Christmas in Malawi

Nkhoma Church

Many people have asked me how Christmas is celebrated in Malawi.  As I’ve indicated in previous posts, it is less commercialized here; there are many fewer outward signs of the season.  Christmas trees are common only among expats, and then only among some.  Most Malawians do not have the financial resources for an American-style Christmas, full of gifts and family and feasting.  A typical Christmas meal for a Malawian family is not far from their everyday fare, they might have rice instead of nsima, and chicken in addition to their regular relish.  More well-to-do Malawians have nicer meals, of course; while at the neighborhood grocery on Christmas Eve, I witnessed a few Malawian families purchasing tremendous quantities of steak, as well as the requisite vegetables and such.  While most Malawians have a family meal at home, the lake is a popular holiday destination for those with resources.

Generally speaking, Christmas in Malawi doesn’t seem to be as big a deal as in the US.  A friend of mine from the college told me he wasn’t even going home because he had a lot of studying to do.  Not bothering with the 4-hour bus trip home?  Skipping Christmas to STUDY?  In the US, even my friends who are unfortunate enough to have a semester that ends after the holidays take time for celebrating with friends and family.  While I don’t think this kind of skipping Christmas is common here, in the US (or at least, in my family) it would be unfathomable.

But back to MY Christmas in Malawi.  I spent Christmas eve making more goodies:  fudge, peanut butter blossoms, and my grandma’s crescent rolls.  All turned out edible, despite my lesson in the perils of instant yeast.  Actually, I was quite pleased with the rolls in a this-is-Africa sort of way.  (I also received an early Christmas present:  the internet came back on the 23rd – only to go out again on the evening of the 24th – but now seems to be up and running.)

Christmas morning dawned cloudy and warm.  My housemates and I had been invited to Nkhoma, a mountain village about an hour’s drive south of Lilongwe.  (Yes, I have two housemates now; I think that news may have fallen by the wayside in my outrage over the water strike.)  Since only one of my housemates was interested in attending, we carpooled with a Dutch couple and their almost 2 year-old son.  The drive was lovely, especially as we started winding up into the mountains.  I tried to get a photo of the patchwork of fields visible from the mountain highway, but this out-the-window shot doesn’t do the vista justice.

A valley of fields and villages on the way to Nkhoma

Nkhoma village is the site of Nkhoma CCAP Hospital, and as such is the home to many expats who work or volunteer there.  A historic link with the Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa means that many Dutch citizens continue to come to work there, as well as a handful of expats from other countries.  Built by missionaries a hundred years ago, Nkhoma village is peaceful and the buildings look a bit more stately and mossy than is common in Malawian villages.  We passed by the church and heard Silent Night being sung in Chichewa.  The Christmas meal, however, was at the hopsital’s guest house.  There were probably 40 or 50 people present, including kids.  Most were hospital employees and most were Dutch, though there was also a small collection of people with nowhere else to go (like me), and Americans, Canadians, South Africans, and Scots. The families in the village had also been invited, but only a few Malawians who work at the hospital were in attendance.

The Nkhoma Hospital Guest House, decorated for Christmas

Before lunch, there was a surprisingly well-acted Christmas pageant put on by the children, scripture readings and a brief reflection on Isaiah 61, and some Christmas carols.  The sun came out during the program, and I even got a little pink.  (I could definitely tell we had gained some altitude; the sun seemed stronger than in Lilongwe.)  After the program, the food came out – most of it lukewarm, as the electricity had been out in Nkhoma all morning.  Because it was a potluck without much coordination among the various attendees, it was quite an interesting spread:  there were many kinds of bread, but only ham and a beef dish for meat; lots of beans and potatoes but no vegetable dishes.  There were a few kind of chocolate cake for dessert, as well as the cookies and fudge that I took, and several types of super-sweetened fruit juices.  No, Iowans, there were no jello salads, which was fine by me.

Christmas buffet!

Lunch was a leisurely affair, and afterward we walked through town to the soccer field.  The gender divide was quite clear:  the men played soccer and the women sat on the sidelines, watching.  The hospital workers/expats played against the villagers, who were more skilled in their barefeet than most the expats in their sneakers.  Since I was sitting near the field, I was surprised to turn around and see a crowd of children that had gathered to watch.  There must have been a hundred kids who appeared out of nowhere.  (Actually, I think they may have come from the church, which was across from the soccer field and where an afternoon service was being held.)

Post-lunch soccer game

They also appeared silently.  Compared to American (or, I guess, Western) children, Malawian kids are utterly quiet.  I’ve never seen a Malawian child throwing a temper tantrum; they usually just watch everything with enormous eyes.  Perhaps they are less well-behaved in private than in public, but the difference was particularly striking since I had just spent the morning with screaming Western kids, running to and fro.  A few of them who were at lunch still clutched the balloons they had brought from the guest house, blowing them up and deflating them, them blowing them up again.  Even though these children were probably better off than many in the villages, their delight in this simple toy was apparent.  Again, I couldn’t help but compare them to the balloons the Western kids were playing with at the guest house, most of which popped and were promptly forgotten.

Small soccer spectators (only a fraction of the crowd)

We left Nkhoma in the late afternoon and arrived back in Lilongwe before dark.  On the way, the adults sang along to Dutch children’s songs – while the 2 year old chilled with his book.  The rest of my Christmas day was relatively uneventful; the internet was thankfully back up by the time I returned home and I was able to Skype various family members.  My housemates and I had dinner together and talked for a while, then we headed off to bed.

All in all, it was a nice day, though it did not seem terribly Christmasy.  Perhaps this was better than if it had felt more authentically like Christmas at home, because it made me less homesick.  I have not yet received much Christmas mail, but look forward to receiving the cards that have been sent – even if they only come in time for my or MLK’s birthdays.

I hope all of you had a wonderful Christmas, too!  Feel free to tell me about it, so I can live vicariously through those in the land of snow and turkey and Christmas trees.

Balloons!

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4 Responses to “Christmas in Malawi”

  1. Bronya Says:

    Happy holidays and upcoming new year, Amy!
    I’ve been catching up on your wordpress.
    I hope all is well. We should exchange emails to send a card.
    Take care. Enjoy your day.
    -B

  2. Beth Carlson Says:

    I wanted to wish you a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!!! Ron and I are keeping an eye on your blog. He has you attached to a blog that he has started. We continue to pray for you (and the dog per Mackenzie)
    Blessings to you!!!

  3. Rachel Says:

    Happy New Year! I imagine it would be strange to be away from home on Christmas. For the first time, I had to play “Rotate Christmas” and hop from Andy’s Christmas to mine. All in all–it was good.

  4. Aaron chiwaula Says:

    nkhoma is really a nice place.we ejoy it and even its environment its geat.further information contact: onyamata.nkhoma@groups.facebook.com

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