Sunday, December 20, 2015

the (Un)expected Quietness of an African Pre-Christmas

Before December arrived, the author heard from multiple sources of the supposed madness of a lengthy Christmas season in this piece of African outback.  There will be non-stop Christmas music blasting from every home from December to February, they said.  All the bus tickets will be much more expensive because everyone will be traveling home, they said.  And the whole country will all the sudden become a much more festive place, they said.  Exaggeration, without a doubt, but even taken with a grain of salt, such words can be credited for heightened excitements in some boredom.

Well, the talks about a festive Christmas season is now in the process of verification as the Big Day is now only a mere five days away.  Some homes are indeed playing up those classic English Christmas songs, and some shops waste no time in putting those plastic Christmas trees up for sale by the street side.  But aside from that, the general relaxed pace of the people and the town itself remain unchanged.  There is no frantic movement of people in or out of the inter-city bus stands, nor are there evidence of big parties or shopping sprees to mark the celebrations.

Just like the perpetually balmy weather, the thoughts on the local people's minds do not seem to differ.  The townsfolk judge with envy the few guys that are afforded lengthy paid vacations from their stable formal jobs in the international NGO sector.  The dearth of that very luxury of getting paid while not working is a constant worry that justifiably detract from any delight in celebrating Christmas.  The worry is only exacerbated by the fact that Christmas here, like anywhere else, ought to be accompanied by gifts, decorations, and all the corresponding financial expenditures.

The rural folks have their worries just like their urban counterparts, just slightly different in nature.  The rains are supposed to initiate the farming season by now, but El Nino seems to bring less of the falling waters so essential in getting the fields in the right conditions for cultivation.  As such, waiting for the rain would take much greater precedence over any festivities planning scheduled for Christmas.  It is only unfortunate that in this part of Tanzania, the beginning of planting time often overlap with the end-of-the-year holidays, so much so that the customs of the locale probably stopped emphasizing big celebrations long ago.

But then again, even if large celebrations are the norm, it is highly doubtful that much resources can be devoted to the make them extravagant.  Whether it be the Christians celebrating Christmas or the Muslims celebrating Eid, gift-giving to the extreme has become a commercial norm in other parts of the world.  No consumerist environment has yet to become rooted here.  There are no shops advertising Christmas sales, no advertising pushing for the latest gadgets in time for holidays, and no restaurants coming up with holiday family feasts, whether dine-in or take-away.

Heck, even that venerable tradition of getting the whole family together for that new blockbuster release is completely unknown.  When one cuts out all the commercial hooplahs that inundate every corner of public and private spaces, Christmas (and Eid, or any other major holiday, including strictly commercial ones) become just a quiet extended holidays for one to relax and unwind.  And the resulting quietness is all the more worthy of cherishing, as there are none of the holiday "must-dos" to heckle the holidaymakers and make the holidays just like work of a different nature.

But surely, it is only a matter of time before the tentacles of holiday commercialism reaches this part of Africa.  The plastic Christmas trees and all the Christmas-themed gift cards on sale are definite precursors.  One day, when the urban and rural dwellers no longer need to worry about their next paychecks or harvests, they will have time and resources that can devoted to holiday spending.  Shrewd businessmen, both local and international, will certainly be there when the opportunities become big enough to be worthy of attention and investment.

That moment will be both one of triumph and one of, well, a new sort of worry.  For once, the locals will be proud to defy all those NGO professionals' hidden condescension, flaunting newly acquired wealth by spending them on holiday goods.  But in the process, the peace of the holidays today will be lost, just as the same NGO professionals fear.  People will worry about whose Christmas decorations and parties are bigger and more prominent, and they will think about how to outdo one another in holiday merrymaking.  No one will care about those simple Christmas songs any more...

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