December 26, 2007

Christmas Day in Mozambique

PEMBA, MOZAMBIQUE – When the staff and students at Arco-Iris Ministries sat down to plan how to feed thousands of villagers on Christmas Day, there might have been more faith in God than in the organizers’ ability to maintain order when giving away free meals and gifts in one the poorest countries in the world.

“Just pray a lot, and love a lot. And that’s it,” implored Erica Grimaldi, one of the student missionaries in charge of the event. With a corps of 40 volunteers set to serve an estimated 2000 people, another asked to be blessed with “God’s wisdom where man’s judgment would surely fail.”

In the five years that Arco-Iris has been inviting Pemba’s village communities for Christmas dinner, problems have always arisen when food begins to run out before everyone has been fed. Last year, volunteers nearly avoided a full-scale riot when gifts and chicken became scarce towards the end.

According to 44-year-old Don Foster, an experienced American missionary who organizes smaller-scale village feedings in and around the ministry, feeding the poor in northern Mozambique during the holidays is a traumatic, if humbling experience. “The greatest culture shock for me is the cafeteria: children run for food, and they beg and they plead and they manipulate. In my entire life in all the countries I’ve been to for Christmas, I’ve never seen people begging and pleading and going hungry.”

With the kitchen staff working all through the night on Christmas Eve to roast 800 chickens and steam over 600kg of rice, everyone hoped that there would be enough. But with an event that’s not even advertised in advance – the villagers just show up in the hopes that the ministry will keep doing it – nobody knew for sure if it would be. “Miracles aren’t just raising the dead or making the blind see,” said Mozambican evangelist Norberto Sango, one of the original children adopted by Arco-Iris in 1995. “If we can pull this off tomorrow, it will be miraculous.”

“It is Christmas Day in Mozambique,” stated Sango with a deep inhalation, “This is going to be great!” The volunteers could be forgiven for not sharing his optimism, but when people started to show up around 1:00pm, they were in position and ready to go.

Once a critical mass was attained outside the compound’s front gate, the word was given to release the smaller kids in to the next holding pen – a giant circus-like tent inside the walls – and they sprinted across the grounds under a mercifully overcast sky.

Herded expertly by the cudgel-wielding crowd controllers, the young ones soon had their pop, chicken, salad and rice. For most of them, it was the only time of year when they received such a complete meal, and possibly their best chance of getting anything to eat at all that day.

“My house didn’t make any food for Christmas,” explained five-year-old Nassia Carlos in Makua, the local language. “I’m so happy to receive the food. This year is so good because last year I didn’t get enough.” 14-year-old Juma Bichele added that his “Christmas is very good because many people came and I’m full of food.”

After being fed and watered, the children got gifts ranging from tennis balls to stuff animals to candy before being sent on their way. Amazingly, wave after wave of kids were funneled through the cafeteria with minimal chaos. Even when it came to the last group – the often querulous teenage boys – everyone managed to stay calm in the reassurance that there were enough gifts for everyone. Even if that meant young men receiving stuffed toys and dolls.

“I think everybody had a good Christmas,” said Pedro Jume, a Mozambican volunteer that helped translate instructions into local languages. “They all went home happy and blessed.”

Exhausted, sweaty and ready for some personal time on one of their holiest days of the year, the volunteers took a few moments to reflect on what, for many, had been a very different but rewarding Christmas. Though most were far away from home in a hot, humid and mostly Muslim region, they considered it a privilege to be able to serve a decent meal to all those in need.

“They villagers know there’s something different about this place; a lot of the village kids want to live here because they see the hope and light that we have,” said Grimaldi, who normally spends the holidays in Kansas City, Missouri. “Inviting them in shows them why there are so many people from around the world gathered here to serve and love Jesus.”

“In Maputo there’s a lot more Western influence,” explained long-term missionary Jennifer Mozley, who has also spent the holidays in Mozambique’s capital. “There you see a lot more ‘Christmas’ around. You don’t see so much of it here in Pemba, but even if I don’t see it with my eyes when I woke up this morning I felt it in my heart.” Even Sango, who has participated in the feeding year after year, relished the opportunity to serve once again. “This whole day just makes me want to show people how much Jesus loves them. This is a direct love, like ‘Boom!’ straight from heaven to them.”

But as much as the day meant to the missionaries, the day belonged to those who, for whatever reason, came to be fed. For those like Don Foster, it is days like these that keep Arco-Iris relevant in the community and grounded in its own sense of mission. “Iris comes into this situation with one strike against it already because it’s foreigners and not Mozambicans. Iris has to prove itself. And every year they prove that Iris loves Pemba. And that Jesus loves Pemba.”

With files from Michael Amido Abibo

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