The Year I Spent Christmas in Tanzania
For most, the idea of spending a Christmas away from home can be a bittersweet one. Taking a destination trip during the holidays has become an increasingly popular idea, but for those of us who grew up with Canadian winters, there’s something slightly off-putting about an above-zero Christmas. The holidays are most commonly a time for the comforts of home, so when we’re faced with being somewhere completely different, perhaps with people we don’t know well, Christmas can seem a little daunting.
This was my original line of thought when I arrived in Tanzania in November 2012. I had come to Mbeya, the capital of a rural region in the southwest part of the country, to work with local nonprofit The Olive Branch for Children. This grassroots organization runs education, health, food security and microfinance programming throughout 15+ villages in the Mbarali District, a primarily rural area in western Tanzania. Though I knew when I planned my three-month stay I would be spending the holidays in Tanzania, I had no idea what to expect.
On Christmas morning, I awoke to the familiar sound of little feet pitter-pattering down the hall of the Zion Home, an orphanage where staff and volunteers often stayed when we were not working in the rural communities. Children’s giggles and eager discussion of presents filled the air, and I knew immediately that Christmas had arrived.
Somehow, the organization had managed to scrounge up a plastic Christmas tree, which the children had eagerly decorated. Below the tree a pile of gifts were waiting, each one with a different name. Along with staff and volunteers, I had spent the previous evening wrapping these small gifts, many donated items such as toys or school supplies. Once children from a second orphanage had arrived, the children were free to rip open their gifts, much to their delight. Smiles and laughter abounded.
A traditional Christmas…BBQ?
While the traditional turkey was not an option here and the home did not have an oven, a Christmas feast was still very much in order. After weeks of searching for local farmers who could provide the necessary materials and the generosity of donors who contributed to the day’s festivities, we had ended up with a large bucket of chicken wings, drumsticks and several racks of pork ribs (a very special treat indeed!).
Digging out a hole in the large yard, we created an in-ground barbecue, and soon the familiar aroma of roasting meat filled the air. Together, children, staff and volunteers gathered to share a special meal; eating, talking and laughing as any family would.
In the evening, one of the volunteers organized a small service, where the group gathered to sing Christmas carols and talk about the meaning of the holiday. While several religious backgrounds were represented, the discussion focused not on traditional tales, but rather the importance of generosity, kindness, sharing and caring for others. The service concluded with a candle lighting and a final song. Each child sang along in beautiful melody.
No sign of homesickness
In reflecting on the holiday in the days that proceeded, I realized that what I had experienced of Christmas in Tanzania wasn’t nearly as different as I had expected. Sure, no signs of winter could be found in the 30-degree heat and sharing a meal with 50 children and a dozen staff and volunteers was a slightly different gathering than I’m used to, but the spirit of the season was exactly the same. I had anticipated a degree of homesickness, but instead – to my pleasant surprise – I couldn’t have felt more at home.
To find out more about the incredible work being done by The Olive Branch for Children, visit their website: www.theolivebranchforchildren.org.