ones she tried to persuade me to pick.
“Why did I even bring you here?” she said, glaring at me as I threw a fit of tantrums when she told the seller to take it back because it was too expensive. She said if she paid for it, she wouldn’t be able to buy any for my two siblings, Aye and Happy. But I didn’t care. I just kept screaming till the other customers started questioning her about my behaviour.
“Madam, what is it now? Why is this boy screaming like this?” they asked.
Aye was nothing like me; he was a very patient boy. My mother convinced him to use one of his old pairs of shoes for the Christmas, promising to buy him a new pair immediately after Christmas.
“But, madam, why don’t you just buy for your other boy too, since the girl is just a baby?” the seller asked. “She can’t even go around on her feet that much.”
“Oga, she is the only girl, and this is her first Christmas. She has to be dressed well.” My mother said.
Reluctantly, she paid for the shoe I wanted and bought another pair for Happy. Aye ended up with some bars of chocolate that morning. I was too excited about my new pair of shoes to bother about not being given any piece of chocolate.
That day was the eve of Christmas. In the evening, as my daddy ate a piece of fried chicken while my mother fried, she looked up at him and said, “This your son, Besadu – you’d better be rich o… he likes fine-fine cloths. He always goes for things that are beyond what we can easily afford.”
He smiled. “Don’t worry. He will be rich when he grows up.”
My mother hissed. “Mmmh…because of him Aye will have to wear an old pair of shoes for Christmas.”
“Don’t worry. I still have some change. I will buy a new pair of shoes for him first thing tomorrow morning before church time.”
Three days after Christmas that year, my daddy took us to Plateau Rider’s bus station where we boarded a bus to Mararaba, on our way to Gurku. We celebrated our New Year there.
What wouldn’t I do to bring back those days! Those good old days when the roads were serene, smooth, and safe, and everyone travelled without their hearts attempting to jump out of their chests for fear of all shades of criminals prowling the roads.
My parents never engaged in any serious prayer sessions before setting out on their journeys. People simply wished you journey mercies, certain that you would arrive safely. There were no kidnappers. No bandits. No terrorists.
Christmas today is no longer like Christmas of old. It has lost some of its shine. People now live in fear during the season of celebration. Fuel becomes scarce from the month of November. Transport fares, both of land and air, become at least three times higher than the usual prices. Same goes for food stuff and many other essential goods. Prices only reluctantly get back to normal towards the end of January in the year that follows. That is, if they get back to normal at all.
But no matter how old I get, no matter the odds that seek to steal its luster, Christmas will always be Christmas. And even if the roads that have lost their evenness to potholes cave further under the weight of robbers and kidnappers, and transport fares rise ten times over, the harmattan wind will still whistle and sing, and the trees and grasses will not tire to dance to its tune.
And in the mornings, somewhere in some city or village, children, blown white by the harmattan wind, will still hurdle around a burn fire and chat dreamily about Christmas. I doubt that the day will ever come when the sweet aroma of rice and stew fails to assail the senses and tease the palates at Christmas.
Because Christmas will always be Christmas, and those childhood outlines, are a good place to be.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Alex Abesadu Bitrus Byanyiko is a Nigerian writer, former broadcaster and a film maker. He worked with the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) Abuja for 7 years before resigning in April 2016 to focus on independent writing and film making.
Some of his short stories appeared in The Kalahari Review, The Shallow Tales Review, ThisIsAbuja, The Aayo Magazine, Reedsy.com and KUFENA, The Annual Magazine of St. Paul’s College Old Boys Association (SPOBA).
Alex’s series of articles on preventing drug addiction appeared in The Niche, an online magazine based in Lagos and a few others elsewhere including The Kalahari Review. Alex is a long standing member of The Abuja Writers Forum (AWF).
Beautiful Thief & Other Stories is his debut collection of short stories which was shortlisted for the Association of Nigeria’s Author/Abubakar Gimba Prize for collection of short fiction 2022.
His titled story Beautiful Thief has been shortlisted for the Adissaolowu Prize for Short Fiction, 2022.
Well written and full of nostalgia.
Thank you, Mike.