by Sr. Mary Doonan MMM Ireland 23.12.2021
In 1980 I spent my first Christmas In Africa, the memories of which will never leave me. I was at St. John’s Hospital, Mzuzu in the North of Malawi. It was a 200 -bed hospital and Nurse Training School attached.
In the weeks prior to Christmas, bags and boxes of plastic white and yellow chip packaging that had been safely stored away during the year emerged from storage. This had come in boxes of medicines and medical supplies over the year. Student nurses and other staff gathered and with rolls of string and some glue these plastic chips were used to create some amazing Christmas decorations for the hospital. We discovered we could use dyes made from local berries and plants and some stains from the hospital laboratory to colour some of the white chips. In the days prior to Christmas the hospital became a colourful place.
In the evenings down at the Nursing School Christmas carol rehearsals commenced with some nurses drumming and playing other native musical instruments. Cloths were organised to dress the Holy Family and the shepherds. Elsewhere Christmas gift packages were organised for each patient – each containing precious soaps for body wash, a cloth for washing and a packet of biscuits.
On Christmas Eve darkness fell around 5pm. A large group emerged from the School of Nursing with the Holy Family and Shepherds pageant, many drums and musical instruments and moved toward the Hospital. Many staff joined. For the next 2 hours a truly joyful time was spent going around the hospital wards carol singing and distributing gifts to the patients.
A few hours later across the compound we assembled in the nearby Mzuzu Cathedral for Christmas night Mass in Chitumbuka language. Again, there was lots of singing, dancing, drumming and musical instruments. It was a real celebration of the birth of Christ. It was so moving to watch the women carry a new born baby into the Cathedral to the crib just as they carry a new born baby back home to the village.
Midnight found us wondering when the first Christmas baby would be born. Christmas day was a busy day in the hospital. Many local dignitaries and charitable groups came, carrying gifts of food for the patients. The Cathedral Choirs came along to sing carols. Christmas evening all of us missionaries, local Sisters and Clergy and lay volunteers from overseas gathered at our house for Christmas dinner. We were about 40 and I recall we were a mini–United Nations, representing fourteen countries and all continents. Food from all nations had been cooked and brought along!
A simple but very real and meaningful celebration of Chritsmas.