African Childhood Christmas Memories

These Christmas Memories were written and presented by Margaret McClure Partee at Shadyside Presbyterian Church.

For a riveting account of Don McClure’s life in missionary service, see http://www.amazon.com/Adventure-Africa-Story-Don-McClure-ebook/dp/B00LC8QNSM/

Childhood memories are often difficult to talk about because children are so wonderfully adaptable and accept whatever they experience as normal. I was born in Khartoum, Sudan to Presbyterian missionary parents. My dad was a pioneer missionary which meant he went into places where no white man had ever been before to open new stations among the Anuak tribe. In our part of south Sudan to get to the nearest white family required a week’s hard travel by canoe. All my friends were black, and I thought I was kind of abnormal. I grew up influenced by two cultures and still do not completely belong to either. For example, I am more comfortable sitting on the floor. My idea of physical beauty is black skin and black hair. My white skin and red hair seemed odd. I was dismayed at the birth of my first child. I had seen lots of just-born black babies, but mine looked really bleached out. Sometimes I forget and point with my tongue since in the Anuak culture it is rude to point with a finger. In Africa we went barefoot year round, and I occasionally still pick things up off the floor with my toes, as the Anuaks do.

My dad was determined to live as much as possible like the tribal people he served. His chosen work was among a tribe which lived in tiny mud huts with no windows and just a hole for a door (to keep animals out). It was not possible to raise an American family in those primitive conditions. Therefore, Dad built, with Mother’s approval and according to her design, four large mud huts for us to live in connected by passageways with wire screening. Like the Anuaks, our huts had grass roofs and mud floors. Except for the wire screening, our huts could have been built by the Anuaks. We had no electricity, of course, and all our meals were cooked on a wood stove. We slept on “angoreebs,” native beds which were roughhewn wooden frames with ropes of animal skins woven to support a thin mattress. My mother stretched muslin above our beds so that scorpions would not fall out of the grass roof and into our beds at night when we were asleep. Rats, bats, snakes, and other fauna inhabited our house with us at unexpected times.

When we came back to the States for the first time, I discovered to my amazement at the New Wilmington Missionary Conference that a lot of American kids are afraid of snakes since they do not have to learn which are dangerous and which are harmless. So I enlisted my brother to help me catch some garter snakes which I hid in the dining hall under the lids of the sugar bowls. The response at breakfast the next day was all I could have desired, and my reputation for that stunt has not yet completely faded. One night at home in Sudan, I started out to put my bicycle away, which I had left in the peanut patch that served us as a front lawn. When I began to open the screen door, I discovered a huge lion standing on the other side looking at me. He was so close I could feel his warm breath on my arm. That night I decided my bicycle could stay right where it was.

As a young girl on the African grasslands, with my brother and sister, I ran free. Every morning during family devotions Dad would commit us into the care of the Lord and at evening devotions he would thank the Lord that we were still alive. In between times we roamed wherever we pleased. We swam in the river where crocodiles lurked; we visited our friends in the villages where diseases such as tuberculosis, encephalitis, and leprosy were rampant; we rode our donkey, Balaam, or our bicycles through grass and woodlands inhabited by lions, leopards, and poisonous snakes. As soon as we were big enough we went hunting for table food. We also learned to shoot crocodiles which were terrorizing the women who came down to the river for water. We made pets of lion cubs, ostriches, gazelles, and snakes. One night my dad heard a leopard in our chicken house. He grabbed the rifle and a light which was hooked up to a car battery. Dad could not wake up anybody but me so out we went to shoot the leopard. My job was to shine the light on the leopard, but I could barely carry the car battery. When we got to the chicken house, I could not lift the battery high enough to get light on the leopard. Dad handed me the rifle. He held the light up high, and I shot the leopard. I still have that leopard’s skin. If you want to see it, let me know.

For some years Mother was our school teacher, but the time came when we three children had to be sent 3,000 miles away to a boarding school in Egypt. I was 12, my brother was 9, and my sister 8 . Since it took a month to travel from Akobo in the South Sudan to Assiut in Egypt by canoe, donkey, paddle wheel steamer, and train and the same amount of time going back, from then on we were home only one month each year. From the age of twelve until I married, I never again celebrated a Christmas or my birthday in my own home. My real birthday is May 4, but the doctor in Khartoum marked May 14 on my official birth certificate, which has caused all kinds of confusion. Homesickness was a real specter during those years of what felt like exile in Egypt. Moreover, I could not easily accept the confinement of a boarding school located in a Muslim culture where girls have a strictly defined and circumscribed place. After the freedom of my early years I had difficulty adjusting to the fact that in Egypt we were rarely permitted to leave the mission compound.

Our Christmas celebrations in Africa were, of course, quite different from here. To begin with our Christian community was small. We felt like one little Christmas candle in the dark heart of the dark continent. In those early years we were celebrating an event which had no meaning for the Anuaks. Also, we were very much aware in celebrating the joy of our Savior’s birth, there was immense suffering all around us. I am happy to say that because of Mom’s and Dad’s work–and all those who helped them–the Anuak tribe today is mostly Christian.

Let me share with you two serious and two silly Christmas memories. December in the Sudan comes during the dry season when it does not rain for six months. There was no green thing to see except in our kitchen garden which was irrigated from the Akobo River. Our Christmas tree was sometimes a denuded thorn tree and sometimes a bundle of dried grass fronds tied together. At our remote Christian outpost deep in Africa, travel was difficult and there were no malls nearby for Christmas shopping. The only things shipped in were those necessary food staples which could not be grown in our garden. Therefore, our decorations and gifts were never bought but always homemade. Each of us spent the month before Christmas sneaking around trying to avoid being caught in the process of creating a gift out of something everybody had seen. We also made gifts for our village friends for whom any little homemade doll or bean bag was a source of great delight. In turn they gave us eggs. Christmas Day was very much like any other day. It started at 6:00 am with a worship service. Then Dad opened his daily clinic for the sick. The nearest hospital or doctor was ten days away, and the people were too poor to pay anything anyway, so every illness needed to be treated on the spot. Dad was a graduate of Pittsburgh seminary and not Pittsburgh medical school, but he did the best he could. I can remember the hours Dad spent at night reading medical books by lantern light to be able to treat the sick people all around us. Mother did her best to teach the women something about hygiene, and nutrition and child care. I can still see the man, carried into the mission station, who had been clawed by a leopard; another man had his leg snapped off by a crocodile; and a leper who had lost his fingers and toes to the disease. Children were carried in who had fallen into an open fire, or with tropical ulcers that had eaten the flesh away leaving their bones exposed.

After clinic was over, we were allowed to open our gifts. Since there were not many of them, my parents always insisted that we take turns so everyone could admire each gift. Christmas dinner followed with whatever wild game we were able to find. In the dry season game is scarce so our Christmas dinner was often canned meat with fresh vegetables and fruit from our irrigated garden. In the afternoon special services were held in the various villages to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Christmas evening offered a feast of rice and chicken stew for the schoolboys and for the small Christian community– ending with a hymnsing.

Since December in Sudan occurs during the six months when no rain falls, the Christmas season always reminds me how many of God’s people live on the edge of starvation. One Christmas arrived in the middle of a terrible famine among the Anuaks due to three years of ruined crops. The first year there was too much rain, then not enough rain, finally locust flew in and ate every available leaf. Christmas morning that year was a repeat of many mornings when we were awakened in the predawn darkness, not by the sound of Christmas carols, but by the shuffling of hundreds of bare feet as the Anuaks lined up for their daily ration of grain. At 6:00 am Dad went out for a worship service with the masses of hungry people who had gathered from miles around. After the service each person was given a cup of grain as their daily portion. Many times during that dry Christmas and Advent we would be down to our last sack of grain with no promise of more. Sometimes we had run out of money. Other times it was lack of transportation for the grain we had bought with money sent by our supporters. Still other times Dad could not find grain to buy since the famine was widespread.

The little Anuak Christian community prayed faithfully each day for the Lord to provide their daily bread. Even today during the Lord’s Prayer when I say, “Give us this day our daily bread,” I often see the faces of those Anuaks to whom the answer to that petition meant the difference between life and death. Our Christmas meals in those famine years were quite simple because it is very difficult to eat a hearty meal when hundreds of hungry people are sitting in your yard, too weak to move, and watching every bite going into your mouth. Thankfully, sufficient money kept coming just in time–time and time again. We were grateful that our prayers were always answered and enough grain arrived at the critical times to keep the Anuaks alive until their crops could grow.

Not all my Christmas memories are of lean years. One Christmas dinner had its origins in August. My Dad was always introducing new animals and new crops to combat the malnutrition that stalked the villages. Before our family arrived the Anuaks subsisted on one meal a day composed of a porridge with occasional pieces of fish or game. They hunted with spears and meat was rare indeed. So Dad was ecstatic when we were offered a couple of pigs by an English official some 1500 miles down the Nile River. Dad planned to raise the pigs and give them in pairs to the villagers to raise for meat. Thus he anxiously awaited his piglets. After the Nile steamer arrived, the captain sent word for Dad to come get his pigs. When Dad got to the boat, instead of the pair of little piglets he expected, he was confronted with nine bad-tempered, full-grown hogs. Since the crew of the steamer were Muslim, they believed the pigs were unclean and refused to touch them. The Anuaks, having never seen such animals, were afraid of them. That left Dad alone to unload the hogs by himself. He tried herding them. He tried leading them on a rope. He tried carrying them. All no good. The hogs squealed and fought back. The noise was so incredible that people began to run in from all the villages around our house. They lined the banks of the river laughing and cheering. The crew of the steamer leaned over the railing (a good distance away from the action), hooting and hollering. Finally, Dad had a brainstorm. He grabbed the hind legs of one hog and wheelbarrowed that animal across the gangplank and up to the pen he had built for two small piglets. The other eight pigs were transported in similar fashion.

Dad came home, bathed, and had just sat down for supper when one of the schoolboys came running in, calling “Odon, Odon, the pigs are out of the pen and are rooting up the peanut crop.” (The Anuaks had heard my mother say, “Oh Don” so often that they thought it was his name.) So Dad jumped up from the table, and calling to the 25 schoolboys for help, ran out to catch the hogs and put them back. However, the boys were afraid of the pigs, but being male did not want to admit it. So they would charge the pigs full-steam and just before catching them would stumble and miss. Or they would watch the hogs run by at full speed and step aside just before the hog was in catching range. In the end Dad had to catch all the hogs himself. However, when Christmas rolled around that year we had roast pork instead of canned meat, so we thought the whole thing was worth it. I don’t know what Dad thought.

In reflecting on my childhood Christmas memories, I asked my brother, Don, what memories of Christmas in Africa he most cherished. Since Don was a missionary for 15 years in Ethiopia (Dad Don and Mother Lyda were in Africa for nearly 50 years), his memories of African Christmases are more recent than mine–by about 40 years. He especially treasures one Christmas memory because it illustrates our Dad’s love of life and sense of humor. At the time my brother was starting a new mission station among the Surma tribe. Don, Jr. and his wife and three small girls were living in tents until they could build a house. Mom and Dad flew down from Addis Ababa to celebrate Christmas with the family. Remember this is December in East Africa. Everything in the barren grassland is brown and yellow with no living plant. Dad, now in his 70’s, packed an artificial Christmas tree in his suitcase. When the little girls were asleep, he went out some distance away and “planted” the green tree. Next day, Dad and three tiny girls went out, carrying an axe, to search for a Christmas tree that looked like the pictures in their American storybooks. It did not take very long to spot the artificial tree since it was the only green thing for hundreds of miles around.. Granddad and his three granddaughters duly “chopped” down the tree and came home thrilled that they had found a real storybook Christmas tree amidst the brown grass and thorn trees in the middle of an African dry season.

As again we celebrate the birth of our Savior, I hope you will have a blessed Christmas present filled with pleasant memories of Christmas past and anticipating lovely memories of Christmas future.

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One thought on “African Childhood Christmas Memories”

  1. I had the privilege of hearing Margaret McClure Partee present this memoir at a Christmas gathering of Presbyterian Women at Shadyside Presbyterian Church. We were all stunned by its breadth and depth and tenderness and self-sacrifice and steadfast love. An unforgettable presentation, especially the family privations necessary to make such a commitment to mission. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Charles, for allowing me to revisit this remarkable experience.

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