December 21st marks the shift in seasons and while the United States braces for snow and colder temperatures, South Africans (and the rest of the Southern Hemisphere) are now in the throes of summer, even though I have been saying (in incorrect isiZulu) inhlobo lapha/summer (is) here since mid-November. It is also 2 days until the highlight of December Merriment. South Africa definitely observes Christmas as roughly 80% percent of the population identifies as Christian (as of the 2011 census). My organization has been closed since 15th of December. Ironically my Christian host family does not make a huge deal out of Christmas. They are planning a large lunch but New Years Eve is their main celebration.
I am actually okay with a low-key Christmas as I try to minimize the hype anyways. The crowds, social cues with gifts, and over the top decorations are sensory overload for this autistic. Which is why I am getting a kick out of South Africa’s upscale grocery store Checkers use of Ram Jam for their holiday adverts, as it mimics the season’s intensity fully! For the past decade, Christmas was off my radar until the end of finals and this is the first year where December was not completely dominated by exams or term papers. In the South African summer the intensity still exists, but from the bizarre juxtaposition of evergreens, Christmas lights, forest green, crimson red, and navy blue snow scenes that I am convinced will eventually absorb enough sunlight and self-combust in the 99 degrees F heat. I never knew how much the Northern Hemisphere dominates the image of Christmas until I became a PCV.
Christmas is observed without a major fuss in my family (minus the one year the Manager was born on Christmas Eve). However December is one of the best times of the year to be back home when the crisp air wafts the sweet aroma of pinon pine burning in fireplaces, fresh bizcochios melt in your mouth, and the Sandias look like a magical pink velvet cake in the winter sunset especially when it is iced with snow. Most important my favorite part of being a New Mexican is a quintessential Christmas Eve site in Albuquerque: luminarias (or farolitos… the terminology depends on the cultural area). The flickering lights gently light pathways and inspires personal reflection over the past year: what I appreciate the most about the holiday season. It is just hitting me that I will not see neighborhoods expression New Mexican solidarity and since it is fire season paper bags and candles are not worth the cultural exchange. No luminaras feels weirder then sweating at the site of (the South African) Duke City’s fake Fir.
Most PCVs in South Africa spend the holiday on vacation. While it would be nice to experience Christmas on the beach, due to the timing of the site change travel was not in the cards for this December. I am spending all 4 weeks at site, volunteering at the local clinic reception desk (before people claim that I am an altruistic person, this gives me something to do and I need sensitive statistics from the clinic for the needs assessment….this is a way for me not to completely rip them off). Families from the larger cities come back to the rural areas and when accidents happen (like the little boy from Johannesburg today who fell on his hand while playing) people need to access local clinics. My main tasks are registering clients into the computer system, signing or creating their clinic cards (and there are different cards for general illness, chronic illness, HIV testing, Post Natal Care, Antenatal Care, and Family Planning), and organizing patient files.
It is only day 3 but I am learning more about the health needs in this portion of Amajuba, obtaining much needed isiZulu practice, and gaining an appreciation for the clinic’s challenges. People are not open about their status so I did not see HIV as a prominent health concern in the area until I registered over 20 people into the digital register for ARV pickups (and that is a time span of 3 days). I am also seeing many young women who are very pregnant or who have just given birth to 6 day old babies. Today was a holiday luncheon and the Sisters graciously shared their potluck of wors (sausage), buttery pap, and oily vegetables (I ate every bite). The consensus is that the amaZulu are busy with cleaning their houses for visitors before Christmas and do not get sick, but around New Years Eve the clinic is in high demand.
When I am not at work, the other main project is typing the community needs assessment 2.0. I am fortunate to work for a supervisor who prioritized this report and we were able to scramble with information during an unideal time of the South African year. With World AIDS Day and closing the org, I have not had the chance to organize the notes from focus groups. We still need to have a few more focus groups of People Living with HIV (PLWHIV) when we come back from break, and hopefully we can hit the ground running with actual projects in February. I am exploring a prevention campaign in late March and a specific support group, and am also researching educational materials during the break. This plus bonding with my host family, blogging (anticipate, dance practice, reflecting on 2015 and reading my stockpile of books…I have no time to dwell on the weirdness of my first Christmas away from home.
But if you are in New Mexico, please enjoy the luminaras for me as I embrace South African Christmas with cold adaptations of Christmas treats, copious amounts of Cranberry Kiwi Juice, and the gingerbread scented handwash I brought from the States.
All the best and a happy and healthy iKhisimusi (next year I will master happy holidays),