Non-Religious Celebration of Christmas

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I never thought I would willingly and consciously arrange for Child of Mine to celebrate Christmas at my own volition. Not since I quit organized religion umpteen years ago! But, that is before I became a parent.

Before I realized that parenting is a totally new era in one’s life; of undoing one’s beliefs and comfort zone. Before I realized that parenting is not about you!

This year, I am gonna let Child of Mine experience a Christmas celebration, as part of my parenting.

On one hand, parenting is scripted. There are tons of books for new parents – the indisputable What to Expect series, starts When You’re Expecting…going all the way into the Second Year. It is so influential, that it was ‘canonized’ into a movie released in 2012, starring Cameron Diaz.

The alternative new parenting scripts include lessons that mothers of the Expectant mother/parents eagerly share, either unsolicited or unwelcome. Plus, Old Wives Tales, passed on through generations to expectant mothers and the new parents. Not to forget that, if the expectant parent(s) was/were born around little children — siblings, cousins, nieces or nephews, or friends children, The Parenting Script is available through first-hand observation.

Parenting, we tend to think, is easy peezy, right? Plenty of resources —reading all the books, listening to ‘experts’ advice and watching other parents! You swear to an entire Parenting Script of NEVERS!

- You vow never to repeat the ‘mistakes’ other parents commit against their children. 
- You will not allow an unruly child in your household. 
- You will not bend your rules to accommodate your child’s needs or demands. 
- You will not introduce your child to any systems of socialization that you do not adhere to, including religion, entertainment, schooling or relationships. 
- You will not babysit a five-year old child!

And many more!

Until one day, you actually become a parent! And wonder, whatever happened to your self-avowed script, the script passed down unto you by parents before you, the script you wrote when you were expecting, and the script you re-wrote as a new parent. Some among us even wrote our own What to Expect: The Birth Plan.

We also had our post-birth parenting scripted in our heads, laid out well-tested rules and regulations to maintain order, transmit culture and ‘good moral character’ into all children in our household.  Then, one wonder why you are making so many compromises to accommodate your child’s comfort over yours!

But none of the tolerable comforts include intimacy with organized religion or becoming indolent.

Don’t get me wrong, I do not have any problem with the religious. In fact, my best friend – RIP was religious. She is one of the very few people I know, beside my mom, and my mom’s father, that practiced the humanity of religion. She was more human than religious. She was never judgmental, yet she subscribe to the new religious revivalism. The pentecostals, baptists, and the whole nine yard, who scare you and ostracize you, that if you do not convert to JC, you will go to hell fire. Or that Allah is the only true path to afterlife, and there is “Judgement Day”, when everybody is gonna be judged according to their religious practices.

See, I come from a family of multiple religious beliefs. My mother’s father came from a Catholic family, but converted to Protestantism, growing up with a Protestant family. He went on to become a Reverend, serving the Protestant Church. Two of my sisters are married to Muslims; one of my sister’s ex is Catholic; my paternal family has plenty of other religions that I can only relate to old school protestantism and veganism. So, religious pluralism was never an option for me, nor religious tolerance a luxury; it was the humane way of life.

Religiosity is rife in Uganda, where I come from. There is a prevailing expectation that everyone is religious, and anyone who says s/he is not religious —that is— does not subscribe to any of the Judeo-Chiristain or Islamic religions—is often frown upon. Yet, there is a laissez-faire approach to religious tolerance.

It is not uncommon to hear the Catholic church bells toll at the top of the hour, or the Muslim call for prayer every morning and evening. Yet, the loud noise from these places of worship has not caused a societal revolt, but taken for granted as part of social living. To some, like my mother, the morning call for prayer from the neighborhood mosque has served as her wake-up alarm clock, since I was a child. Similar to the morning cock crow in the villages.

But in America and other western societies that count themselves as “civilized,” such loud ‘noise’ cannot be tolerate, as part of social living! Or perhaps there is selective tolerance of noise in different parts. For instance where I live, the church bells doth toll, yet it is unfathomable to imagine a tolerance of the Muslim Call for Prayer!

Exposure is fundamental to nurturing tolerance of others. My siblings and I attended Catholic schools, even though we were raised Protestant. We went along with the Catholic rituals at school—going to mass, reciting the rosary, observing lent period, and anything catholicism required of us.IMG_3347

None of us grew larger or smaller because of practicing a religion outside our beliefs, None of us felt indoctrinated and coopted, because outside school, we were still Protestant and went to Protestant Church. Plus, to reiterate, I have catholic family, whom I love regardless of their religion, and who I do not have the luxury of discriminating against.

Coming to America changed my relationship with religion. I ran away from religion, as soon as it started confusing me. I had never imagined that one can be religious, yet pray and support dropping bombs on others.

I don’t understand religion that welcomes strangers, yet excludes those who do not profess the same religion. I do not understand a religion, that also preaches love, then practices hate and prejudice. I do not understand a religion, where “sisterhood” is built on the notion of religious belief, not family connection or our common humanity!

Although I must say that I have been embraced by some religious communities — among the Mormons, Mennonites and Catholics—whose religious convictions is informed by a sense of community and a shared humans. I have felt very comfortable among them, never felt judged, ostracized or evangelized to, but welcomed and supported as a human being.

Coupled with my upbringing, I have remained open to embrace the religious, and allow my child get a glimpse into the various religions. We participate in religious festivities with family and friends.

But, I am not about to push him into any form of religious indoctrination. I realized that his family was not willing to incorporate him into their religious festivities because of his non-religious status, and stopped trying to get him introduced to their beliefs. On the contrary, my family takes a laissez-faire approach to him or myself, recognizing that we are more than our religious proclamations!

Still, religion is not too far from Child’s mind; he is learning about various religion from school teachers. Forget about separation of church and state, in public schools! We are talking about PA, not in NYC, where a school principal recently banned Santa, The Pledge of Allegiance, replaced Thanksgiving with “Harvest Festival,” and Christmas Celebration with “Winter Celebration!

Recently, curiosity caught the best of my Child,

COM: "Mommy, what is my religion?"
Me: "You don't have a religion."
COM: "Why don't I have a religion?"
Me: "Because I do not have a religion."
COM: "Can you check my DNA and find out what my religion is?"
Me: "So, I can know your religion from your DNA?"
COM: "Yes."
Me: "Child, you are clearly a Pennsylvanian."
COM: "Noooo! I want to be Ugandan."
Me: "Ok, you are that, too!"
[Thinking to self: Oh! It gets worse...Religiosity gets worse in Uganda!"]
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Still, we will not be subscribing to any organized religious gathering or denomination soon! But, we will accept any invitations for celebration. What better time than now in December, when we welcome Santa and his the elves, Rudolf the Red Nose Reindeer, al bearing gifts on Christmas Day! While we do not put up any trees, decorate or sing carols, he gets opportunities of making trees with his Cub Scout Pack and makes Christmas wreaths and talks about JC in school.

At home, we are making gingerbread cookies, dressing up in green and red, and eagerly await Santa’s gifts under the chimney. I have already taken him around our neighbor to watch Christmas decorations and musical shows stationed in yards. No religious recitals! No religious talk!

And we will spiritually join our family in celebrating Christmas, as they do every year, and the years he was in Uganda. I doubt he remembers the celebrations in Uganda when he was three and four years. I want Child to learn that some people celebrate Christmas because of their religious beliefs. I strongly believe that exposure to religion, or other social experiments/systems, breeds understanding, and breeds religious tolerance.

The religious intolerance, witnessed among some Americas, is symbolic of when religion is treated as an “exclusive club” open only to the believers. Religion in America is largely about exclusion than inclusion of those who do not profess the same faith. Those who convert from one religion to another tend to ridicule the religion they left. Some religious groups are not receptive to curious non-religious, nor encourage partaking in the celebration of customer of other religions.

Contrary to my experience growing up with religion in Uganda. Eid Christmas and Easter are all designated as public holidays. Unlike America, only Christian holidays are accorded public recognition — Christmas is conveniently scheduled as “Winter Break,” and  Easter as “Spring Break,” celebrated as days-off from work, and big shopping weekends at commercial establishments. A few establishments, employers and cities would grant “a day-off” for Muslims to celebrate Eid; in New York City, Jewish holidays and recently the Muslim Eid are designated as days-off in the school calendar. Of course the atheists and satanists aint celebrating all these religious display, in their faces!

But I want my own child growing up, with an understanding that, while mommy is non-religious, some people celebrate religious holidays. I also want him to understand that there is nothing wrong with the religious and non-religious, and none is better or more knowing than the other; they all belong to the same global society.

In fact mommy’s family is religious, and mommy friends who are religious. Mommy’s best friend who died was religious. But Auntie Jude and mommy are not religious.

I want to know that parenting involves setting goals, and exercising flexibility when raising our children as social beings. Most importantly, I want Child to know that what binds us together is our common humanity. We should be good and strive to do good to others, not because we are bound by some religious doctrine or conviction, but because it is the human thing to do.

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What do you mean the gunmen @CharlieHebdo Are Not Muslims?

Whenever a vengeful attack by a group identified as Muslims occurs, the world very quickly reverberates into “Good Muslim v Bad Muslim” echoes; thanks to Dubya Dictionary! Who would have known that a man caricatured as ‘having no brain’ during his presidency, would enrich our international lingua!  Talk about satire, right?
Once again, following the recent murders at Charlie Hebdo in Paris, France, we find ourselves profiling those gunmen as bad muslims, terrible, evil, savages, inhuman, terrorists, who hate freedom, and against all the ‘good civilizing western values’. Plenty of columns have been written, arguments advanced, interviews conducted, airtime dedicated on TV, radio, internet, social media, and every news source to interrogate how people can be so evil as to carryout senseless murders!
I am one of those who have visibly extended my allegiance to #JeSuisCharlie, not because I buy into the ‘Good Muslim v Bad Muslim rhetoric, but for what I felt as disproportionate reaction to hurtful, hateful and degrading speech of the pen and ink. I condemn any form of shooting, murder or violent attack on a person, a people or a community. I wondered why, if the gunmen were terribly insulted by the Charlie Hebdo satire, they did not hit back with own satire! On second thought, a part of me realizes that a pen with print-ink can be as hateful as a sword with bullets. Violence begets violence! I recognize as well, that it is easy to apportion blame and responsibility, when it is not you that the world is repeatedly humiliating, making a caricature of, profiling or psycho-analyzing as evil and violent.
Charlie Hebdo Satire about Islam and the Prophet

Charlie Hebdo Satire about Islam and the Prophet

I am uncomfortable that, once again, in the world habitually bombarded with a smear campaign depicting Islam as a terrorist religion, we are forced to defend the validity or folly of such generalization. Even more troubling is the fact that believers in Islam, Muslims and followers of the Prophet Muhammad (S.A.A.W.S), by their own responses, reactions or actions, have not done a great job defending their faith or fellow believers. Unintentionally, they are aiding the smear campaign against their faith and believers, by self-assigning themselves into the “Good and Bad Muslim” camps. Whereas the #CharlieHebdokillers seemingly validated the claim that muslims are ‘inherently violent’, other muslims who did not agree with the actions of the gunmen are claiming “those are not muslims, do not represent islam nor rightly practice the Islamic religion.”
I wonder who is to say that one is not a muslim or practicing ‘the real’ Islam? Unless one has founded a religion, who has a right to decide that one is more muslim than the other?. You either have to be Prophet Muhammad, Jesus Christ or Kibwetere in southwestern Uganda to exclude another believer from Islam, Christianity or cult worship respectively.
To claim that one is not a muslim because they do not practice religion the way you do, is to pretend that there is uniformity of understanding or in the practice of the faith, and to undermine its diversity of traditions and interpretations. Recall that Islam has many classifications, -Shia, Sunni, Sufism, Ibadi, Ahmadiyya, and many more, with different beliefs, believers, traditions and practices. Nor can Christianity claim uniformity, given its multiplicity of followers -Catholics, Protestants, Lutherans, Latter Day Saints, Methodists, Baptists, Quakers and plenty more!
Why then, should some muslims disown as ‘good believers’, those who in their reading, interpretation and dedication to the religion, seek to avenge what they see as onslaught on that which they hold dear to their livelihood, belonging and community? We may not like or think like others, but we cannot decide who has a claim to social beliefs and belonging. Like Black folks, ’good’ muslims are now buying into the dominant social pressure, distancing themselves from those within their faith, whose actions seemingly do not augur well with the public image they wish to portray of themselves and their religion. Choosing not to [publicly] interrogate this troubling and disproportionate profiling, politicized assault and humiliation of the muslim faith by some muslims and non-muslims.
Going back to “Dubya” once again, his presidency was marred by various scandals at home and abroad, when the “War on terror” turned into the “War of Terror”, with fabricated allegations about WMD in Saddam’s Iraq, assault on civil liberties and freedoms and wire tapping. While many Americans opposed Dubya’s presidency, felt humiliated at home and abroad, distanced themselves from the actions of his government, some moved or threatened to move to Canada, none questioned whether Dubya was an American or suggested he was not an American.
So, why then, should muslims dismiss the “Muslim-ness” of fellow believers they do not agree with? Why do we easily dismiss those we do not agree with as bad, savages or non-believers? Portraying ourselves as against any form of hate, violence and brutality, when among us are people who joyful celebrated the brutal murder of Osama Bin Laden and vengeful humiliation of Saddam and Gaddafi, and endorsed the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. We look away when drones strike entire villages in Pakistan, but scream at beheading of western nationals because acts of violence are more gruesome and inhumane when carried out by those ‘bad muslims”! Ultimately, the folks who died at #CharlieHebdo love and believe in freedom of expression as much as those who reacted to the misrepresentation and inappropriate satirization of their beliefs. The violent choice of reaction by the gunmen do not make them less or more muslim than Muslims who react with a pen, street protests or passive objection.

Ramadan 2013: We are ALL Africans

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Ramadan Kareem to all my Muslim friends and family!

I find myself actively taking part in Ramadan 2013, with 14 days of fast. This is not a conscious decision; it is totally by coincidence. And it is not so easy, since I am surrounded by all the foods I like -fruits and vegetables- that I cannot touch until after the 14 days (my fast is coming with a twist). Moreover I am babysitting two little kids…whom I have to feed during the day…without touching or tasting their food.

But  I am glad it is happening, and I can share this special moment with my friends and family. Those who know me have had that, if I were to attach myself to any [dis]organized religions we are bombarded with in this world, I would be a muslim. I know you might be thrown off with surprise that I DO NOT subscribe to any religion. You are not the first; my family cannot believe it either! Nor my friends!

“How can you not have a religion?”

Well, it is possible, I often say

“So, you do not believe in God?,” the questions continue

“Well, maybe I do not believe in God as you think of him/her. But that does not mean I have no faith or belief system. My religion 

is humanity.

See, as I grew up, I made a conscious decision NOT to subscribe to any religious group, after my experiences with, especially Christianity and all its relatives. I grew up around three main religions – Protestant, Catholicism and Islam – within my family and among friends. My mother is of a double religion in a way – father’s immediate family is predominantly Catholic, although her father was Protestant. Apparently, her father grew up with a Protestant family, and went on to become a Protestant Reverend (Preacher). So  my mother and her family took after he daddy. Of course, within my own family are inter-religious marriages, bringing us a variety. As I grew up, I went in and out of the revivalist evangelist religions imported into Uganda from, especially North America – Baptist, Pentecostal, methodist, ….

Talking about friends, my best friend in elementary school was muslim. During Ramadan, she would invite myself and a couple of her other friends to break the day’s fast at her family home. I remember us feasting on rice (the origin of my LOVE for rice) with beef, fresh fruits and juices! It did not matter that we were not muslim, we were allowed to eat to our fill. Similarly, area mosques would feed anyone who came to eat at the mosque during the “break of the fast” every evening at seven O’clock.

That and other experiences have shaped my outlook on Islam. Plus, I was once engaged to be married to a Senegalese, and I lived and conducted graduate research in Senegal.

Senegalese are one of the best people the world has ever blessed us with, that I wonder if it is the African in them or the religion. In 2007, family and friends still eat together on one large plate, like we did as kids at my grandmother’s place. If one’s family brought him/her lunch food at work, they would park for more mouths to feed, and five or more of us would  eat together. Senegalese also have this level of contentment with who they are and what they have. I do not know if that is derived from or shapes their belief system? Perhaps that explains why they have NEVER changed political power through a military coup!

Now I have a moslem family, not only among my sister’s marriages, but my son’s grandparents who are practicing muslims. I respect that and I enjoy watching as they commune together, in food, worship and sharing. To me, Islam manifests itself as a communitarian bond not a religion, contrary to the Christian religions I grew up with. The way they were pushed to me was exclusionist, “if you do not believe in JC, you go to Hell.”

Why I am saying all this? Well, because as I was reflecting on Ramadan 2013, it appeared to me as the opportune tagline for “We are ‘ALL] Africans, the name of my blog. The communitarianism that comes with Ramadan, when we are all invited to feast and share in

the celebration is a key branding of the African spirit of Ubuntu or humaness. That we, Africans care and lookout for one another more than any other grouping in the world. Although I have strong reservations about that.

First, if human origin is in Africa, then all humans are Africans with the spirit of Ubuntu. Secondly, do we Africans really have a monopoly of Ubuntu, when we are branded the world over as the center of senseless killings, human sacrifice, wars, hunger, famine and mal-government? How is it possible for all that to exist with Ubuntu?

After spending about a month (May 21 to June 20) visiting Scotland (Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen), I am inclined to say that, perhaps Scotts have a thing to teach Africans and the world about Ubuntu. They, like Senegalese are some of the most POSITIVE spirited people I have EVER encountered. and YES! they live almost their entire calendar year wearing sweaters because of the cold (similar to northern America and European), which is often an excuse for “why people are cold to one another”. But they are pure spirited, positive, kind and loving. They voluntarily offer to be good, to speak to strangers, to help out a stranger and to talk to one another. It was odd  (though shocking to “the American” in me) to hear my best friend, we had gone to visit, strike up a conversation the cab driver, even in a city like Edinburgh. In New York City, you sit in the cab, shut your mouth until you are paying to disembark. No conversation, no contact with the cab driver.

While plenty of restaurants are bars where kids are not allowed, once you find one, sitting is not allocated based on “color of your skin” -at least it appeared to me. If a seat is available, anyone will take it. We talk to one another at the bus stop, in a shopping or grocery store and on the streets. A stranger will waive down a taxi for you because he overheard you talking about finding one. The spirit of the Scotts is absolutely golden and beautiful that it makes me wonder, if our focus should not be on humanity in our midst, rather than subscribing to those religions whose home is NOT here…but in some imagined place! Perhaps the Scotts are the true Africans and home to our promised land – of free giving and Ubuntu!

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