In Matthew’s Gospel (Chapter 2:1-12) the Magi (three wise
men or astrologers from “the East”) offer the Christ Child gold, frankincense,
and myrrh, which are symbols of wealth and divine worship in the Middle East
culture. Among ancient peoples gold was regarded as the king of metals and thus
the ideal gift for a king. It is symbolic of the kingship of Christ.
Frankincense was used in religious worship and is symbolic of the divinity of
Jesus. Myrrh was used to prepare the dead for burial and is symbolic of the
humanity of Jesus.
But what symbols would the peoples and cultures of Eastern
Africa use. A catechist in the Logir Ethnic Group in Isoke Parish in Torit
Diocese, Sudan said that the three gifts would be a goat, a spear and a small,
flexible shepherd’s stick. The goat is a symbol of royalty and wealth. The spear
is a symbol of defense and healing. When someone is sick the blade of the family
spear is washed and the water is sprinkled on the grave of a recently deceased
parent. It is hoped that this ancestor (one of the "living-dead") will bless and
heal the sick person. The shepherd’s stick made from the alyoto tree is a symbol
The Logir people would also give other gifts such as a cow
that still suckles her calf. The rich fresh milk given to the mother of the baby
is a symbol of wealth. Butter oil from milk is smeared on the baby. This oil is
used for the installation of a king and when the rainmaker is chosen. Alyoto
leaves are tied on the front of the door to show that a child has been born.
These leaves are symbols of new life and fertility. When tied in a circle the
leaves portray life and union with the ancestors. Eight days after the birth of
the child, people in the local community bring gifts to the mother such as
chickens, white millet, fruits, honey and firewood.
The Ganda people in Uganda would give the Christ Child a
drum, which is a symbol of kingship and authority, a spear which is a symbol of
protecting and defending the people and bark cloth which is a symbol of royal
investiture. The Kuria people in Tanzania and Kenya would give a goat for the
mother, flour for food and oil to shine up the baby. The Sukuma people in
Tanzania would give gifts of powerful medicine to protect against witches, a cow
and a leopard skin which is a symbol of royalty.
The types of gifts vary according to local customs and
show the richness of different African traditions. Some ethnic groups in East
Africa would distinguish carefully between the three gifts for the Christ Child
and other kinds of gifts for Christ the King or Chief (symbols of power and
elder hood such as a fly whisk made from tail of a particular animal). For
others age doesn’t matter. A person would lie prostrate in front of even a child
king. In the African tradition it would be very important to give special gifts
to the mother of Jesus.