Once upon a time a certain East African country had many mountains and valleys, rivers and plains. All the people lived in one big valley. The large extended families included grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and many children. These East African people were ordinary human beings with both good and bad qualities. They followed all the seasons of human life:
A time for giving birth … a time for dying.
A time for planting … a time for uprooting.
A time for knocking down … a time for building.
A time for tears … a time for laughter.
A time for mourning … a time for dancing.
A time for loving … a time for hating.
A time for war … a time for peace.
A man named John Shayo lived in this large valley. He was a faithful Christian who prayed every Sunday and regularly participated in his Amani Small Christian Community. He helped the poor and needy especially the lepers who lived on one slope. John tried to fulfill all his Christian responsibilities. From time to time he failed, but in general he was a very good Christian.
In this large valley there was jealousy, fighting, drunkenness and all kinds of discord. Thieves and tricksters walked about openly and regularly stole cows, goats and sheep. Families and villages lacked peace and harmony. Witchcraft and superstition were part of daily life. After patiently enduring this bad situation for a long time John Shayo decided to move somewhere else. He said, “Certainly God isn’t present here. He is the “All Peaceful One” who doesn’t like fighting and discord. He wants peace and harmonious relationships in his human family.”
John Shayo saw a very high mountain far in the distance. It rose majestically in the clear tropical air. John said, “Certainly God our “Great Ancestor” lives in peace and quiet on the top of that East African mountain. I will go there to find God who “Dwells on High With the Spirits of the Great.” So John set off on his long safari. At the end of the first day he reached the foot of this high mountain. The burning equatorial sun had drained his energy. He rested. Very early the next morning he started out again. After three hours of difficult climbing he was tired and sat by the side of the rough footpath.
After a few minutes John was startled to see a bearded man about 30-years-old making his way down the mountain. They greeted each other. “Jambo (‘Hello’). What is the news?” John told the traveler that he was climbing to the top of the mountain to find God our “Creator and Source.” The traveler said that his name was Emmanuel and that he was climbing down the mountain to live with the people in the large valley. After talking together for a few minutes they said good-bye to each other in the traditional African farewell: “Good-bye until we meet again.” As John continued his safari up the steep mountain he said to himself: “That man is a fine person. He is very intelligent and speaks well. I wonder why he wants to go down to my former valley?”
Soon John Shayo was engrossed in his arduous climb. The air grew thinner. He climbed more slowly. By late afternoon he reached the top of the mountain and said to himself: “There is peace and quiet here. Now I will surely find God.” He looked everywhere. No one was around. John was very disappointed and asked out loud, “Where is God?”
Suddenly a gaunt old man appeared and greeted John. “Welcome. Relax after your long, hard safari.” Shayo began to describe the arduous trip and his desire to meet God the “All Peaceful One.” The old man said, “I’m sorry, but God isn’t here on the top of this high mountain. I live alone here. Surely you met God on the mountain path. He was going down to the big valley to live with the people there and to help them with their problems and difficulties.” John was astonished and exclaimed out loud, “You mean the traveler I met on the path was God. I didn’t recognize him. I thought that I would find him here on the top of the mountain.”
The old man said, “I’m sorry. You see God doesn’t want to live here all by himself. He wants to join with the human beings he created. That’s the meaning of his name “Emmanuel. God is with us.” John Shayo exclaimed: “But in the valley there are arguments and fighting. Many of the people are thieves, tricksters, troublemakers and drunkards. Why does God want to live with them?”
Quietly the old man answered, “God knows the lives of his people and their problems and weaknesses. There is a myth about an East African hunter who disobeyed God’s command and shot an arrow into the clouds. The sky bled and God withdrew into the high heavens to get away from human beings. But God the “Great Elder” loved his human family and wanted to show his tender care. So God our “Great Chief” sent his Son to pitch his tent among us, to live with us, to share our joys and sorrows, our successes and failures, our strengths and weaknesses in order to save us. We celebrate this mystery of salvation on the feast of Christmas — the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ our “Eldest Brother.” For this is how God loved the world: He gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
John Shayo was deeply moved by these words and listened intently as the old man continued. “Jesus Christ — Emmanuel” was born and lived among us human beings as an ordinary person. He surrounded himself with simple, needy people just like the farmers and herders in the villages of your valley. He helped the people with their daily problems. This is the meaning and mystery of Christmas — we learn to live like Jesus, Emmanuel our God and a person for others.
“John, from time to time you can come to this mountain top to rest and pray, but know, my friend, that the heart of Christmas is to live with the people in the valley and share their daily problems and difficulties.”
John suddenly felt that he had learned much wisdom on this East African mountaintop. Deeply touched he said, “I’ve changed my mind. I’ve decided to go back to the large valley and live with the people as Jesus Christ Himself does.” The wise old man put his hands on John’s head and gave him a blessing.
John Shayo turned slowly. Seeing the large valley stretched out below him, John began to walk down the mountain.”
A short story by Rev. Joseph Healey posted on African Proverbs, Stories and Sayings:
This story was originally “created” out of discussions with the Christians in Iramba Parish, Musoma Diocese, Tanzania on how to communicate the joyful and saving message of Christmas in a fresh and African way.
The third of three African stories read by Virginia McKenna at An African Christmas with the Occam Singers at St Nicolas Church.
I am indebted to Virginia McKenna for introducing me to this wonderful Christmas story and for telling me where it and and many other wonderful African stories are to be found on the net.