Monday, December 27, 2010

Blessings of the Christ Child

Creche at our parish, Church of Jesus Christ the Redeemer

Merry Merry Christmas and Blessings of the Christ Child to one and all…

It’s really hard to believe it is Christmas here in East Africa. Off the beaten path it does not –feel– like Christmas. The sun is blazing hot and the humidity is off the chart. An occasional breeze blows by. We sit and swelter. I search for signs of Christmas. Christmas trees? Barren desert. Christmas lights? No electricity. A Christmas toast? Unpotable water. Christmas cards? Illiteracy. Candy canes? Bare cupboards. Christmas parties? Malaria & HIV/AIDS. Christmas presents? Abject poverty.

Living in a predominantly Muslim society in the poorest region of Tanzania, how does one ‘experience' the joy and wonder of Christmas?

On Christmas Eve Earl & I returned from our first vacation in Tanzania. Heading north, we rocked & rolled on a cramped dilapidated bus for more than 9 hours to Dar es Salaam. After taking a few days to take care of personal stuff, we boarded an overcrowded ferry and set sail across the Indian Ocean to the isle of Zanzibar. We spent 3 days in the charming historic city of Stone Town & then 3 days on the northernmost tip at a lovely picturesque beach in Nungwi. Returning to the YMCA in Dar, we spent a few more days in the hustle & bustle of the big sprawling seaport. It was there at the Y that we saw our first Christmas tree! But it was very short, scrawny, artificial and so pathetic and forlorn that it was depressing. Even a Charlie Brown Christmas tree has more charm. Why bother?

Moreover, we would not have known it was Advent except for the Scripture readings at Mass every morning. However, we do celebrate Christmas Eve in a big way at our church. But once you step outside, it’s just another sizzling hot dusty day. Bummer.

Soooooo I was really struck when our best friend, Moris, texted us the “Invitation” that Earl posted below. Yes, I have been invited to Jesus’ birthday party before, but this was the first invitation that suggested you “cleanse your heart beforehand.” In a country where the level of poverty is staggering at 33.6 percent; where the number of poor has increased by 1.3 million*; where most child deaths are due to malaria, pneumonia, diarrhea, malnutrition, low birth weight complications as well as HIV/AIDS; and where about 27.5 per cent of the population is illiterate**—Christmas is celebrated in the HEART. Not with glittery Christmas trees, twinkling Christmas lights & cheery Christmas toasts. Not with corny Christmas cards, red-striped candy canes, late night parties or extravagant presents. Strangers to the rampant consumerism & materialism around the world, Tanzanians know very well the meaning of Christmas. They know where to find the Christ Child on Christmas morn. They do not have to search far and wide. They simply look into the inn of their heart.

Well, it is nearly a year and a half since we landed here in East Africa in July, 2009! WOW!!!

We pray that everyone, especially our dear family and friends, will have a Blessed Christmas and a New Year abundant with God’s graces. May your lives be filled with much love, an abiding peace, an everlasting hope, and abundant joy. Please know that you are ever in our hearts and prayers — for you are greatly missed and deeply loved. ~ Diane

* Household Budget Survey 2007, United Nations Development Program
**Statistics cited from the United Nations Development Program:

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Kadi ya Mwaliko (Invitation Card)

Message received on a Tanzanian mobile phone:
"Familia ya Yusufu na Mariam wa Bethlehem wanapenda kukualika kwenye sherehe ya kuzaliwa mtoto wao mpendwa Yesu itakayo fanyika tarehe 25 mwezi Desemba katika kila moyo wa mkristu ulimwenguni kote. Safisha moyo wako kabla. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year."
Translation: The family of Joseph and Mary of Bethlehem would like to invite you to the celebration of the birth of their dear child Jesus, to take place the 25th of December in the hearts of all Christians everywhere. Cleanse your heart beforehand. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Sending everyone Christmas and new year's greetings from this hot part of the world. - Diane & Earl

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Living (Un)routinely

"Since routine is simply a means of controlling time, Europeans are better at it, and therefore accomplish more in a day, a month, or a year. They pay in monotony. Africans control time less efficiently, but enjoy it more: they pay in stagnation." from The Mottled Lizard, by Elspeth Huxley
The notion of using routine in order to manage time reminds me of the Industrial Revolution, when the factory assembly line took efficient use of time to an extreme. Along with the incredible innovations in making goods we apparently learned to apply the characteristics of rigid order, repetition, and predictability to our own lives, both inside and outside of the workplace. In other words, we learned to make our lives more machine-like, more like a precisely defined, tightly-coupled sequence of steps.

At Old St. Mary's Cathedral in San Francisco the clock tower has a plaque with a verse from the Hebrew Scriptures: "Son, observe the time, and fly from evil. [Ecclesiasticus 4:23]". An ancient Jewish scribe recorded this admonition that time is short and must be spent wisely in pursuit of the good.

More than two thousand years separate these two writers but in my mind there is a kind of common view of time as a precious finite "resource". So this attitude has been around a bit and became intensified with all the material successes of the developed world in modern times.

But we are really talking about two different things here. One is the use of routine as a way to control and manage time. The other is the drive to make good use of it. Those are two different things.

In the past few decades in the U.S. corporate world the former has been relaxed quite a bit. That's partly due to technology such as computers, the Internet, and cell phones. I think it is also due to the accelerated pace of change in the marketplace and in the business world. Being agile, adaptable, and responsive to uncertainty is considered to be an essential advantage. Still, the ability to follow routine is part of our cultural DNA.

My experience so far is that Tanzanians are not terribly fond of creating and following routine. It is something that they learned from their former colonizers, the British, whom they try to emulate in some ways, but not something that they much take to.

Consequently, I have had to learn both to adjust to people not following routine very well Unin my opinion) as well as often tossing it out the window entirely. For instance, on more than one occasion the school has had visitors show up with no warning at all, much less an appointment. I was expected to drop whatever I was doing in order to talk with them or show them around.

Initially, I found this sort of thing annoying and frustrating. Gradually, I've come to develop my ability to respond immediately to whatever comes up and to recognize that in many situations the interruption to my routine simply does not matter. I can pick up where I left off at a later time.


[ Note: in software development the term "routine" roughly means a set sequence of steps that is part of a larger computer program. How apt that is for the most complex and flexible of machines. ]