I have decided to extend my stay out here for another month. Missing Christmas. Well, I won’t actually ‘miss’ Christmas, as it still comes along, all these thousands of miles from home. Home, where everyone has a cold, wears thick socks and lights fires early. There is none of that here – way too hot, even now with a cloudy sky overhead and the endless promise of rain broken, yet again. Africa is thirsty.
Back home, by now, I would be fretting my socks off on Amazon, in search of presents for my HUGE family. I would be asking parents what to get for their children from Granny and Popz. I would be agonizing over what to buy impossible boys who really want a jet ski or a Ferguson tractor and I would be completely void of ideas for my husband. Socks? Oh dear me, no. I did that last year and felt very embarrassed at my lack of imagination, even if they were jolly expensive warm ones with a reinforced foot. I got 3 pairs for the same cost as 4 CDs, those nearly-redundant bearers of music. Well, it felt ok at the time of purchase.
Getting presents wrong is my scary power. I am super good at it. What I think is just perfect is absolutely not, in the end – the end being my discovery of said perfect present behind a store-room door, or in the kids playroom or, better, in the big bag of stuff for the charity shop. It’s very disappointing and I really should have learned by now. I think we should all buy gifts for ourselves. So much less stress involved for everyone. However, a gift is a lovely thing to get, as long as you are prepared to find that smile whatever appears beneath the pretty wrappings. Personally, I prefer a little home-made something – something that took a measure of time investment, care and thought and something that probably cost nothing in money terms. I spoke, often, with my kids about that, but it rarely inspired them. The advertising glitz, the ‘must have’ of the latest this or that is like a tsunami at Christmas. Not out here, here where there is no cash to waste on anything as trivial as the latest’must have’. Must haves include food, clothing and somewhere to sleep, and none of those come just because they should. Evidence of that is clear from the men or women lying under a tree beside the road, with inadequate clothing and no protection from the sun, the rain or the mosquitoes.
I’m relieved – that’s what I am. I have never, in 46 years been away for Christmas. I have stayed at my post, baked cake and stuffed turkey. The pressure is massive. Failure lurks round every corner. In panic I have hurtled to the little town for stocking gifts, for five children, if you don’t mind – yeah, my choice, I know, I KNOW! I have ordered a box of tangerines and enough booze to be embarrassing, to mention but two of a zillion must haves. I have decorated trees, fought with fairies and stars and dud bulbs. I have walked out to cut something with berries, sprayed Honesty and Teasel and fir cones and planted them in pretty vases around the house. I go nuts with Christmas songs and carols and spend ages working out where to put the crib. Should Jesus be held back till Christmas Eve or can he go in now? Going in now saves me the extra stress of finding him again on his due date.
The small stuff becomes huge and I really don’t agree with it, in my heart of hearts. Imagine with me, if you will, a relaxed approach to Christmas. Imagine everyone smiling whilst the days plod on, without fear, or panics, or nightmare dreams. Imagine not being completely knackered on the big day because, well, it’s Christmas – a time to be thankful and loving and kind and generous. What it isn’t is Master Chef. T’is the season of goodwill, although I don’t get that either. All seasons might consider being ‘of goodwill’ and to all men, not just the ones we love or like. Easy said, of course, but it makes perfect sense to me. Concentrating all that goodwill into such a short time is both nonsense and exhausting. It’s like we have to be mellow and light-hearted for a finite period of time and then what…….turn back into critical grumps? I know we don’t all do that, but with January on the horizon and new year’s resolutions and diets and fitness plans, it is tempting.
Out here, whatever the season, the smiles are ready. Why is this, when many have so very little to smile about? I know the answer. A thankful heart and the innate ability to go v e r y s l o w through the days. It can be infuriating, of course, on the white side of black. This slowness is applied to everything from thought processes to actions taken. Replacing a fuse can take all day. Well, there are people to laugh with, to sing with, to laugh with at every step, for starters. Then I have to walk all-the-way to the electrical supply store (500 yards) and then s l o w l y look for the new fuse, and then walk back again, meeting another load of folk en route, folk who might want to chat, or sing, or laugh with me. Next, I have to change the fuse. Well, that’s a faff and a tad difficult as I’m still singing at the top of my voice and bopping along to the inner beat which challenges my right arm. It just won’t keep still long enough for me to remove and insert. Then I have to walk all the way across the room to flick the switch. If this fuse is dud, I repeat the process. See? Now it’s time to clock off. A good day all round.
If, on the white side of black, you challenge work speed, the fuse changer looks astonished and then……wait for it, wait for it…….here comes that HUGE SMILE, bright enough to bring out the sun. Yeah boss, he says, and pays absolutely no heed at all. It is impossible not to love them. They have much to teach us, unless we pay absolutely no heed at all, of course, which we don’t.
So, for this blessed Christmas time, I will immerse my soul in the slow of Africa, and maybe, just maybe, I might absorb enough to take back home, home where all the small things rise up like snakes, home where there’s only one season of goodwill and the other three are laden with to-do lists, pressure and gargantuan attempts not to be grumpy.
Yesterday afternoon I heard the ‘girls’ coming in to prepare supper. No, what I heard was, in fact, a party. As they sashayed those marvelous African bottoms across the tundra between their house and the kitchens, one of them started to sing, again, at the top of her voice. I don’t think black people have a vocal sliding scale. She belted out a phrase in Zulu and the others answered her. It took ten minutes, fully, for them to get to the kitchen door, although the distance is but a few yards. They laughed and sang and lifted my spirits as I sat on the step outside my rondavel. Whatever I was thinking about just flew away and although I understood not one word, I understood everything.