Selecting The Right Present is never easy. Boy have we gone off-piste at times, – sponsoring renovation of a choice book at the British Library for a bookworm father-in-law or saving a selection of choice rare organic seeds at Henry Doubleday’s research gardens for a keen gardener without green fingers. But in a new culture, and where the different communities have very different value systems, it all gets more complex.
In UK I would think buying a Jacqueline Wilson paperback or two a perfectly acceptable present for a nine year old girl’s birthday. Here I scan the back of the book again, recall the child’s parents and their backgrounds, – might it include talk of boyfriends, swearing, alcohol, failure to believe in God, divorce, Harry Potter [=witchcraft]? Or indeed, if its Jacqueline Wilson, the full monty of them all? Put that high-risk book back and opt for a board game. ‘Boring!’
In UK a Tesco Finest bottle of wine brings a smile of good will to the harrassed class teacher at the end of term. In Kenya I decide wine is fine for the mzungu teacher, but no, SecondBorn’s teacher is an evangelical Christian Kenyan, almost certainly teetotal, chocolates for her.
And what of our guards? Thinnish men, managing on the Kenyan minimum wage, already getting an additional food allowance from us. What would bring them and their families a happier Christmas? We opted for a food hamper, but which one? One of the families at school advertised their company’s hamper to the parent body. Contains palm oil (for cooking), a slab of lard, a tub of blueband margarine and a bag of soap powder. ‘They’ll love it!’ enthused MoreExperiencedFriend, but I couldn’t bring myself to buy what, to my eyes, was TheWorstPresent ever.
Tom always laughs at my choice of Christmas books for him. Some very clearly are bought with solely him in mind, ‘Wildlife Photography for Experts’ for example. Others, however, he identifies as the Crossover Presents, on which he assesses I will be checking his progress at weekly intervals during the year to come. ‘How did you get on with that detective novel? Can I read it now? Pur-lee-eesee.’ And, as the year wears on, ‘Oh do get a move on. I didn’t buy it just for you you know.’ So yes, part of my criteria in the family present-giving and beyond, is to select a present you hope will really give pleasure to the recipient, but wouldn’t mind getting yourself. Tub of margarine, stricken from the list.
So back to the guards. I opted in the end for a high-class Kenyan food hamper. No chocolates nor pickles and wines in this. But a bag of dried beans, two bags of flour, a bag of sugar, a box of teabags, a tube of minty toothpaste, cooking oil, candles and so on, all put together in a practical (but vile-looking) 1970s plastic basket. Very basic rations to a Western mind. But costing, I realised, a third of a monthly wage for our guards. I was anxious giving them, but did think, well at least they could sell them on if they don’t hit the spot. But everyone’s delight seemed unforced, and today, a week on, E came and said ‘The Christmas box, it so made our Christmas.’ Which in itself is so chastening. Last year’s homemade choice of goods – phonecard, cash, torch, biscuits, chocolates – were the first time his children had ever tasted chocolate.
This year I’d managed the expat Christmas food experience far better than last year. I’d got sourcing key bits in September (mince meat), had bought the troublesome red cabbage in early December, and had put in requests to friends visiting Nairobi for business (chocolate coins, more mince pies, Christmas cake). We and our guests had eaten well. So I was downcast beyond to hear that, when we returned from our two day safari, two children had been found sorting through our rubbish bags outside the gate. Sifting through the nappies of our toddler guests, the rotten food from two weeks ago, the wrapping paper and accoutrements of a Western Christmas, to find tins and plastic which they could sell on (which anyway our handyman had taken), and cast-off food which they and their family could eat. They’d gone by the time I heard. But Kenya is a land of poverty. Christmas inclusion can’t just mean giving to those within our electric fence.