Some years ago, I was a volunteer at an orphanage at the base of Kilimanjaro for six weeks. I tutored students in English to improve their chances of earning a university scholarship. Several mornings a week, before class, I walked through the village to the Catholic church for morning mass in Swahili. I explained to the priest that I wasn’t Catholic and I didn’t speak Swahili but I would like to sit near the back, pray silently, and enjoy being in God’s house.
The church sat about three hundred. Most mornings there were about forty of the faithful, often including several albinos. They had moved here from mining regions where they were sometimes killed by miners who believed drinking their blood would bring them good luck.
The church reminded me of New England barns; unfinished bare wood and open to any breeze. Birds flew in and out, often drinking from the baptismal font. There were several stained-glass windows imported from Germany during the late 1800s. How they survived the journey is a mystery. During services, true believers raised their voices in a joyful way that contrasted to the half-hearted singing I was familiar with in churches back home. There were no hymn books. Someone would just start singing and others would join in. I loved the atmosphere. I felt at home.
Christmas eve. Joyful. Colorful. The women wore spectacular clothes. The men were more subdued but dressed in their best. The church filled and then some. We were as tightly pressed together as patrons on a Japanese subway. Everyone was at their finest. The choir was pumped. They sang and danced! I mean DANCED. And ululated. Did they shake the heavens?
I walked back to the orphanage under the starry African sky feeling that this was, for now, where I belonged. All of us walking together, some talking quietly, some singing quietly.
Christmas morning. Orphans at my door. A happy, mischievous glint in their eyes. Taking me by the hand, they escorted me to the dining room. In the corner was a Christmas tree, or least a tree that looked somewhat like our Christmas trees. It was decorated with flowers, homemade cards, painted toilet paper rolls, shredded newspapers, labels from canned fruit, and topped with a cross made from twigs.
There were no Christmas presents under the tree. And birth dates often being unknown, some children went their whole lives without ever receiving a store-bought toy. Instead, they improvised. Out of old wire, they fashioned jeeps with front wheels they could steer with a long rod. They wove plastic bags into very sturdy soccer balls. And my favorite: motorcycles fashioned out of tree branches with log rounds for wheels that they rode down the steep hill behind the orphanage.
“God bless the children. God bless them everyone.”