I dreamed of snow for Christmas, but the only white thing in Mfuba was me.
I spent the holiday in the vil’ this year, soaking up a lot of ubwali and our first decent rains in two weeks.
Nothing too exciting happened. Gift-giving isn’t big, since no one has much money, especially this time of year. Ditto big holiday feasts.
A small minority of my neighbors went to the Catholic church midmorning. Some of them stopped by my place on their way to or from church, including some young girls who wanted to drum and dance.
The rest split about evenly into two camps: those who went and worked in their fields all day, just as they do every day this time of year, and those who got themselves stumbling drunk.
The latter started last night. As I was sitting in the cozy bubble of the Mutales’ nsaka, eating a Christmas Eve dinner of ubwali, beans, caterpillars, and wild mushrooms, the partying was just beginning. Men and women alike stayed up ’til all hours, drumming and dancing and drinking. They woke me up twice in the night, singing-shouting-stumbling their way home on the path that runs past my yard.
All we did in our small corner of Mfuba was help Boyd begin studying for his Grade 7 exams, tell stories, and debate the relative importance of Christmas, Christmas Eve, and New Year’s Eve. (In my American family, Christmas Eve reigns supreme.)
I learned that many Bembas, Ba Bernardi and Ba Allan included, consider New Year’s to be a bigger, more exciting holiday than Christmas. Neither of their families killed a chicken for Christmas, but both plan to for New Year’s Eve.
Many people also make New Year’s resolutions, including Ba Allan. But not Ba Agatha or Ba Bernardi. “I changed once a long time ago,” Agatha joked. “I’m done changing.”
Our biggest Christmas Eve excitement was eating freshly fried ifitumbua, which their oldest daughter, Brenda, made for the holiday.
Up until this point, my Christmas Eve had been slightly frantic, as I tried to get everything done before I left for my last Peace Corps-sponsored vacation on the 26th. (Somewhere in between the drunks and the workers, I stayed sober but refused to work on Christmas Day, aside from my usual household chores.)
On Christmas Eve I’d had two separate meetings with farmers, then found myself planting the last of my seedlings in the rain at 5 p.m. I was grateful for getting soaked, though. The soil had previously been too dry to transplant my tiny, nitrogen-fixing gliricidia trees.
My most crucial pre-holiday projects finished, I spent Christmas morning on my porch, making a ton of banana bread (aka, “cake”) with Boke, Joyi, and Allan Jr., then handing out small portions to any child who came by.
I also used Christmas as an excuse to unload some of the empty peanut butter, honey, and cooking oil bottles I’d been hoarding. I let all the kids with whom I’m close choose their own gift: either a container or 12 bottle caps, which I’d biked in from the PC house in Kasama, knowing there weren’t enough containers to go around.
With just one exception, every boy chose the bottle caps – to play a board game called “Solo” or “Drafts” – and every girl chose a container, then promptly gave it to her mother to use. (Doro was the lone exception. She took the bottle caps.)
When things started to get out of hand with the dozen kids present, it was the perfect time to bike to my cell reception spot to call my brothers and friends in the States.
That was when I got rained on for the second time in two days. This time, happily, it was an actual storm. But I was prepared. I put on my rain jacket and huddled under my too-small umbrella with the phone pressed close to my ear as the rain came down and the road turned into a river.
I finished my calls just as the rain was letting up, then biked back home. Then, legs covered in mud, I wrapped up my holiday with one more shared ubwali meal (at Ba Allan’s) and the delivery of more banana bread to families whose kids had missed out this afternoon.
And that was it. Possibly my most uneventful Christmas ever. But in the land of unpredictability, I consider that a day well spent.