It is Christmas, and Bob Geldof, the Irish singer-songwriter, created another version of his wildly patronizing, but hugely profitable, charity hit, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” Now the song is raising money for Ebola relief. The first version was created in 1984 in response to the famine in Ethiopia. If you haven’t heard the songs, they feature celebrities who take turns singing lyrics about helping “Africa.” There is a lot to criticize in the original and re-released versions- the messages they send about Africa, their paternalism, the near absence of African singers, the inefficient way in which proceeds are funneled to aid organizations, the factual errors… The list goes on here and here and here. In this post, I offer a different form of critique: children’s artwork.
The cover art for the album has received less notice than the lyrics. The originally released cover art shows two almost-naked African children standing amidst a collage of white children in Euro-American Christmas scenes. If the intention was to create a stark contrast between “us” and “them,” it succeeds. Later cover art shows an emaciated African child with his naked backside to the camera and a cartoon Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer standing over him. He and smaller Rudolph replicas gaze benevolently at the child, who appears as the symbol of helplessness, providing an image of an undifferentiated Africa occupied by victims in need of saving.
What would children in Africa say about this cover art? Certainly their answers would vary because Africa is a hugely diverse continent. I do know how some children in Lusaka, Zambia would depict Christmas in Africa. Spoiler alert: Their artwork does not include starvation, nakedness, or Rudolph.
The quick backstory: The drawings come from research I carried out with 8- to 12-year-old children in a poor residential area of Lusaka. I visited the children in their homes weekly for more than a year, with the exception of three weeks I missed during the Christmas holidays. In my absence, the children re-created for me their Christmas days in drawings. (I take no credit for the idea. It was all their design, proving again that the children made me a more interesting researcher than I am.)
Here’s how several children in one part of Lusaka spent Christmas. All names are pseudonyms. Enjoy.
Annie’s Christmas Day
The top drawing shows Annie and her 12-year-old cousin eating rice, potatoes, and chicken. They also had sugary drinks. Annie’s mom paid for Annie and her cousin to have their hair plaited in the same style for Christmas. The girls put on their best clothes. The middle picture on the left side shows them posing for a Christmas photograph on a patch ofo grass. Annie’s brother, who lived with their granny, came to visit for Christmas. He was wearing a t-shirt that Annie liked with a picture of John Cena (the wrestler) on it. In the bottom row of pictures, Annie’s mom is enjoying her holiday meal and drinking a coca-cola. The last drawing is of children playing.
Rita’s Christmas Day
Rita went “on holiday” to visit her father’s family in a different part of Lusaka, where she stayed for two weeks. While she was there, her Ambuya (grandmother) threw a Christmas party for Rita and other visitors. Her drawing shows her Ambuya’s house and includes relatives who came for the party. When she described the drawing to me, she pointed to the radio and emphasized: “We listened to traditional Zambian music and danced.”
Mary’s Christmas Day
Mary helped cook Christmas dinner in her home. She made rice and chicken. Just below the house, Mary shows herself eating Christmas dinner with her mom. They listened to music from the radio (below the table). And later she sat on a reed mat with friends and told stories (middle right). She then walked down the path (bottom right) to visit more family members at her sister-in-law’s house.
Sam’s Christmas Day
Sam went to his uncle’s house on Christmas day. He drew himself and his two cousins eating rice, apples, and chicken for Christmas dinner, while their relatives arrived to visit. His aunt is cooking and two other aunts are dancing to music.
What did Christmas mean to the children who made these drawings? Family, food, music, dancing, memories, and more…
So in case Bob Geldof is interested, there are children in Africa who know it’s Christmas. They may even have a good time celebrating it!