As America’s Daughter opens, Maria Nhambu is still Mary Rose Ryan — the name she gave herself in Africa. And she’d celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with the Irish and non-Irish residents of St. Paul, Minnesota!
My Christmas holiday traditions keep evolving over the years and reflect changes in my life, but the joy and celebration that I love are constant.
The latest tradition to be added at the holiday season is watching the parade of festively lit and decorated boats on the Intracoastal here in Florida. These famous parades occur all along the Intracoastal Waterway. I instituted my event—a gathering of friends to enjoy the local parade—when I moved into a condominium with a magnificent view of the Intracoastal below. I decided this was too good not to share with friends, so each year I invite them to watch the spectacle from my balcony.
And a spectacle it is. Boats of all sizes decorated with lights glide along the Intracoastal. The owners’ enthusiasm for and pride in their floating light shows is evident! No two are alike. Some boats display lights of one color—dramatic, to be sure. But most have a mix of colors, and these pinpoints of light outline the boats’ features. Masts, poles, the bow, railings, even the lifeboats on the bigger yachts, are outlined in lights.
Of course, there are parties on these boats. People wave to each other in good cheer, toasting the season, friendship—and the warm weather, certainly, as many of these people are snowbirds taking refuge for the winter months in sunny Florida.
My party begins after a gorgeous sunset which I can see from my condo. The sky is dark. The ocean is invisible at night except for the distant lights of occasional ships beyond the coastline. But from my windows, my guests and I witness a riot of colored lights breaking up the darkness.
I open the balcony doors to hear the music from the boats. It blends in a tantalizing way with my African Christmas music, perhaps the Missa Luba sung by a choir from the Democratic Republic of Congo, or songs by Miriam Makeba and other musicians whose work I use in my Aerobics With Soul® African dance workouts.
Some of my guests are my neighbors whom I’ve gotten to know through teaching Aerobics With Soul® here at the condominium. Others are friends I’ve made since moving to Florida. And some come from a distance to share in the fun.
Because I am a “bridge” person as a biracial woman, I have a mixture of people at my parties. I love seeing my friends from every race and all walks of life mingle and enjoy each other in the spirit of the season. In the U.S., I found that people don’t often have the opportunity to socialize and mix with others outside their customary groups. But at my parties, we enjoy and celebrate our diversity!
For me, it’s all about the real spirit of Christmas that I experienced so profoundly growing up in the orphanage in Tanzania. It’s about light, love, and joy permeating the darkness and filling all our hearts.
With love to you this Christmas season and best wishes as you enjoy and make your own holiday traditions.
Christmas is a heartwarming time of year for a lot of people and especially for children. It’s traditionally celebrated with special foods, treasured rituals, and lots of presents. Imagine, though, being excited about Christmas as an orphan in Africa and your presents are a home baked gingerbread man, a handful of nuts and candy, and a dress picked out from a box of donated clothes from Germany.
That’s the Christmas that Maria Nhambu describes in her memoir Africa’s Child. Only a few days old, she was left at an orphanage in Tanzania for mixed race children run by German nuns. The Don Bosco Home in Kifungilo was also a boarding school for biracial children who went home to spend the holidays with their families.
Nhambu describes in detail, from a child’s point of view, the wonder of Christmas preparations—the sacrifices and good deeds the children practiced during Advent, the fun of going through boxes of donated clothes to find a pretty dress, the secretiveness of the nuns as they prepared the festivities, the trip to the nearby pine forest to cut down and bring back a tree, and the sharing of wishes for Christmas gifts with other orphans.
Her constant wish, besides food, was to find her mother. She had no idea who she was, where she came from, if she had a family or tribe, or why she was alone. The excitement around Christmas filled her with hope and anticipation.
Finally, it was Christmas eve. The children assembled in excited anticipation in front of the doors to the recreation hall. When the doors opened, the children saw the room transformed: the tree was lit with candles, sparkly decorations streamed from the ceiling, and a nearly life-sized Baby Jesus smiled from the nativity scene in a corner of the hall. The tables pushed to the walls held the individual collections of gifts waiting for the children. Before receiving their gifts, they performed the nativity play they had rehearsed and a special song about decorating the Christmas tree where each child became an ornament. All this was to the delight of the audience of nuns who requested encores and laughed and applauded the children.
At gift time the children found their names and presents set on the long tables: gingerbread men, peanuts, candy, socks and underwear, some marbles, and maybe cloth dolls sewn by the retired nuns. Nhambu would always immediately pull her new dress over the one she had on and trudge over to the nun in charge of her upbringing to thank her for the gifts she received.
After exploring their gifts, the children then went to bed only to get up in a few hours for the solemn beauty of the music and hymns of midnight Mass. Then it was back to bed with their gifts tucked under the blankets with them. Christmas day would bring a special meal and a day off from chores.
For her last Christmas at the orphanage, Nhambu invited two American teachers from the high school she attended run by Maryknoll nuns. The two women, on witnessing the Christmas scene in front of them, burst into tears and ran back to the guest room leaving a bewildered Nhambu wondering what had happened. When Nhambu questioned them later about their reaction, they said they had felt sad. Nhambu couldn’t understand how the children’s joy and delight and the festive atmosphere that pervaded the orphanage had made them sad.
To this day, Nhambu remembers and relives the beauty and joy of her orphanage Christmases and decorates her house with treasured ornaments from around the world.
Making Christmas Memorable
Because of her appreciation of Christmas ritual, Nhambu loves to celebrate Christmas and starts taking her decorations out of storage the day after Thanksgiving.
Here are some of her thoughts about making Christmas memorable for the family.
I was at a charity event the other day where I, along with a lot of other good and concerned people, were being asked for donations. I listened to the request and the description of where the funds were going. Then it hit me. For many years, I was on the receiving end of donations. I was the underprivileged and needy person the fundraisers were talking about.
My mind raced back to the times the nuns at the Don Bosco School and Orphanage for mixed race children in Tanzania, East Africa, told us to pray to St. Don Bosco, patron saint of abandoned children, or sent us to the statue of Martin de Porres, a mixed-race monk from Lima, Peru, to pray ardently for donations.
The Sisters of the Precious Blood were missionaries from Germany, so they received boxes from abroad of donated clothes, purses, shoes and whatever people chose to give. These boxes were our department store, the source of all my clothing except for the rudimentary panties or knickers the nuns sewed for us, and whatever article of clothing a friend might pass on to me.
Going to the room with the boxes and searching through them for a dress that fit or a pair of shoes that I could wear for the coming year was a thrill for me. I had nothing—all my possessions fit into a one-foot-square cubby with room to spare—so receiving charity donations not only made me feel cared for and happy, but literally helped me survive.
Donations built the orphanage and sustained the school for mixed race children. Donations provided our food that supplemented what the nuns cultivated in the orchards and fields, and kept us alive if a grasshopper plague or bad weather destroyed the crops. Although we couldn’t personally thank our benefactors, we always prayed for them.
It was through donations that the school at the orphanage was set up and run. Donations enabled me to attend middle school at an African boarding school for girls for and then go on to a high school run by American Maryknoll nuns.
When I look back at my life, I see the power of giving. The nuns who raised and taught us were essentially volunteers who lived on donations. They made a gift to us of their lives and talents. Their care and teaching enabled me to make a life for myself.
People are generous and like to give, and they do so hoping their gifts will be put to good use. Certainly, there can be some corruption in the chain of giving, and we need to be aware of who we are trusting to pass on our donations. We may lose sight of where our donations go, and we may think giving doesn’t really matter or change things for people. But I say that yes, it does make a difference. It makes a difference to the body, mind, and heart because I received gifts and donations and felt gratitude for them.
At the orphanage, we received gifts hand sewn by the nuns while other gifts came from the donation boxes. The nun in charge of me, Sister Silvestris, found items in those boxes to give me as special presents. One that I will never forget was a beautiful necklace and earring set that she gave me my last year in middle school. The green “jewels” sparkled when I put the necklace on. It made me feel so loved, appreciated, and encouraged as I was growing up. I knew that I finally had in my hands a gift I could give to my very best friend at school to show her how much I loved her and valued her friendship. Paulina had stood by me, defended me, taught me, and had been like family during those tough years at that school. I gave her the necklace and earrings when we said good-bye. It was the last time I saw her.
A donation paid for my flight from Africa to my new home in Minnesota. Through the generosity of an American teacher who volunteered for a year at the Maryknoll high school, I came to the United States and attended college on a full scholarship. All that giving, all those charity donations and volunteer hours are truly meaningful. It’s what supported me as I became who I am. And I will never forget that.
From the receiving end, personally, whenever I received donations of clothing or food, or whenever I was in the presence of volunteers who took time from their lives and families to come to help us, I used to wonder how could people from so far away, who don’t even know us, make such sacrifice? The lesson they left with us was the determination to emulate them and become donors when and if we found ourselves on their end of the charity chain.
From the giving end, if you are able to be present at the time your gift is received by the recipient, you will realize that “the joy of giving” is not a cliché. To see the smiles of appreciation on the faces of the grateful children and adults will give you the satisfaction that you have made a difference in someone’s life. That joy in your heart is the gift to you that will last forever and no money can buy.
What to keep in mind as the holiday giving season comes around…
This time of year, there’s a deluge of “giving opportunities”— endless requests for donations to a zillion causes. It’s easy to be put off by them and end up ignoring all pleas and pitches for donations. But here are a few guidelines from my experience of having been on both the receiving and giving end of charity.
Africa’s Child is an unforgettable and searingly personal book.
–Marian Wright Edelman
Children’s Defense Fund
President and Founder