by Holly (I know, it seems so long, you thought the title of this blog referred to our blogging absence--but no, it's about this christmas)
Christmas in Mzee Oling's home, with six daughters, one son, an aunty, two cousins, and some of the most adorable grandkids imaginable. This is where I spend most days learning Acholi and doing "participant observation" for my research. Today is different. It's christmas. The 4 huts that make up this home are teeming with smiling friends, chickens oblivous to their destiny, and kids laughing chasing Ogiko (our dog) who we brought with us. The neighbors father works in the local radio station so he's brought home a huge sound system that is competing with Mzee's small hand held radio to play alternating traditional Acholi and western christmas songs. I found the ladies all in the kitchen, sweating seriously over charcoal stoves and laughing. They got up at 5 am to start cooking and they are still laughing. We laugh for happiness, not an identifiable joke or funny incident. "We laugh to show the whiteness of our teeth," goes one of my favorite Acholi proverbs. Lamaro, my favorite little girl is still getting used to Ben. His white skin and blue eyes are rather terrifying. She's running from the kitchen hut to the bedroom hut to avoid being seen by him (or eaten by him?) She also behaved like this with me for the first few weeks. Now, I've been told she told her father (who comes to visit occasionally) that she has two mommy's, one black and one white. I'm thrilled the affection is mutual--even if she did have to overcome the obstacle of my strange skin.
Ben and Mzee are sitting under the tree discussing Mzee's christmas memories. He recounted christmas parties from when he was in his 20s and worked with Uganda Wildlife Authority and with a big luxury hotel company. His favorite christmas was the first christmas that they spent with the whole family here. They moved here in 1995, the war had begun but it had not yet directly touched the family. They came for access to better schools for his girls--and all the kids were home that christmas of '95. That was the year before he lost his leg in a tank mine explosion while he was collecting wood for charcoal. It was a year before a massacre in their home village, Attiak where they lost many relatives. Even his eldest daughter, escaped narrowly. She had been visiting an aunty in Attiak when the rebels began the massacre. She fell into a pit latrine where she hid until the bloodshed stopped and the rebels left all for dead. "This war spoiled everything," he says, "this is the first year since 1995 when we've felt safe and free to celebrate. It has been 24 years we've waited for this celebration." I can't help but pause prayerfully to remember the Congolese who feel anything but safe. The LRA has reportedly written several letters threatening a repeat of last years "Christmas Massacres." Several rebels who have escaped admitted they had joked about "celebrating christmas" like last year. Fortunately, no reported violence means they decided to celebrate some other way--but no doubt, our friends across the border will have to wait longer to experience the safety and freedom from violence that Uganda is now enjoying.
They really are enjoying it. The girls are dressing up, and combing out their hair. I came with nail polish a few days ago and painted over 20 pairs of hands or toes I'm sure.
The food is an amazing spread and they generously share with us as well as the random uninvited guests that are always welcome: a drunk neighbor who is a widow, a young woman who is only halfway in control of her mind that is happily singing and eating their food, and anyone else who seems to have an empty belly. We brought simple gifts: candy for the kids, a couple of t-shirts for the young men and some jewelry for the ladies, a book written by an Acholi preist on being a traditional Acholi and a Christian for Mzee. As they open each gift, Josephine ululates over the laughter of the rest of us who are clapping and happily watching what the next person is given. I felt some of the gifts weren't nice enough, for this incredible family that has helped me so much. I was worried about the reception--but I could not have imagined anything better! They all claimed that each gift was perfect for the receiver, and none envied other gifts. Personally, I am very grateful for the odii (ground sesame and peanut paste) that they lovingly gave us.
What is it that enables such easy laughter? such wholehearted gratitude? It might be a lack of expectation. If so, I(cynically/sadly?)thought to myself while sitting there, this is the first and the last christmas we will experience like this. Next year there will be an expectation. I have chatted with a few friends and family members from home and contrasted the blessed simplicity of christmas in Uganda with the materialistic madness and pressure to buy right, dress right, cook right, etc. of christmas at home. Every year must at least maintain, if not add on to the precedent of previous years. And yet, here, for the first time in decades people are enjoying the relative calm and prosperity so that they are finally able to celebrate materially--with small things like christmas dresses or even little artifical christmas trees--and it is a beautiful thing to see! Is that terrible? The materialism we turn our noses up to at home we welcome here as a sign of the absence of war.
Isn't there a way to maintain expectant wonder for this great celebration and accept every moment of it in whole hearted gratitude without holding it up for comparison to our unconscious (or conscious) standard of "shoulds"?
My friends in Wii Aworanga did it this year. Maybe it's the lack of expectation. Maybe it's the eruption of joy that has been waiting 24 years for peace to allow it's full expression. Whatever it is, I pray it is sustained--and that perhaps, it is contagious.
(Happy 100th blog to us! This is our 100th post. We intend to try to write more regularly in the coming year--yes, it's a proper new year's resolution. Regarding the new blog look and background--the quote on the top of the page must be accredited to Annie Dillard. And I have a confession. The woman in the banner photo is not from northern Uganda. She's actually Sudanese, and I took this photo while doing a consultancy in Yei (the blog I wrote about that time was "What Grows in This Soil". Her face is just so amazing--and I loved it here. I know, I really should replace it with one of the amazing Ugandan faces that I interact with and that grace my iPhoto library, and someday I will--but for now, I share her beautiful face with you and disclose her nationality.)