A Zanzibar Christmas


Some Christmas you may wake up beneath a mosquito net which did a poor job protecting you the previous night, already sweating and marveling that the hair you washed 12 hours ago is still not dry due to hanging humidity.  The basic room you are sharing has a gaudy orange linoleum tile and the formula for flushing the toilet has not yet been achieved.  But, it is on the beach.  In Zanzibar off the mainland of Tanzania.  In the insanely beautiful Indian Ocean.  It’s postcard perfect.

Christmas Eve we cooked a meal in a filthy kitchen battling man-eating spiders, cockroaches, and even a snake which hopped into Ted’s backpack.  The girls were mostly severely sunburned and homesick but calmed as we read the familiar Christ stories and sang the old carols (and passed around the eggnog and wine).
Mary and I were fighting colds, my ankles had mysteriously swollen to the size of a woman’s twice my size, and we had been traveling without sleep for over two days.  We tried to make the most of our 16 hour layover exploring Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and slept on benches outside of the Dar Es Salaam airport, waking up sticky, bitten, fatigued, and sore.  Several taxis and a ferry ride to Zanzibar later we realized we were not sufficiently prepped with how to locate our friends once we arrived on the island.  This led to hours of stressful scavenger-hunt style detective work to locate our friends-acting-as-family on Christmas Eve–when all I wanted was to shower the sweat and grime away and lay down for the first time in two days.
Our group is good, actually quite good, despite crankiness and wanting to be at home with our families which leaves us feeling guilty because we are spending the holiday in such a beautiful, exotic place.  There are seven incredible, intelligent, well-read, thinking, independent, beautiful, ambitious girls–and our dear brother, Ted, who has been a good sport 🙂  It is a joy to be in a group of women so accepting, edifying, feminine, yet also living their passions unapologetically in Africa and staying calm when a rat appears in the bathroom at 5am (TRUE STORY).
How much of Christmas’ identity for me is wrapped in snow, fireplaces, ugly sweater parties, movies, and holiday rush with a Christmas soundtrack on repeat?  Without a Western calendar ticking away in the background, I would have had little reminder that Christmas was approaching.  Christmas Eve I sat sweating on a mattress on our rented porch overlooking the beach with six other American “orphaned” twentysomethings-in-Africa reading the Luke Christmas story, passing around the Bible and eggnog by flashlight.  I identified with the holy family’s struggle, dirt, loneliness, foreign-ness.  The actual first Christmas seems closer to life in Africa than the cozy, clean comforts of home.  I bet Joseph probably killed a few snakes and spiders in that stable, and was it really winter time?  Maybe they were sweaty and sunburned and I bet Mary’s feet swelled even more than mine.
While searching for our friends, Mary and I commented that we felt like Mary and Joseph facing no rooms in the inn, just dying to bathe and lay down after a multi-day journey.  The dirt and my lack of comfort make my pine for the dear, familiar three-bedroom ranch of my childhood with roaring fire, cozy bed, and ‘perfectly sized’ Christmas tree as the backdrop to my loved ones’ perennial jokes, movies, games, and the only day all year that we spend the entire day at home just the four of us.
Christ entered into a mean world of discomfort, poverty, young parents wringing their hands at what to do to protect their son and I am sure they just wanted sleep as an unusual crowd of characters walked in off the streets.  It wasn’t cozy or clean or sanitary–and imagine the blood and the smell.  Childbirth is one thing.  With a clumsy husband, no mom or midwife.  Was she scared?  Did she have any more signs or communication that this was a special baby?  Maybe she was beginning to doubt the angel’s proclamation that this was actually good news.  Certainly the Favored of the Most High wouldn’t have to give birth to God in such conditions.  Certainly God’s son wouldn’t transcend to His creation in such a humiliating way.  The will of God can seem meandering, confusing, and meaningless as you wander through miserable circumstances.  Give us faith to trust You, even when it seems we have lost Your guiding path.  “Surely God’s will wouldn’t look like this.  Surely I am supposed to be healthy, happy, wise, and comfortable… surely…surely…

About nataliemma

This blog [infrequently] documented my work as a structural transformation design fellow with International Justice Mission's Uganda field office. I spent two months researching in Washington DC before deploying to Uganda to design structural recommendations in line with IJM's mission of providing improved access to and distribution of justice to the world's global poor through local public justice systems. I'm a Mizzou grad, St. Louis native, and MBA with five years of operations experience in finance.

5 responses »

  1. Thank you dear friend for speaking to my heart yet again. Thank you for reminding me that God does have a plan, although most of the time I do not understand the reason behind it or even see the path he is leading me down. I appreciate and admire your faith…. and love you so.

  2. i had been wondering how everything panned out. i like those precious moments that we so rarely experience with much clarity when we feel our situation isn’t what we expected, yet they remind us of the will of God and how powerful yet subtle it can be.

  3. A wonderful blog to remind us what it really must of been like- not our warm cosy family room laden with presents and christmas traditions we all have. Christ entry was quite different but all the more richer in beauty and God’s grace and presence. Have a wonderful 2012 missed you this new years day!

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