Community Engagement

“Do they know it’s Christmas time?”

“Do they know it’s Christmas time?” used to be one of my favorite holiday jams, but now it bothers me. I don’t want to disregard the fact that people are suffering in the world, but I spent last Christmas in Rwanda, and I know they know it’s Christmas time. Without going into detail, the song paints a picture of Africa like it’s a single story of dreaded fear in need of joy from our world of plenty. It paints a single story of Christmas too. My Christmas in Rwanda went more like this…

Last night we had dinner with a group in rural Rwanda called Rwandera which translates to “Educate Rwanda.” We ate outside in a big circle. Before getting our food, we listened to a few group leaders explain their objectives, hopes, and dreams and partnership with FACE AIDS. While they were talking, a young girl came and sat next to me and held my hand like it was the normal thing to do. She’s the one I remember when I think of the money we raise to help PIH pay for kids’ school fees. That night a few of us stayed with a member of Rwandera and her family. Gusenga is the name of the 16 year old boy and the only one in the house who spoke English. The first thing he told us was that his mom said we were new sisters in their family. We shared pictures of our families and talked about Christmas traditions. It made me super uncomfortable when one of the girls showed Gusenga a picture of her house and others talked about stocking stuffers and opening presents… We asked him what his family does on Christmas. He said, “We smile.”

A local doctor friend of our coordinator picked up three out of ten of us to go to church this morning. It was a beautiful day and there were smiling people everywhere out and about talking and waiting for the first service to get out. The inside was big. It had tall ceilings, simple stained glass windows, two nice Christmas trees in front, clean wooden pews on each side and rows of lawn chairs in the middle.

I thanked the doctor for bringing us to the church. He said it was his pleasure and he was surprised anyone on our side wanted to come to church. He said he used to be the same way as his friend/ our coordinator, thinking that everything he did, all the good work, was because of his education and not much else – thinking God wasn’t a part of it – just me, my education, and my personality out to save the world. But he doesn’t believe that anymore. He believes there is more to it and faith gives his life a greater sense of purpose.

When we first sat down, I was bummed because I had to sit on the little gap between two benches and knew it was going to be a long service. I got over it quickly when more people started coming and everyone was squishing together and kids were sitting on laps. The protocol (ushers) were going up and down isles to tell people to squish even more so everyone could fit, and they did so enthusiastically. There were so many people and everyone was singing and dancing. You would have thought this was a huge birthday party for Jesus Christ or something. It was a great place to be on Christmas morning.

The service was in Kinyarwanda, but we recognized the melody of Christmas songs. The prime minister was there. They had visitors stand and be welcomed. Children acted out the nativity. As we were leaving, the pastor shook my hand and made me say Merry Christmas in Kinyarwanda before we could leave.

Last night we went to the perfect Christmas party in Kigali. We got to Jean d’Amour’s house around four and were greeted by his group, Acts of Gratitude. To introduce each other in the AoG fashion, we went around and said our names plus one thing we like and one thing we didn’t like. Most of Jean d’Amour’s friends liked things such as making new friends, love, honesty, and disliked things like lies, hate… Some likes from our American group: food, friends, dancing, traveling. Dislikes: mushrooms, running out of snacks, being away from family, not getting enough sleep, and mine was mosquito bites. I wished I had said wastefulness or something more dislikable, but today I told Jean d’Amour I felt silly for saying mosquito bites and he said not to worry, people can say any like or dislike. It doesn’t matter. That’s the point.

Then we ate. There was rice and fruit and whatever everyone else ate. We dispersed to have conversations with new friends. One guy told me he tries to be like Jean d’Amour because he is so kind and generous and hard working. He said sometimes he will go to bed and Jean d’Amour is up working and find him in the same place the next morning, still working. Some personal stories were shared with the whole group. I don’t remember details, but the theme was young people coming together to make a difference and being brothers and sisters. We played an icebreaker game that turned into a dance party and everyone hung out like old friends. The best part of the day was being around people, especially Acts of Gratitude, who really understand and embody the spirit of Christmas and treat new friends like close family.

Let’s not let them know it’s Christmas time by giving to charities once a year. Let’s let them know [that we know] it’s Christmas time by prioritizing our faith and family / friend time over shopping and wish lists.


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