In most ways, Dar es Salaam is a shining beacon of cosmopolitan edginess, full of restless residents chasing the next million shillings, building and building and building. Full of vim and vigour at play, we afford our entertainments the same respect that we give to pursuing prosperity.
This is all the more pronounced around Christmas when offspring and relatives come home to roost, swelling the ranks of the city and delighting restaurateurs and night club owners.
Amid all this contemporary seasonal merriment, there are a few things that manage to raise awkward questions. It all begins with the music.
Radio stations have dusted off their Boney M vinyls and stuck us somewhere near the Rivers of Babylon.
The more daring ones have riffled through their “Best Of” collections by various artists to root out the obligatory Christmas standards covered over the years by the great and Grammy award winning. The truly wild have managed to find the up-tempo Christmas tune where all they want for Christmas is you, in harmony.
But above all that, Jim Reeves is on the air again Dreaming of a White Christmas in the same slow measured tones that he offered last year. And the year before that. And the year before that.
Whoever has cornered the Dar es Salaam market for Christmas music: Your needle is decidedly stuck in the same groove on the record!
A little nostalgia is all well and good, but this much is indicative of something more sinister. Let’s start with Jim Reeves and that White Christmas obsession. And all those songs about reindeer and sleigh bells and Frosty the Snowman.
Of course, a bit of exoticism is always good fun but think of the generations of young Tanzanians — at least three now — who have spent their holidays getting very mixed messages about what the heck this Christmas business was about.
Outside of the obligatory new clothes and church attendance, the rest is a thrillingly incomprehensible collection of rituals.
Let’s talk about those balls of cotton that make up the fake snow, because... seriously? Not to mention our scrawny Santa Clauses in shopping malls sweating through the cruel layers of their costumes. The ones forced to work outside have always appeared particularly tortured to me.
There is something about adopting the traditions of a White Christmas in Dar that brings up questions of form and function.
Luckily, some solace was provided recently by a music teacher who introduced me to a version of the 12 Days of Christmas that features, among other things, five blue Bajaj and a kunguru (crow) in a palm tree. Sounded raucous, and just like home.
Jim Reeves and reindeer are a great metaphor for some of the contradictions in our chosen process of modernisation.
If one-horse open sleighs are exotic in the countries where they used to work in the first place, can you imagine just how much further a Bongolander living below the equator must travel in their imagination to grasp the experience of dashing through the snow?
But we dutifully pay our respects to these rituals nonetheless. Are we so keen on reproducing standardised measures of success that we don’t spend too much time asking the awkward but necessary questions? Where might this habit of emulation take us, eventually?
It struck me this year that there are communities struggling with far darker forms of human poverty than the material challenges of development that face us every day. I can’t help but think of the families that were affected by the recent Connecticut school shootings.
Many of the victims were children who will never get a chance to pester the people around them with questions about the intricate traditions of the holiday season.
That such killings have become frequent in the US bears contemplation, even by those of us living far beyond its physical borders, so long as we insist on sharing Frosty the Snowman as a unification symbol of yuletide.
Underneath the tinsel and the rampant consumerism, the Christmas tradition revolves around family and inspiration.
Great story behind it: A poor young woman who delivers her baby boy with the help of her doubtless terrified husband. This in spite of unsanitary conditions, what with livestock nearby, and the nearest public clinic being, oh, non-existent and the inns being full and whatnot.
I bet that present-day Bethlehem residents can tell us a story or two about 2000 years’ worth of medical advances and social services and safe childbirth.
It would be nice to keep in mind that the story really can be that simple, that local, and frankly that far removed from the clutches of Jim Reeves’ smooth and stubbornly non-tropical crooning from the 1900s.
Elsie Eyakuze is an independent consultant and blogger for The Mikocheni Report, http://mikochenireport.blogspot.com. E-mail: [email protected]