This is without a shadow of a doubt my favourite time of year.
Past Christmases and New Years have seen me dancing until dawn in Amsterdam, drinking champagne on the streets of Coimbra, sledging in Stockholm, having tea with a group of Bedouin women in Petra, visiting Sylvia Plath’s grave in West Yorkshire, raving in a disused warehouse in Battersea, doing the conga in a nightclub in Mumbai, getting engaged to my wonderful husband in Bath, belting out carols at midnight mass with my family, in fact belting out pretty much any song I know, wherever I am, with anyone who’ll sing it with me, has been the leitmotif to most of my festive anecdotes – but this year in Mwanza, Tanzania, my experiences have been very different and have left me feeling a little subdued.
Christmas itself was a bit odd. My husband had acquired a goat for us to eat on Christmas Day, so we would celebrate in a truly Tanzania way. When I say goat, I mean a living, breathing and indeed bleeting goat, which arrived at 7.30am on Christmas Day morning, post Christmas stockings, pre-cup of tea. It was subsequently slaughtered in our garden, roasted on a spit and served up approximately six hours later. The reason this is odd for me is that I was a very strict vegetarian for sixteen years. I could almost hear Morrissey singing the lyrics from Meat is Murder, a song which is still etched on my subconscious: “Heifer whines, must be human cries, closer comes the screaming knife. This beautiful creature must die, this beautiful creature must die, a death for no reason and death for no reason is murder.” And there it was, the voice from my teenage years berating me, ‘What are you doing? You should not be eating meat. You must repent and return to the world of vegetables, beans and pulses‘. Incidentally I had no goat on that day and have been off meat ever since.
Anyway, back to Christmas day – we invited the family who live next door to join us and many of the auxiliary workers from the school we teach in and everybody had a wonderful day (apart from the goat), with plenty of Tanzanian food and way too much of the Tanzanian tipple Konyagi. It was a great mix of people and in true festive fashion the evening ended with me singing random songs including a medley of the songs from Joseph and his Technicolour Dreamcoat.
My next Christmas experience has left me feeling very humble and once again posing philosophical questions. Our Tanzanian house worker Caroline had invited us to her house to share a special meal. So at one o’clock on 28th December, Carolina’s daughter, Prexida, came to collect us. She led us out the back of our house, and we scurried across scrub ground, and up rocks for about 5 minutes, until we reached this tiny white house, perched high on a hill over-looking the whole of Mwanza, where Carolina met us with a huge smile and said, “Karibu sana” (welcome).
The house in which she lived was divided into three small rooms, all of which amounted to about the size of an average kitchen. There was no electricity, no running water, no toilet, no oven – food is cooked on charcoal on the stones outside and water carried up the aforementioned rocks in a bucket on people’s heads (Carolina is a grandmother!). My husband, three children and myself sat in awe of both her and her family as they shared with us a typical Tanzanian feast of rice, beef, beans, vegetables and chapattis. The only redeeming feature of this humbling experience was that I had brought with me a huge chocolate cake, which was shared out and was given the international symbol of the thumbs up from everyone. I felt so happy that she had invited us and that she wanted to cook for us, but when we returned to our huge muzungu (white person) house, I sat down and just stared at all our possessions, food and stuff… and I still don’t know what to say, write or think. I feel simultaneously lucky and greedy and that many things in society are just wrong.
So then on to the revelry of New Year’s Eve. I was ready to have a good old family knees up this year, but unfortunately, December 31st this year consisted of me contracting Typhoid. Thanks to some infected insect bites, I had become riddled with bacterium salmonella enterica. I spent the 29th alone in hospital with swollen glands, shivering with a high fever being tested for various tropical diseases and was given some very painful injections. Then lay in bed for most of the 30th and 31st pumped full of antibiotics and painkillers feeling bilious, dizzy and very cheesed off. However, Typhoid Mary (as I like to call myself now) made it to midnight on New Year’s Eve and as the fireworks went off and the vuvuzellas piped up on the streets of Mwanza I sat with darling husband, children and animals and clutching my lemsip felt a bit poorly, but very content. Happy New Year from Tanzania!
In the meantime, here are a few photographs, paintings and sketches from previous Christmases and New Year’s Eves.