This was my first Christmas away from my family, so I missed them and our holiday traditions (and the NH snow!) a lot, but I’m still thankful I was able to spend Christmas in Uganda. Experiencing Christmas here gave me a new perspective and appreciation for the celebration of Jesus’ birth.
CVI closes for two weeks during the holidays, and most of the girls go home to their families. However, none of the South Sudanese girls were able to go home because their families are either in a refugee camp, in a war zone in South Sudan, missing, or dead. Although I was sad I couldn’t go home to my family and even shed tears on several occasions, the South Sudanese girls’ situation made me realize how blessed I am to have a complete family that I know I’ll eventually return to. Many of these girls don’t know where their family members are or if they’re even alive. The girls were all sad they would be spending Christmas without their families, so I thanked the Lord for my family and asked Him to help us celebrate this holiday together as a CVI family and that it would be fun for the girls.
We all stayed at the CVI office in Gulu—the bottom floor is a guest house, so the girls packed the floor with mattresses. The walled compound has a small grassy area where we played lots of volleyball and badminton. The girls would sit outside and plait one another’s hair, so they would all look their best for Christmas.
One morning, I taught the girls how to make paper snowflakes—they were quite creative! We also got a tree (well, more like a large branch) and decorated it! Ugandans use cyprus trees and love to decorate with balloons. One of the girls constantly listened to the radio, and sometimes a spontaneous dance party would start when a good song came on.
As usual, the kids were adorable and loved to be cuddled or tickled. We watched Home Alone and other movies (video shops selling insanely cheap pirated movies and music are everywhere in Uganda).
When everyone was sick of beans, I went to the market and got ingredients for mandazi (basically fried bread). It was so much fun to make and eat this special treat together. The girls and their children love having their pictures taken, so we spent hours on a Christmas photo shoot. It was so funny to watch them pose and goof off in front of the Christmas tree—some of them are quite the actresses. Some wanted to look very smart because most Ugandans and South Sudanese rarely get pictures taken and only on special occasions (although more and more people are getting smart phones now). The girls bathed themselves and their children, rubbed oil on the kids’ heads, and dressed up in their best clothes. The pictures were pretty adorable!
Earlier in the week, I had the chance to watch the Watoto Church Christmas Cantata. From African drums, to shadow art, to hip hop, to traditional Christmas carols, it used a range of culture and art forms to tell the story of Jesus’ birth. It was a masterful production and reminded me of my church’s cantata in America.
On Christmas Day, we were planning to go to prayers at 8 o’clock, but getting 14 girls and 13 children fed, bathed, dressed, and in the van is no easy task! We ended up going to the 10 am service (which actually started after 10:30), but I didn’t realize it was entirely in Acholi. The South Sudanese girls (who speak Arabic and English) and I sat for 3 hours dripping in sweat without understanding a word. Nevertheless, I’m glad we could go to church to worship God, and the songs were quite lively with a lot of dancing. After church, I visited my Ugandan friend Maureen (see my previous post “Sundays with Maureen”) and her family. When I arrived, they were sitting outside on a grass mat playing a card game (called “Cards”), so I sat down, and they taught me how to play. I really enjoyed it because my family always plays games together at Christmas. Later, Maureen invited me to help her cook the Irish chips (fried potato strips). As we sat huddled over a charcoal stove in an unventilated room, I forgot about the sweat dripping down my back as she told me how she’d suffered two miscarriages because of incompetent nurses. As she talked of the physical and emotional trauma, I was thankful she trusted me with her story. In Uganda, a woman without children is often ridiculed, but thankfully Maureen’s husband and his family are understanding and supportive. When all the Irish were cooked, we sat down to enjoy each other’s company and a special Christmas meal of goat, chicken, rice, Irish chips, and soda.
When I returned to the CVI office, the girls greeted me with enthusiastic hugs and immediately recruited me into a badminton match. Later, I gave them each a small candy and a photo of themselves with a note I’d written on the back. I was amazed how excited and thankful they were for such a small gift. After dinner, (which was beef—not posho and beans!) I sat with a few of the girls in the cool of the evening breeze, and we talked. We shared deep thoughts and laughed about funny moments, and I felt like we were a family.
I received my own unexpected Christmas gift later that night when I tried to call my family. The Internet had been down all day, but right when my sister called me on video chat, the Internet suddenly started working! We were able to talk and see each other and share about our different Christmases. Soon after we said goodbye, the Internet stopped working again. I don’t understand it, but I was so thankful for my Christmas miracle.
Christmas in Uganda was different in many ways from my usual Christmas in America—rather than near freezing temperatures, I was in near 100° heat. There were no ornately decorated gingerbread houses, red-suited Santa Clauses, or delicious eggnog. Christmas in Uganda is much less materialistic than in the US, so the things that truly matter, such as worshiping Jesus and spending time with family and friends are more evident. Most Ugandans travel back to their home villages for Christmas to be with family. I asked many Ugandans what they did for Christmas, and they all said eat meat, go to prayers (church), spend time with family, and buy clothes (pronounced clotheses).
Until now, I never realized why the little Haitian girl who’s my pen pal got so excited when all she got for Christmas was new school shoes. I always thought, “Why doesn’t she ask for toys?” But after living in Uganda for 3 months and especially after spending this last week with the girls in the office, I can understand my pen pal and the thousands of other children like her. When you have nothing; when you can’t afford to eat anything else other than beans six days a week; when you only have a few pairs of clothes that you wear over and over, then you are excited to receive a new pair of shoes so you can look smart. This Christmas, I realized I was happy to just spend the day surrounded by people who love me and that I didn’t have to eat posho or beans all day!