A look back at Christmas back in the days of scarcity

Tuesday December 19 2017

Nicholas Sengoba

Nicholas Sengoba 


If you are a child of the 70s and 80s, you can’t avoid feeling nostalgic whenever it is the Christmas season. In those days, scarcity was the norm. Many factories produced at excess capacity. You did not have such aggressive marketing of commodities in the newspapers because scarcity meant that demand outstripped supply. So, for instance, on these big days, there were arrangements to supply or ration Pepsi Cola and Mirinda. In those days, the government was the main supplier of groceries through two government-owned companies - Foods and Beverages or Fresh Foods. There was also the Army Shop for soldiers.

You needed an ‘allocation’ from the Ministry of Commerce and Industry to be allowed to buy from there at the government price. The smarter people would get their allocations of sugar, salt, beer, soda, baking flour, etc, horde and re-sell at a higher price to those without access. The other option for those without access, I remember, was to wait for the truck from the factory that went distributing in trading and housing areas. When the Pepsi branded Mercedes Benz truck would come to Bukoto, each family was allowed only two or three wooden crates of soda. (Yes in those days we didn’t have plastic crates).
We would patiently wait for the truck the whole day to get our precious share.

Missing was not an option. Having soda was a mark of status and prosperity if you took it to school for break with an apple or sausages, you were allowed to falsely brag that your parent had returned with these goodies from Nairobi! Now we have so much to buy, but not many people can afford.

Families engaged in baking cakes for the day. There were families that were known to bake cakes and buns to sell to the neighbours throughout the year. This was mainly the idea of mothers, some of whom had studied Home Economics in school and put it to good use in the times when Uganda was under economic stress. (In those days many civil servant fathers used the family car to do some taxi work just to supplement their incomes). Baking during Christmas time was fun, for the young ones, for that is when you had the opportunity to lick sugar -a rare often rationed commodity- under the pretext of ‘helping out.’

In every trading centre, there were tailors who had a variety of clothing materials brought in from Kenya - the main beneficiary of Uganda’s scarcity. It wasn’t uncommon to find a whole family dressed in clothes designed from the same material from daddy to the last born looking like a circus troupe. The other source of clothes was the mothers, who in school had mastered tailoring and moonlighted as dress makers to add to the family income. Their homes were a beehive of activities at this time of the year as they made clothes for their friends and neighbours. Those clothes were often complimented with new Bata Shoes, which served as you ‘Christmas present’ and went on to become your Sunday best.

The other main activity was decorating homes and some offices. The main item was the Christmas trees, aka Lawson’s cypress, (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana), which were cut from hedges of homes. On these, we placed Christmas cards, which were bought from bookshops in all sizes and shapes with the image of Father Christmas in a sledge riding on snow. Families and friends exchanged them and kept them for recycling during subsequent Christmas seasons. Now in the electronic age of plenty you receive a text message or WhatsApp saying something like ‘wsh u a mry xms and a hpy Nu Ya!’ The tree is now almost extinct because of the current practice of building concrete perimeter walls. Today we have plastic trees sold in the supermarket! There was another peculiar item on the menu.

It happened in the media. The general managers of the leading parastatals fell over each other and sent Christmas cards to the President. These were announced on Radio Uganda and UTV, which were the only radio and TV stations respectively. You had a news item like ‘the general manager of Foods and Beverages sent a Christmas Card to H. E the President Field Marshal Idi Amin Dada VC. DSO, MC, CBE wishing him a Merry Christmas and a Prosperous New Year of good health and his continuous good leadership and wise counsel.’
It would typically end with Long Live the President, Long Live the armed forces and Long Live the Republic of Uganda.’

Standard entertainment was Christmas carols by the local church – which was very boring for children. But you also had the choirs marching at night with candles and singing Christmas songs, which was fun. Then there were the movies about the story of Jesus in cinemas. We had Delight Cinema, Norman Cinema and the Drive in Cinema, which at times threw in Bruce Lee and James Bond movies.

It was quite a treat when you visited your grandparents in the village. They showered you with love and attention and you got to see plenty of cows, goats, chicken and banana, coffee plus tea plantations ‘live.’ Looking back now, life was quite basic because we had been humbled and had accepted our situation in the days of Amin and Obote. Unlike today when commercialisation is pushing us to shop until we drop, back in the day, our expectations were low and we did not expect much. To be alive was good enough and that made Christmas very memorable and enjoyable. Merry Christmas to you!

Mr Sengoba is a commentator on political
and social issues. [email protected]
Twitter: nsengoba