Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
This is the first year I’ve been away from home for Thanksgiving and Christmas. My thoughts have been with my family and friends at home even while my body has been here. Leading up to the 25th, the heavy heat of Dar es Salaam pushed the holidays to the back of my mind. When I heard Christmas songs in the market at Mwenge I wondered why anyone would play those songs at this time of year. It felt strange to hum “The First Noel” while sweating and burning under the harsh equatorial sun.
I had class and work on Christmas Eve. My professor brought toffees and then lectured on the importance of social capital for three hours. I stayed in the Tujijenge office until 7:30 pm. My coworkers played carols while they plugged away at the never-ending task of accounting in a microfinance institution. I loaded Kiva borrower profiles and worked on a client exit survey. But the small Christmas tree in our office was bright with tinsel and lights, and we passed chocolates and chips around as we worked. That night I went to sleep early, thinking of my family’s Christmas Eve party and the yearly tradition of lighting dozens of candles throughout the house at seven o’clock sharp, followed by a champagne toast.
On Christmas morning I awoke to a new sound: a chicken clucking. Passing through our small living room and into the outdoor kitchen, laundry and bathroom area, I found the new addition to the household. She was pecking around the dirt floor on a lame left leg, the claws curled around each other. My little brothers Victor and Junior chased her around as she darted between kangas hanging from the laundry lines. “Krismasi njema!” they shouted to me. It was a lovely scene. After a quick shower I went back to the room that I share with Flora, my house sister, Bahati, the house “dada” (sister) who lives with the family and helps with cooking and cleaning, and Alia, my Russian/Swedish friend who I stayed with in Gonga la mboto for my first month in Tanzania. I heard my two-year-old little sister Glory pass by the room, babbling to herself. A few minutes later loud squawks from the chicken and wails from Glory brought me back outside. My new poultry friend was one step closer to being served as Christmas dinner, Michael (yet another of my host brothers) bent over her with a long knife. I hurried back inside.
At nine thirty, Michael, who is fourteen and usually lives in Tanga with an uncle while he goes to secondary school, knocked on my door. “Kanisa,” he said. Church. My host family are Catholic, and we live in a compound called Msimbazi Center, which is owned by the Catholic church. Inside the gates there are several canteens, a hospital, a religious book store, an internet cafe, two hostels, an orphanage and a dispensary, several houses, and a large white church with the Virgin Mary carved over the doors. I had not yet been to church with the family, but every day I pass many nuns who live and worship at the Center and I listen to several choir groups practicing hymns every time I walk home. My host mother Mary takes the children to church every Sunday, and my host father Chrisantus crosses himself before every meal, but the religious environment is understated and their devotion private. Unlike my experience last time I came to Tanzania and lived with a family of Jehovah’s witnesses, I have not been questioned as to my religious beliefs or taken to church. Mary and Chrisantus and the younger children had gone to the midnight Mass the night before, Flora had to work on Christmas Day, and Geofrey (my host brother and Alia’s boyfriend) was still sleeping, so Michael, who is fourteen, and I set off alone. He wove the rosary beads around his neck between his fingers as we walked in silence. In Kiswahili, I asked him if he goes to church every Sunday. “Yes,” he said, and we continued. He’s not very talkative.
When we got to the church he walked away from me without a word and went to sit with the men. All of the women were seated on the left side of the church, and the men were on the other side. The young boys, however, stayed with their mothers. The service was held entirely in Kiswahili. I followed suit as the congregation got to their knees, or stood, or swayed to the music, or proceeded to the front of the hall for offerings throughout the Mass. At one point, we all shook hands with the people standing around us. Many of the young girls had beads woven into their braids and crisp, bright dresses that looked freshly pressed. Before the service ended I slipped out of the side door with the girls sitting near me. We sat in the grass outside of the church and listened as the last songs were sung.
In the afternoon I went to Upanga to have dinner with Anand and Lydia, the two other Rotary Ambassadorial Scholars in Dar es Salaam. Alia, Geofrey, and Victor met up with us later. Also at the apartment were Peace, Rita and Julia, three Ugandan students at the University of Dar es Salaam who couldn’t make it home for the holidays, and Christine, Anna, and Dan, three American students also at UDSM. We cooked a truly international meal: lasagna, Ugandan beef stew and rice, mashed potatoes, corn, and Indian-style chicken. Paired with boxed wine, Kilimanjaro beer, and Raha, a banana beer brewed in Arusha, Tanzania, we ate until we could eat no more, played card games, danced, looked in vain for Christmas movies on TV, and made merry ’til late in the night.
There was no Santa this year, no stockings or red and green wrapping paper, no eggnog or Christmas ham. But there was love, friendship, and kindness to go around. It was everything I needed.
As I went to sleep I thought of an Irish song called “The Parting Glass.” Here are the lyrics…
“Of all the money that e’er we had, we spent it in good company.
Of all the harm that e’er we done alas was done to none but me.
And all we’ve done for want of wit, to memory now we can’t recall.
So fill us to the parting glass. Goodnight and joy be with you all.
Of all the comrades that ere we had, they’re sorry for our going away,
And of all the sweethearts that ere we had , they wish us one more day to stay,
But since it falls unto our lot that we should rise while you should not,
We will gently rise and softly call, “Goodnight and joy be with you all!”
Oh, if we had money enough to spend and leisure time to sit awhile
There is a fair maid in this town that sorely has our hearts beguiled
Her rosy cheeks and ruby lips, she alone has our hearts in thrall.
So fill us to the parting glass. Goodnight and joy be with you all.”