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Christmas is all about family togetherness

Published: December 15, 2001

By STARLA POINTER Of the News-Register

Hannington Mutebi didn't always like the smell of matoke, a traditional Ugandan food served at Christmastime. Now, thousands of miles from the warmth of home, he becomes misty eyed describing it.

"You take plantains, put them on banana leaves and steam them over water," he said.

"Aaaaah," he said, invoking the familiar scent. "Oh, I miss that."

Mutebi is from the Ugandan capital of Kampala, population 5 million.

However, he refers to the immediate area in which he lives as "the village." Residents of the village know one another well, he said.

A junior at Linfield College, he went home last summer to visit his parents, brother and two sisters. He isn't able to travel to East Africa again for the holidays, although he does plan to visit friends in Washington, D.C.

"I miss my family, especially at this time of year. At Christmas, the family gets together," he said.

If Mutebi were home, he'd expect to receive new clothes and shoes. He doesn't figure on getting any gifts by mail, though.

It's not presents that he misses at Christmas, anyway. It's people.

"My parents are happier and more relaxed and friendly at Christmas. Dad wakes up and sings Christmas carols. He's in a merry state," Mutebi said.

He explained that Ugandan parents definitely are authority figures. They don't share a casual relationship with children most of the year, like American parents do.

"I like the closeness here. Here, you can talk to your parents," he said.

But during the Christmas season, parents are easy going. He can talk to his dad almost as an equal, perhaps accompanying him to the beach or just spending time with him at home.

Family and food

In Uganda, Christmas Day is for the immediate family.

On Dec. 26, the British Boxing Day, people get together with their extended families. "We go to our grandparents and get to know one another, spend time with one another, catch up, bond," Mutebi said.

They enjoy a big meal. "You have to eat until you can't stand up," he said.

"At home, we don't have to watch our weight. Gaining weight is a sign of prosperity," he said. "We love to eat, but we never really gain weight anyway."

It's not just his family that's happy during the holidays. "The whole village is close; we share food," he said.

Ugandans eat more meat this time of year. "There's more of every food: meat, rice, casaba, potatoes," Mutebi said. "Mom spends half of Christmas night cooking.

"My sisters help. If I were home, I would slaughter a chicken or two."

Ugandan homes often have Christmas trees decorated with candy and ornaments similar to those used in the United States. Cotton is used to symbolize snow, he said.

Christmas cards are displayed on the tree, as well.

"You have to exchange cards on Christmas Day," he said. "I should send a card since I'm far away."

Unlike here, however, presents aren't wrapped and they aren't placed under the tree. They are just handed from giver to recipient - in most cases, from parent to child.

The holidays start earlier in the United States than in Uganda.

"You're in a Christmas mood a month early. We don't do anything until about the 20th of December," he said.

Mutebi said he loves waking up Christmas morning at home. "It just feels different," he said.

Family members dress in their best outfits to attend church on Christmas Day.

"You go to pray and see how smart each family is," he said. Girls wear white dresses and shiny red shoes, guys wear suits or traditional African attire.

Mutebi grew up Protestant. Christianity is a main religion in Uganda, which is populated by settlers from Great Britain as well as native Africans.

The main languages of Uganda are English and Swahili. Mutebi also can understand, but not speak, dialects from seven of the 35 tribes in his country.

Mutebi switched to the Baha'i faith near the end of his high school years. He said it was just what he was seeking.

"When I became Baha'i, my life really changed," he said. "Things started happening. I grew."

The religion has helped him become more internationally focused.

"I used to not feel the closeness with other cultures, but now I do," he said. "I like the unity and diversity of the faith. It's a challenge to be Baha'i. The principles and standards are high."

Learning abroad

Mutebi came to the United States to attend college, figuring he would learn about himself by studying in a foreign country.

As he expected, he has come to understand himself more. He has also come to appreciate home.

"Everything is more meaningful now, even the weather. I used to wonder why people were so fascinated by it," he said.

"At home, people spend a lot of time talking and getting to know one another. That's good.

"Things there are simple. You live for the day, not constantly asking yourself, 'What am I going to do in four years?'" he said. "I miss that the most. Now, here, I have to plan."

At Linfield, he has a major in accounting and a minor in music. He performed with the Linfield Concert Choir at the college's holiday concert.

At home, he would be singing in a church or village choir.

"I love to sing. I think I would die without singing. I just sing, sing, sing," he said.

An Oregonian who was studying in Uganda recommended Linfield. He said he likes the college because it is small and personal.

"I know people around campus," he said. "Even the president knows me.

"There are no strangers here," he said. "That's important. A sense of community like this is basically African."

©Copyright 2001, News-Register (Oregon)

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