Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Christmas stress and New Year celebrations

In my view Christmas has unfortunately turned from a family (and before that, religious) tradition to a crude manifestation in consumerism and materialism. From a Western perspective, the hunger for new gadgets and stuff that we think we need at this time of a year gets absurd, especially when living in a developing country and seeing the everyday struggle of many just in order to survive. I was therefore wondering if Christmas might be different here in Cape Verde.

My impression is however that it is surprisingly similar. Most people in Cape Verde are catholic, so at least the Christmas celebration has a genuine origin here. But the pressure to buy new things for yourself and others at Christmas seems to be just as high as elsewhere, despite (or maybe even reinforced by) the widespread poverty.

When people lack the resources to match all the squander expectations of Christmas, they seek other means. We were thus told by the UN security people to be extra careful during December, since the number of robberies and thefts always jumped significantly during this time of year. And a friend of ours actually told us that when they came home some days before Christmas some years ago their DVD was gone and the household cleaner was never seen again. Apparently she was willing to give up here job (in a country with 24% unemployment) and to take the risk of getting caught just to get hold of this gadget for her self or as a gift.

Candidly complaining about all the expenses they would have for gifts, food and beverage, our own household staff fortunately took another strategy. Instead of stealing, they asked for their January salary in advance and hinted that there is a tradition of giving some extra pay for Christmas (which we were intending to do in any case). Many companies seem to offer an extra month’s salary in December, and considering the average wage they pay and the price level of imported goods in Cape Verde, it makes all the sense.

However, when I met our guard again after Christmas, the first thing he showed me was a new fancy watch on his wrist, after which he almost immediately made a long list of all the expenses he had had because of Christmas and then he asked me for yet another advance. Why? Well, he had used 1/3 of the previous advance to make a down payment on a used TV and now he needed to take another loan in order to pay the rest of it.

I have come to know this guy and his family quite well, and I know that he is very poor, living on one wage only in a miserable and small house with his girlfriend and two kids, and with another kid on the side to support. His situation has improved a little since we hired him, as we give him twice the salary he used to earn. But his house doesn’t even have proper electricity installed, and somehow he still considered a TV to be a main priority. It simply does'nt make sense to me, and the only way I can explain it is that it has to do with the imposed urge to over-consume at Christmas time.

New Years Eve was celebrated quietly on our rooftop with a friend, watching fireworks from a distance. Cap Verdeans are known for their late and long parties, and New Years Eve was certainly no exception. When we woke up on New Years Day to the daily morning wail of our two year old, we could hear music and party chatter from still ongoing festivities in the neighborhood. And after a few hours of pause, it seemed to revive and start off again for a second night of festivities. As a consequence (or is it the other way around), most shops and workplaces are closed also on the second day after New Years Eve.

Praia is a small Capital, and I was reminded by this on New Years Day when I took a small tour in the city. Normally, most of Praia’s roads are relatively busy (however rarely jammed, except during the rainy season when parts of the roads readily collapses), especially in the mornings. This morning, I hardly saw a single car that moved. Nevertheless, I drove extra carefully since we have heard many warnings to look out for drunk-drivers, especially after a big party night. Many here seem to be rather relaxed about drunk-driving, quite the contrary to my homeland Sweden where it is taken very seriously, not only by the law enforcement but by people in general. I am not sure if there is a law here on drunk-driving, or what it says if there is one. I have asked around, but nobody seems to know – or care.


bathmate said...

very good posting. i liked it. :-)


Jamilee Holmstead said...

I spent much time in the islands of Cabo Verde and what you are notice is not so much the need to buy things on christmas, but the keeping up with the Jones African style. I have been in many of the homes in Cabo Verde and have seen that though their children are hungry and they live day to day hoping to find enough money to feed themselves they all have TVs and most have DVD players. I never understood this, but I think they feel that if they have a TV they are doing well in their lives. Besides nothings better then watching telanovelas, right? :) Materialism is something that has grown from peoples need to be perceived as advancing and prospering...... However, I am jealous that you have the privilege to be in that beautiful place. I truly miss it and the its people..