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Do they know it's Christmas time at all?

Brigitte​ is working for Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Today she blogs about celebrarting Christmas....

It was 6pm on December 23rd and I was in full panic mode. The days had just flown by and it was the night before Christmas Eve and I had no presents for my fellow expats. This was not like me. I LOVE planning what gifts to get for those on my lists, but dread the Christmas shopping crowds, so am usually pretty organized ahead of time. I had full intentions on getting them Christmas stockings made out of traditional African print, however, I never got around to going to the tailors and I was certain she would be much too busy this close to the big day.  

To add to the difficulty of getting gifts, with our security in mind, we were not allowed to attend the markets or walk freely in town. Meaning, the gifts had to come from within the compound. I love “Do-It-Yourselfing” but need at least a hot glue gun or some glitter to get the job done. I was scrambling for ideas; wrote to some friends begging for their advice, looked up ideas on the internet and stock piled anything I thought could be useful from the base. Before I knew it I had five empty jars, a couple of rolls of toilet paper and a stack of bottle caps in my bedroom… now came the task of adding these all together and making five Christmas masterpieces.

After rejecting a few suggestions and realizing I still needed to buy items to accomplish what the internet recommended I decided I would give bottle cap Christmas reefs a try. Luckily, we had consumed a high volume of Coke and lemon Fanta in the past few months meaning we had plenty of red and green caps to give the reefs a Christmas feel. I needed glue, and not just any glue, glue that would make metal pieces stick together for many holiday seasons to come. I had to put my creative side on hold until I could find that glue, otherwise, I was in trouble.

Making Christmas ornaments for the team

Making Christmas ornaments for the team

The next morning I spoke to all the national staff I could to find ways of getting some sort of strong adhesive. By 2pm one of our drivers had come to my rescue and had found 2 tubes of super glue in the local market. I subsequently locked myself in my room for the next 4 hours, sat on the stone floor, streamed Glee’s Christmas songs and channeled my inner Martha Stewart to get the job done. I had many failed attempts but by the third reef they were looking pretty acceptable! I had a little stash of paint and cut up some of my fabric and by evening had made 6, including one for myself for all my hard efforts, Christmas ornament bottle cap reefs.

Dad and son after receiving a lollipop on Christmas day in the pediatric wardThen it was time for the beginning of our Christmas festivities as an expat family. We had prepared some entrees and drinks and sat around the lounge area listening to holiday music, talking about home and our highs and lows of 2015. At midnight came Mariah Carey’s “All I want for Christmas is you” lip-syncing/dance-off between Tessa, our medical team leader, and I. Afterwards, we went to celebrate with the nighttime guards and driver, offered some pop and exchanging holiday greetings. We could hear the celebrations from the street and watched crowds of people running by chanting and drumming on their jerry cans. They had been practicing the 12km run all week and were going to be running, singing and dancing all day until nightfall on the 25th.  Made me feel slightly guilty after just having some mulled wine, chocolate and sweets, but then I thought, it’s the holidays.

We retired to our beds not long afterwards and I began watching the infamous holiday classic “Home Alone” while waiting to call home due to the time difference. When I came out of my room to make my call I caught Mrs. Clause, aka Chloe, our HR-supply administrative, red handed decorating and planting little holiday treats over our living area! After my chat with family back in Montreal I added my hand made holiday decorations under the little white tree; it was definitely beginning to look a lot like Christmas, minus the snow.

Jeanne and Idi distributing holiday treats to patients

Jeanne and Idi distributing holiday treats to patients

On Christmas morning we all awoke to the beautiful display Chloe had prepared, enjoyed my homemade trinkets, ate breakfast, put on our Santa hats and met Jeanne and Idi, two members of the health promotion team, to head to the hospital and spread Christmas cheer to our pediatric wards. We had whistles, balloons, lollipops and many stickers to distribute. It was so great seeing all the smiling faces of the young patients and their parents receiving our little presents and holiday wishes. It was sobering to realize this may be the only gifts they receive this year. By the time we left the two pediatric buildings each child and parent had at least one sticker on their foreheads, including the rounding doctors and nurses. We then entered into the therapeutic feeding center, continued with the distribution and headed to the back porch area. This is where the celebrations really kicked off!

When severely malnourished, children often become apathetic and do not interact with other children or their parents effectively anymore, therefore, as part of their rehabilitation we have scheduled play therapy, including singing and dancing. We were their play therapy on Christmas day and all the expats, national staff working in the ward, parents and children were ready to play. There were women on the drums, ward assistants chanting and singing and all the mothers, MSF team members and children dancing and clapping along. The energy was palpable, so much so we had people creeping to look over the fence to see what was happening! This celebration lasted hours.

When we arrived back to the base we were all exhausted from the dancing and singing, but our day was not close to being over. We were now hosting our staff members’ children for some more singing and movie watching. They all arrived earlier than planned, but they were ready! Dressed in their Sunday’s best; all the girls had their hair done perfectly, in beautiful fluffy dresses, some even wore make-up, while the boys were wearing little suits and shiny black shoes. This party was run by our remaining health promotion team members and they did a great job of controlling the over 50 kids hopped up on sugar.

At this point, Chloe snuck off to start on our Christmas feast. I believe this would be my “freshest” Christmas dinner. We had ordered a duck a few days earlier and it arrived waddling into the base on the 24th having a little rope tied to one of its legs. The major advantage compared to preparing Christmas dinner at home was no need for defrosting, however, we had asked our kitchen Mama to help with the killing, de-gutting and plucking of the duck. The afternoon was over and we had a few moments of peace, some expats called home, others relaxed or showered and I finished watching “Home Alone”.

Lollipops, stickers and smiles!We gathered to eat our deliciously prepared duck around 8pm, all in our best attires we brought from home. We ate to our hearts content, chatted and then got ready for our gift exchange. We all contributed 2 anonymous gifts and played a dice game to open, steal and exchange gifts. I think we were all pretty happy with what we ended up with, especially Katrin, our project coordinator, getting some extra dental floss. Once again we celebrated with the nighttime staff and headed off to bed with happy hearts. As I lay in bed that night I thought of the old Christmas fundraising tune about Africa that asked “Do they know it’s Christmas time at all?” and I simply thought, yes, yes they certainly do!

One of my completed ornaments

One of my completed ornaments

The celebrations at the feeding center

The celebrations at the feeding center