Christmas in Equatorial Africa falls in the middle of the very hottest, and the very wettest time of the year.
And so it was in 1995, when I was working in Malongo, a Chevron oil workers camp near Cabinda, an enclave of Angola. In those days it was completely surrounded by Zaire but nowadays it is completely surrounded by the Democratic Republic of Congo.
I had come back to work after six weeks at home in mid December, resigned to having to spend Christmas away from Elaine, Daire and Caoimhe.
I had come back bearing the makings of a genuine Irish fry for at least 10 people; vacuum packed by the butchers in the Supervalu, arranged so by Elaine.
It weighed a ton and the sausages sort of burst, but nonetheless it would provide a little bit of home in the workshop on Christmas morning.
The diving team and the boat’s crew had been sharing the boat with a piglet, which had been living outside the accommodation since early November, growing fat on leftovers.
Jake, our Filipino cook, had bartered for it the last time they had been in Banana Base in Zaire.
When it came on board first it was about the size of a rabbit, but by Christmas week it was as big as a Labrador, fat, sleek and so friendly.
It squeaked its delight upon seeing as every morning, and we spoke to like it was a dog, rubbing it behind its ears while it oinked its pleasure.
We even named it Pig.
Christmas began on Christmas Eve.
Pig was no longer tied up in the scuppers outside the galley, and our days diving, was not spent working, but harvesting Atlantic crayfish, for the traditional Christmas Eve crayfish cookout, at the divers workshop.
We did meet pig again, but this time he had an apple in his mouth, and he tasted delicious.
For Christmas Eve lunch, Jake had done the Christmas dinner to beat all Christmas dinners. There was crayfish and grouper (supplied by the divers) but pig was the centrepiece, cooked to perfection. There was also red and white wine supplied by Tidewater, the owner of all the boats working out of Malongo. By the time we got back to the pier, we had eaten and drank our fill. There was no gym or hill walking being done that evening, and we still had the crayfish do to come that evening.
Back in the 90s, before it was determined that alcohol impaired the senses; the company was keen to sponsor any social events held on the camp, with spot prizes and beer, lots of beer.
So that night we had ice chest upon ice chest of cans of beer and enough crayfish to feed the multitude.
Our boss loved cooking crayfish.
We had a specialised bath sized stainless steel pot which he filled with water, bringing it to the boil with our oxyacetylene torch, before tumbling a dozen or so of crayfish into the boiling liquid.
The large crustaceans gave up the ghost on contact with the boiling water, with a brief pssssst of escaping gas.
The Chevron Louisiana ‘good old boys’ at the party, revelled in this lobster feeding frenzy, sucking every last scrap of meat from the tentacles and legs of the beasts.
There was absolutely no need for it because there was a more than an ample Supply of delicious juicy meat in the bodies, but it seemed to keep them happy.
The beer fuelled singsong after the feast went on well into the night, safe in the knowledge that the following day was the only day off, in the entire year. Mosquitoes had no luck that night, any blood soaked would have been 90% proof. Go sleep
On Christmas Day, I cooked the fry at 6.30 AM, which warmed our hearts, and those of the visitors who dropped in for a Christmas visit..
There was no beer with breakfast, so I was ready to start the day’s sporting activities with a tennis tournament at 9 AM.
There was beer and more prizes for the tennis, which was played in blazing hot conditions.
I won a ‘Malongo country club’ whiskey glass for third place overall.
It was mid day when the tennis finished, so time for lunch, which was pretty much the same as any Sunday lunch, Caesar salad, the best this side of New York according to the Lebanese cook who made it.
At 1 o’clock in incredibly hot conditions, the Malongo Casuals took on the police in the first of the round-robin football championships.
The police, also known as the ninjas because of their black uniforms, were all young Angolan kids, athletic and habituated to existing in intense heat.
Tactically we had the upper hand, and at half-time we were leading three nil.
However after a few beers and cigarettes at half-time, the heat began to take its toll on us Europeans and the match ended 5-3 to them.
I played centre half, usually a rock solid defender, but I gave away two penalties because I was unable to propel myself off the ground to head the ball clear, and so grabbed it Gaelic style.
The police went on to win the competition.
Following the football there was beer golf, followed by beer cricket and baseball.
Luckily all this frenetic beer fuelled sporting activity ended at four, so there was time for a three and a half hour nap and a shower before Christmas dinner at eight PM.
And what a Christmas dinner, every nationality was catered for, Americans, Brazilians, Europeans, Angolans and Portuguese.
There was wine and beer, but no drunkenness, and a girls’ choir, from Landana a village up the coast from Malongo, entertained us with their beautiful rendition of well-known Christmas carols, conducted by a missionary nun from Cork, who taught at the ramshackle, but only school in the village.
Of course there was not a dry eye in the house.
After dinner there was a concert performed by three Americans and an Irishman who emulated the Eagles and the Silver Bullet band for two hours.
Christmas ended there, St Stephen’s Day was a normal work day, as was every other day until Saturday, 30 December when we had a darts and pool competition in the bar, and then more tennis, baseball, cricket and football on Sunday the 31st, New Year’s Eve.
There was another dinner that couldn’t be beaten in the mess hall at 8 o’clock and another little concert until 10PM, when the prospect of work the following day sent most of us to bed.
Sometime between Christmas and New Year, it started to rain. Rain like I had never seen or even imagined in my entire life, cascades of water fell from the sky for hours on end, turning the camp into a system of canals inhabited by the most patient giant African toads, who had spent a year buried in the hard baked ground, waiting for the beginning of the rainy season to come out and mate.
Mating for giant African toads involved a great deal of loud croaking to attract a mate, but the noise to us humans was ear-splitting, drowning out even the cicadas who usually held noisy dominance at night.
As a Christmas present from the Lebanese catering company who also ran the bar, everyone on the camp had received a very large golf umbrella, which now became invaluable for the walk over to the mess hall at 8 o’clock.
As I walked through the rain, I could see the dark mounds of the toads jockeying for prime position with the opposition, all the while croaking like a bull elephant!
The day after the first downpour as we drove down the hill just after dawn, the topography of the land on either side of the road had changed to a’hydrography’ our football pitch on the left was a lake with bleachers protruding, and the scrub land on the right was now a smooth surfaced lake with Crested and Royal Ibis, exotic wading birds who came with the rain, and obviously found things to eat in what had been parched dry dirt.
Imagine birds like that so commonplace! The only reason I knew what they were was because the ancient Egyptians were fascinated with them, and I with the ancient Egyptians.
The heat and humidity remained and It rained pretty much every day for the next month or so, which kept us off the football pitch / lake, and my Ibis friends happy.
As the rains moved on and the ground dried up, the birds left also, maybe back to Egypt, I don’t know! hydrogr