What Christmas in Africa taught me

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I have a confession to make: I’m not a huge ‘Christmas-lover’. I used to be. But a lot of things changed for me between 2006-2009, including the passing of my grandma with whom some of my greatest Christmas memories lay, and whom I most greatly associated Christmas Days. Grief changes things as well as people.

I also spent 5 months living in a small village in Tanzania Africa, where I spent Christmas 2008.

That forever changed the meaning of, and my perspective on, Christmas.

There is no way you can spend Christmas Day with 100 African orphans, see their joy and their excitement at receiving notebooks and lead pencils ready for the next year of school, and feel the same way again about Christmas in a developed country, like Australia. There is no way you can watch them get SO excited over ONE piece of candy, and ONE bottle of soda (soft drink, pop) and not think twice about what you buy as gifts back home.

My sister and I have both lived in Africa, so as a family, we have massively scaled back Christmas. We aren’t “anti-consumerism” or “anti-Christmas”, but we most definitely do not go overboard with gifts – for children or adults. Having seen a child play happily for hours with a soda bottle top, or kids playing “knuckles” with pebbles, or balls them have made themselves out of leaves and scraps of material… it makes it hard to see a child receive a dozens of presents, most of which will get played with for a few weeks and then broken or forgotten.

The biggest Christmas surprise I got in 2008 was the lessons I learned, and the way my whole understanding of the world and humanity changed by spending Christmas with some of the poorest children & people in the world. I came home from Tanzania a different person, as did my sister and the friends who spent time there with us.

Christmas day for us in Tanzania was all about community; we spent 3 hours at Church, because faith is important to the community we were visiting. We walked for miles to get there, and miles home, in humidity rivalling any other place I’ve visited. We came back to the orphanage compound to have lunch: rice, beans, vegetables, ugali (maize flour & water mixture). We treated the children and mama’s to Soda (coke, fanta) which is an extra special treat. We had after lunch naps with the nursery aged children, and then it was present time.

Presents were school supplies for the next year at school, underwear, and some candy. These kids were so unbelievably excited to receive these presents. It was pure joy and excitement like I had never seen before. It brought me to tears. The gratitude, the way pencils and new notebooks were beyond their wildest expectations.

You can’t erase those memories.

That Christmas in Tanzania, playing in the dust and dirt, eating rice and beans, and drinking warm soda, with what seemed to be the most grateful and joy-filled children in the entire world… You just can’t forget it.

I can home from Tanzania with a new understanding of life. I learned what joy really looked like; I learned what sacrifice looked like; I learned what “blessed” really meant. And I learned that the most important things in life begin with F: family, friends, faith, food… oh and water, sorry it doesn’t start with f.

We left our families for one Christmas so that we could bring some love and care to the children we were with; but we had family to come home to – most of these children were orphans due to the HIV/AIDS crisis, and other preventable and curable diseases (e.g TB, Malaria).

The children became each others’ family as well as their friends. And faith really did mean the world to them. Losing so much, having so little… their God was a big part of what kept them going.

Food is an obvious one. We are so spoiled for choice in the western world, the idea of eating a turkey or ham, having pudding and cake would never even cross the minds of those children.

11 years down the road, it still feels like yesterday, walking along with dirt between my toes, sweat dripping down my back, waiting to walk through the big red doors of the orphanage to be greeted by children climbing in a tree, others studying, washing their clothes, or playing soccer with a half deflated ball.

I will never wake up on a Christmas morning without remembering those little faces, the cuddles, the smiles and the “asante, thank you” and “I love you Mi-selly” that I was blessed to experience for Christmas ’08.

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