Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Contemporary Tanzanian Christmas; Olde English Boxing Day

Six weeks ago, the brilliant blossom of flame trees brought splashes of red to the avenues of Moshi.  And like the sudden invasion of holly berries, marching through Northern Hemisphere hedgerows in their shiny red jackets, the sudden flush of scarlet-orange tree canopies heralds the start of the Christmas season here in East Africa.
Flame tree blossom makes East Africans feel Christmassy
Back home, the autumnal leaf-fall creeps south from the Arctic Circle and snow flurries herald the start of a season of cozy nights by the fire followed by frosty mornings scrapping ice from windscreens.  Meanwhile in Moshi, three degrees south of the equator, the temperature is rising and the view from my window suggests another summer’s day.

But that didn’t stop us from experimenting with mulled wine on Christmas Eve.  It required some resourcefulness to track down the ingredients - no-one sells handy kits for mulling with all the ingredients and instructions all together in one over priced box.  But the market had cloves and cinnamon sticks (my Swahili had to rise to the challenge because only the vendors of tourist trinkets speak English), oranges were easy to find (although unfortunately the home grown ones were not yet ripe) and we even turned up bay leaves in a small shop somewhere.

Later, for the first time in their lives, our children hung their stockings by a real fire place with a chimney that a slim Santa could conceivably wriggle his way down.  Yes, I know there is no such thing as a slim Santa, but if you will be picky, there is no such thing as any kind of Santa.  Since the weather is hot, there was no fire in the grate but I suppose our make-believe slim Santa would prefer it that way.
Annie and Fraser and the chimney big enough for a slim Santa
On Christmas day, there was no turkey or Brussels sprouts.  Instead, Christmas dinner was grilled on a friend’s BBQ and was more Antipodean than European.  After consuming an elegant sufficiency, we splashed on insect repellent and chatted on their veranda rather than sinking into a sofa to watch Christmas editions of the soaps or dusted off episodes of Dad’s Army and Blackadder.  And then, overnight, we turned back time.  I’ll tell you about that in a moment but you must bear with me while I digress…

10 years ago in Brunei, as the new expat on the block, it took some time to adjust to the idea of employing house staff.  I have become used to it now, which is not to say that I am no longer capable of doing anything for myself (that has more to do with being married).  I came to realise that although we could wash and iron our own clothes and scrub our own floors, if we did, someone in need of the income would be unemployed.

In Brunei and Bahrain, our staff were economic migrants.  Mostly they came from the Indian sub-continent and were there to carve out a better life for themselves.  Although their salaries seemed modest, they would eventually return home and retire in comfort.
Our gardener with his wife and two daughters
But here, we employ local Tanzanians.  They don’t have the opportunity to go elsewhere and neither is there a generous welfare state to pamper them.  Earning £40 / month as a house maid is a lifeline that they will cling to tenaciously.  If we treated them abusively, they would still work for us, which makes treating them well so much more significant. So we decided to mark Boxing Day in the spirit of days gone by.  We assembled boxes of staple provisions, together with a few treats, and wove our ancient Landcruiser along narrow dirt tracks to visit our servants’ homes.

Our house-girl is the poorest of them all.  We are slowly assembling small fragments of her life history into a coherent picture.  For the moment, it is enough to know that she lives, with her father and teenage daughter, in a one room house measuring barely three metres square and furnished with only a bed, sofa and coffee table.  Along one wall is their kitchen: a paraffin stove and three plastic buckets – one contains water; the others are used to store provisions.  A curtain divides their tiny home in two, separating the sleeping quarters from their ‘front room’.  There is no running water or electricity and they share an outdoor toilet with neighbours.  But each morning she walks some three miles to our home, always arriving on time, always immaculate and always smiling.
Boxing Day visit to our house-girl's family at their home
We had told her we were coming, although we hadn’t told her why, which resulted in a humbling irony: she had prepared a meal for us, even serving meat, which is an expensive luxury.  She told us again how grateful she was for her job and her heartfelt appreciation brought tears to our eyes.  She also told us with frank sincerity that we are always welcome at her home.  I doubt that she has read any Maya Angelou (she can barely write her own name) but she would no doubt agree that ‘among its other benefits, giving liberates the soul of the giver’.

Our house-girl caring for baby Marcus

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All images © Jon Bigg


  1. Thank you for sharing this experience - very inspiring. GiovanniFranco

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