7th LETTER FROM NZARA
It is hard being in a place that is so very different from your own on major holidays like Christmas and New Years. First and foremost is the fact that the familiar faces of the holidays, your family, friends and fellow church members are not there to wish you a “Merry Christmas!” There are no Christmas trees and pine boughs, with their familiar scent, to decorate homes with although I must say that we should have no trouble later this year preparing for Palm Sunday. Given the fact of no local Sudanese post office we did not receive so much as one single Christmas card nor, thank God, even one Christmas gift catalogue. The freind to which we forwarded our mail reports that we had a few cards and letters from those who we hold dear but whom we only hear from at Christmas. Not a few people are unaware that we are in Sudan and therefore unable to receive their yearly epistles. Another difference this year was the fact that there wasn’t any snow and cold to bundle up against. The roads had no ice or snow banks. Instead there are clouds of reddish-brown dust that follow every on-coming car, truck and bus that one meets on the local roads. The dust makes visibility impossible at times. As far as hallowed church traditions go we did have the opportunity to sing “Hark The Herald Angels Sing” but it was, of course, in Zande and, therefore, not quite so satisfying. Most of our traditional Christmas hymns and tunes are not used here although we did, knowing this would happen, place several albums of Christmas music on our computers before leaving the US. There was no Advent purple or blue, no poinsettias, no manger scenes and no home, store or street Christmas decorations of lighted candles, stars, wreathes, or red bows.
What there was here was a great sense of anticipation for what is by far and away Nzara’s biggest holiday celebration whether one is Christian or not.. The six man crew who have made 3,600 cement blocks for our two upcoming building projects, told me early on that they would not be working from Thursday, Dec. 23rd until Monday, Dec. 27th. They took a four day vacation. For people who normally work (when they can find work) six days a week each and every week this is quite unusual. There excused absence was symbolic of all that needed to be done to prepare for the anticipated festivities. It was also made very clear to me that I should make a special effort to pay all the roofers painters, block makers, truck drivers and Costanzia (the young girl who helps with our water carrying, hand clothes washing, marketing, etc.) a few days before “Xmas” as they refer to the holy-day in English.. This was because all would like to have some funds to buy food, clothes and gifts for these much anticipated “days off.” Christmas was a time filled with such things as relaxing, visiting, church-going and much feasting.
The Christmas Festival here is very much centered in the life of the church! It is a holy-day and not a commercial enticement to shoppers to overspend. One never hears songs about Frosty the Snowman or his friend Rudolf nor does anyone hum “jingle bells” or croon “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.” What one does hear every night (beginning Dec. 1st) are large groups of children, with drum accompaniment, going up and down the roads singing songs of welcome to the Christ child. As the big day drew closer we heard the four Cathedral choirs having a lot of extra practices. One day all kinds of people showed up to give the cathedral a thorough cleaning. The number of people who came to Christmas services was so great that the Cathedral scheduled a Christmas Eve service, a relatively new innovation, as well as the two traditional services on Christmas Day. A total of 1900 people attended the main service and 400 came to the other two services.. At the main service most people sat outside the church in the shade of the palm and mango trees or on the grassy area on the Cathedral’s shady side. They could hear the service and preaching and would rise to sing/dance to the hymns and the songs sung by the choir with accompaniment by electric guitars, drums, and dozens of different types of noise makers and bells. The church school choir had 106 children in it , the youth choir 86, the mothers Union choir 36 and the adult choir about 31. Each chir sang three songs which is what mostly accounts for the services three hour length. The youth choir also acted out and sang about Gabriel’s announcement to Mary during one song. Then later as they sang Mary, presumably after Jesus’ birth, danced around the church in abandonment and joy as she twirled a large white baby doll in her outstretched hands.
One very unique feature of our Sudan Christmas was the “competition” between 1) the men, 2) the women and 3) the youth for which group would give the most money. Separate alms basins were passed to each group, many of whom had saved up for weeks to make a special offering, The winning group receives a flag that they can proudly display for the rest of the year. The women lost last year to the men. They vowed that this year things would be different. After the New Year the winner will be announced.
We have not, in our eagerness to experience an Nzara Christmas celebration neglected all of our own culture’s traditions and customs. We did, for instance, have a private celebration of the Holy Eucharist on Christmas Eve. We used the American Book of Common Prayer and sang a a few of our favorite Christmas carols in English. Last week we went on a hunt for communion wine and finally found some. They sell a lot of bottles of beer and gin (sold in cellophane packets that each contain about one shot) in many many shops but one hardly ever sees wine. On Christmas Eve we walked to seven of the surrounding family compounds of those we work with every day. We gave each family gifts of a pineapple as well as a large plastic jug of multi-colored gum balls and a few balloons for the family’s children. Having looked in vain in a multitude of small shops for red ribbons to tie around the tops of the pineapples and jars we decided instead to cut up some spare green fabric we have to make festive colored strips as substitutes.
Not having an oven we have provided oil, sugar, flour and baking soda to the daughter of a Cathedral parishioner who has agreed to bake us some small cookies. We planned to serve these along with fresh pineapple, water and mango juice for those, we were told, who would stop by to visit us on Christmas day. Not one person came to visit us or our neighbors. We finally realized that any visitors that might come to visit on this family-oriented holiday would only be other family members and we had no family. We read, listened to Christmas music on our computer, had a chicken dinner and watched the Polar Express movie that someone gave us on DVD. We had a few gifts to give to one another.
We had two very small reminders of all the Christmas decorations we typically have spread throughout our home in Galena. One was a very small two part crèche scene complete with the babe, a sheep, the holy family and three kings. The other was the wide base of a Christmas candle in which we placed four candles very close to one another. It served as our make-shift Advent wreathe. Each day we read to one another from a special Advent book we brought with us. We also cut down some large liter water bottles, filled the bottoms with sand and then placed candles in each bottle. These “luminaries” burnrd at the altar and at each of nine windows in the Cathedral at midnight on Christmas Eve. Normally the altars of Sudanese Episcopal Churches never have candles.
That is probably more than any of you every wanted to know about an Nzara Christmas, but I was sure that some of you would be interested. Our next big adventure is the New Years Youth Sunday Celebration at which I have been asked by the youth to preach. All the offerings that day go to youth work. On Jan. 7th 126 youth, men and women came to Nzara from all over the Diocese to dig the trenches for both the new Training/Youth Center and Primary Health Care Unit. We began simultaneous construction beginning the next day and by the 24th the walls were completed for both buildings. I have been going with the bishop on his confirmation service rounds to the various parishes. We typically have 30 or so confirmands but at the Cathedral a week ago we had 83. On these visits we have distributed some 1,100 pairs of eye glasses. We are now preparing for the sewing machine training workshop.
On Jan 9th the one week of voting began on the question of whether Southern Sudan should become a separate nation. On the next Monday I was told that of the over 2750 voters in one of the voting places in Nzara town only 5 voted against separation. Please pray the largely Islamic/Arab northern part of Sudan might accept the results of the election. The President of Sudan, has said that if the south does vote for independence that everyone in the North will be forced to become a Moslem, English will be outlawed as a second language and that Islamic law will apply to all of the millions of Christians who form a large minority in the North.
Fr. Bob and Karen North