Most of Holy Week, I was either in the hospital or on an airplane. But one of the things that sustained me during all that was the memory I have of celebrating Nativity in Tanzania.
On the Eve of Nativity, we had Liturgy in the morning in Bukoba. I wanted to visit Kasikazi during the feast, but I am not able to travel long distances by myself—it’s just not safe. But, Tambua, one of our friends there, was going to be traveling at that time, so I was able to ride with him on the dala dala (which is what public transportation is called here). It took a while to find the “right” dala dala when we arrived at the bus station. The bus station is a carnival size area of land with buses scattered everywhere. People approach you trying to sell what they have in hand, maji (water), perfumes (manukato) and of course senene (grasshoppers, which are very popular here). We found the right bus that would let us 1) sit together and 2) sit in the front seat. I had mentioned in a previous blog that sitting in the front seat on the bus comes with responsibilities. This trip was no different. I actually enjoy the responsibilities. The front seat is the most comfortable seat, and, basically what this means is that you don’t have to have someone’s back in your face. This trip I had the responsibility of holding 3 loaves of bread and a two year old girl. The trip to Kasikazi took us about two hours.
Tambua and I had a warm welcome from Fr. Geronimos and two of his seminarians, John and Thomas. There was then a little catching up in Kiswahili between the men. I like to listen to people speaking Kiswahili to see if I can recognize any words I have learned in class. I knew only a few, but I also know it will get easier to understand. I was shown my room after the catching-up-conversation finished. I put my bags down and decided to take a walk around the seminary I hadn’t seen for eight years. Not a lot had changed, but I was finally able to see, in person, the finished church my short-term mission teammates and I helped build. My team was assigned to dig the narthex of the church. When I saw the area we had dug, I was surprised to see a beautiful courtyard. I later learned that here the Narthex is made into a courtyard with beautiful landscape. It was a special moment which brought me to tears. After my visit to the church, I went down the hill and ran into some men. I worked on my Kiswahili and told them who I was, where I live, where I was from, and why I was here in Tanzania. There were a lot of laughs, but I am used to that. I found out that these men were some of the seminarians I had seen and took pictures of when I visited Rubale village with His Eminence. I told them about my video and the photos I had of them, and they became excited and asked to see them. I came back with my laptop, and they all crowded around looking at the pictures. Not long afterward we had dinner. After dinner, Fr. Geronimos gave a very welcoming speech to me. The seminarians then sang a welcome song in Kiswahili. As I headed outside to make my way to my bed, I was delighted to see “lights” outside. I have only lived in cities so I had heard and seen pictures of lightning bugs, but I had never seen them in person.
The Liturgy at All Saints in Kasikazi was beautiful! The church was very crowded. The children packed themselves into benches that would usually seat four people, but there were ten of them to a bench. One of the older women (Mama Mzee) would go around unpacking the benches and then return to her bench. Since All Saints is on the grounds of the seminary, the seminarians are always in attendance. They serve as the altar boys, chanters, readers, and choir. Another of the seminarians’ duties is to direct the controlled chaos during communion. By now I was used to being “stared at”, but being in a village takes staring to a whole new level. In a village, the people would be more likely to see a space alien than to see a westerner (mzungu) or someone with orange colored hair for that matter. After Liturgy, I handed out some gum (juju) and pencils to the children. I had never spent Nativity away from my family. Even though a big part of the holidays for me is being with my family, surprisingly I didn’t feel sad or lonely. I felt I was given a gift of another family. My mom sent me an email saying ‘Your mom and dad miss you, but our best Christmas is knowing our children are happy’. And that is all that matters. That afternoon we had goat, rice, and beans for lunch. Some of the seminarians and I walked through the village, and I was honored to meet the All Saint’s church chairman. Chai tea was served along with coffee beans. I ate right into the bean and then found out I was supposed to take the bean out of its shell first. It was much more enjoyable to eat them without the shell. The seminarians had many questions for me about America. They were surprised to know that we have some of the same plant life as they do. Also they were surprised to hear that there were dark skinned people in America just like them.
Fr. Geronimos is the rector of four different parishes. Since Nativity was celebrated at All Saints, Fr. Geronimos celebrated Liturgy in the village of Kikagate on Sunday. I was told I needed to ride a motorcycle (pikipiki) to the church. There are no roads or smooth ground in the villages. The service was much like the day before. There were more children (watoto) in attendance at St. Anastasios. The stares continued, but I figured out a counter measure–smiling back at them. After Liturgy, traditionally the priest gives a homily (mahubiri) and then, the person we would call the church president, gives a short talk. Kihaya, the local dialect, was being spoken, so I was only able to use the men’s body language to follow what was being said. Quickly I noticed people turning around and looking at me. The council president was also talking excitedly and pointing his finger in my direction. Fr. Geronimos would cut in on the president’s talk and give a comment or two. At one point, I thought maybe there was a fight going on about my being in the village because of the way the two men’s voices were getting louder and louder. I later found out that the president was telling the people what a blessing it was to celebrate the Divine Liturgy with a mzungu (westerner) at St. Anastasios because everyone can now see that there are Orthodox Christians in the western world. The president said that many people in villages like Kikagate will live until they are seventy years old before they ever see a westerner. I was just hoping that I made a good impression for all of the western world.
Father Geronimos, John, Thomas, Anastasios, and I all decided to walk home. We got caught in the rain, and so we took pikipiki back to the seminary. Dinner would be the last meal I would share with the seminarians, so we all said our official goodbyes. Father Geronimos talked about how happy he was to have me back in Kasikizi and hoped I would return again. Then each seminarian was asked to say something and there were tears (from me mostly) but a good bit of laughter as well. That evening the seminarians heard for the first time that I was a nurse. After dinner there were many questions about each man’s health concerns. I did my best to answer them (there was a huge need for dental care). The next morning we took the early bus (daladala). All of the seminarians had gotten up to see me off. I came home exhausted but renewed finally being able to visit my Kasikizi again.