Saturday, January 14, 2012

Christmas in Tanzania

The holidays are usually the time when anyone doing Peace Corps starts to feel homesick.  It usually reminds them of their family, friends, food, traditions, the things that make the holidays feel like the holidays.  For me, I have missed two Christmases while living in Japan and know it’s lonely.  The difference of living in Tanzania however, is that December is a summer month. So, as Christmas was coming closer and closer, it just never felt like Christmas because well, it was sunny and beautiful.  It’s not like I heard Christmas music or saw Christmas lights.  There were very few times that I realized it actually was the holiday season.  Jon and I were invited to two homes of other volunteers for Christmas.  However, we decided that we really wanted to just spend the day between us.  We are a family, after all.  To get us in the holiday spirit, we watched as many Christmas movies as our computer battery would allow.  We used most of the battery on Christmas Eve and a lot of it on Christmas day.  We watched Home Alone, Elf, Charlie Brown Christmas (Jon’s first time seeing it!), Love Actually, and Harry Potter, The Deathly Hallows Part 1 (not Christmas, but we’ve been dying to watch it).  This made it feel more like Christmas to us.  On Christmas day, we had a big egg and fruit breakfast like we do at my house and then we opened the packages and stockings that people had sent to us for Christmas.  My cousins sent us a mini Christmas tree, so we put all the packages around the Christmas tree.

I have also received a lot of curiosity as to what Christian Tanzanians do for Christmas.  We spent most of the afternoon with our Christian neighbors.  On Christmas, they spend most of the morning in church and then they go home for a big meal together.  We ate pilau which is spiced rice dish with them.  The spices include cumin, pepper, cinnamon, cardamom, and cloves.  Jon was served chicken (grown and killed by our neighbors), and I ate the pilau with avocado, bananas, and kichimbari which is a salad with tomatoes, onions, lemon juice, and salt.  Then, they just relax together until they go back to church again towards the evening.  I was told that in other parts of Tanzania, many Christians will go to the beach to celebrate or do something fun together as a family.  However, in our village, there is nothing to do really, so the Tanzanians just attend church, eat their meal together, and pumzika or relax.
I have to admit that I did feel a little homesick around dinner time.  Even though I got through the holiday season, Christmas Eve and most of Christmas day just fine, there was still a part of me that longed to be with my whole family. 
A goal of Peace Corps is for the volunteers to share our culture with Tanzanians.  Jon and I thought that Christmas traditions in America would seem interesting to our Christian neighbors.  That it was.  First of all, when you start explaining about Christmas beliefs in America and many other Westernized countries, you start to realize how ridiculous you sound.  We started explaining about Santa Claus.  Imagine this:  we bring our children to a place where many things are sold and they sit on a strange man’s lap and our children tell that strange man what they want.  Of course, only if you are good will the children receive what they want.  If they were bad, they receive “charcoal”.  Our neighbor then asks, well where do all the presents come from?  We explained that the children believe Santa Claus brings them but really the parents just buy them.  We then began to explain about Santa’s sleigh (a sleigh is really hard to explain to a person who has never seen snow) and that he has flying animals (no, not birds, animals that look like impalas, sort of) that fly him from roof to roof.  Our neighbor then asks, but how could children believe that he can go to every house in one night?  Then, we laugh and say yes, it is ridiculous to believe.  To increase our children’s belief, we even leave out milk and cookies and the parents will eat them to convince children that Santa is real.  At which point, our Christian neighbor cannot see the connection of this and the birth of Jesus and we realize how ridiculous we must sound.  Our conversation then turned into American superstitions. 
So, I think that Christmas in Tanzania is what many Christians in America believe it should be – a simple celebration of the birth of Jesus with time spent together with family.  We gave our neighbor’s small Christmas gifts and I think we did a great cultural exchange with them even though they now think that American Christmas is very bizarre.

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