I grew up in the 1980s to parents whose social consciousness made Christmas a loving chore. December meant travelling to the economically struggling homesteads to give away every single possession we had carried to extended family members, who were not shy about taking things like underwear and toothbrushes. It meant jiggers, dodging drunk uncles and sitting through interminable midnight masses, where those same drunk uncles would shout disruptive retorts at the priest.
Of course, I grew up to be an agnostic. Christmas became commercial by the 1990s, which irritated me and, by the 2000s, I was an experienced Grinch. Agnosticism is very good for this. People try to fight atheists whereas agnostics get left alone because we are confusingly apathetic or we happily purport to accept everything as a possible truth. This has enabled me to endure the Christmas “cheer” while waiting for the bacchanal of New Year’s, which is the true celebration. Another calendar year done.
So, why did I just spend the afternoon shopping for decorative lights and baubles instead of penning a political column about something pertinent? Because, to my surprise, I have discovered happiness. A couple of weeks ago, on a drive, we passed through a neighbourhood we used to live in and started pointing out the changes. Shops whose owners would never bake the best lemon muffins in Dar ever again are still running. Family friends who are widows have learnt to smile, memories of booming laughter silenced bring up occasions, not only grief. Time has passed. That place where we celebrated that one journalist now living in self-exile is gone, replaced by something shiny and new. I have “grandchildren,” thanks to the family and friends who were kind enough to have my various cousins, nieces and nephews early.
The shops are no longer hiding their wares. We have learnt a thing or two about self-control: This year’s decorations are minimal and tasteful. A few years ago, decorations were minimal and sad — the upgrade is noted with gratitude. Nobody’s got time or energy or money to fake exuberance. Instead, the City is relaxed and the friends whom we tease about having to enact the Ritual of Return to their homesteads are laughing along with us rather than covering their teeth in shame at not affording it.
I am happy because there is a little water trickling out of the taps, which we can drink. I know there are children in London and New York who will not be getting Santa’s gifts this year, let alone warm clothes, or three nutritious meals a day. I know that happiness is in the very small things: The exact sound of a giggling baby, five minutes saved because the road is paved. Certainly, the sheer luxury of complaining about the heat while waiting for our mangoes to ripen without being stolen by vervet monkeys puts it all in perspective. This is Christmas in Dar es Salaam. I hope you are somewhere safe, and have peace, maybe even contentment, and that you anticipate, not dread midnight, December 31.
Elsie Eyakuze is an independent consultant and blogger for The Mikocheni Report; Email [email protected]