I grew up in the US and had the usual holidays. My mother used to sew our Halloween costumes. She asked my sisters and I what we wanted to be several months before and then made it. We trick or treating door to door in our neighborhood. When I was younger, my aunt, and grandparents would come to our home for Thanksgiving dinner. Once we realized we were not huge turkey fans we switched to our favorite: chicken schnitzel. My mother made her own advent calendar and we made cookies and made crafts leading up to Christmas.
But there is a strangeness to moving frequently that challenges holiday traditions. One never knows what will be available from one country to the next and what local customs may or may not exist. We have to get creative. Also, in the Foreign Service most of us head to a new post over the summer, and as we are struggling to settle in to new schools, new jobs, new homes, new routines, the holidays of autumn arrive. One after another.
Prior to arriving in Lilongwe, C and I had already decided on her costume for Halloween. She would either be Wonder Woman or a genie / belly dancer; one was packed in our UAB (unaccompanied baggage), arriving not long we we did, the other was ordered in August to arrive many weeks before the big day. About a week before the holiday, the Embassy hosted a family-friendly snacks and happy hour with BYOP (Bring Your Own Pumpkin) for carving. As the day approached I wracked my brain for where I might buy a pumpkin. I vaguely recalled having seen something pumpkin-like at a supermarket. But which one, I did not remember. And, thinking back, the pumpkins had been white or green, but definitely not orange. I asked around. People were not sure. An orange pumpkin seemed a tall order. On the other hand, watermelons were in season and sold at regular spots alongside the road… Our first Halloween in Malawi also turned out to be my first time ever watermelon carving. It turned out almost every had the same idea. It also turned out that carving a watermelon is a little easier than carving a pumpkin, and the insides are more immediately consumable.
The Embassy also arranged a little “trunk or treating” and party for the community. I have now learned that other posts do this, but it was my first experience with it. In Juarez there was trick or treating at the Consulate and in Shanghai residents of our apartment complex signed up with apartment management to give out candy. In Malawi, we all live in free standing houses and although none of us live more than 15 minutes drive from another, we are somewhat spread out. With trunk or treating, approximately 20 community members volunteered (me included!) to decorate the trunks of their vehicles. The cost of admission for each trick or treater was a bag of candy. Then bags of candy were distributed to each trunk decorator so there was plenty to go around. Trunk decorators parked at the party location and kids trick or treated from trunk to trunk. There was PLENTY of candy to go around, especially as kids could visit every vehicle in twenty minutes or less and then circle back around and do it all over again. I had a few visitors come by about ten times!
Halloween in Malawi this year had an extra wrinkle. Starting in September, rumors of supernatural “bloodsuckers” began in the southern part of the country. Over the course of approximately two months, the rumors spread, accompanied by vigilante justice to capture, and even kill, those suspected of either being bloodsuckers or their associates. While this may seem rather unbelievable–the rumors and the violent response–it was all too real and had a sobering effect on our work and celebrations. The international school cancelled the costume dress up day; the Embassy cancelled an evening party; and I kept my scarier decorations in a box at home and came up with something else.
For Thanksgiving C and I stayed in town. There is just the two of us and I am not really much of a cook. Certainly not Thanksgiving dinner kind of cooking. You know, a meal that involves more than two dishes. The Embassy Community Liaison Officer organized a event at a nearby lodge with a restaurant set by a pool and among gardens. There, in 80 degree weather, approximately 20 of us met up for swimming and lounging poolside and a custom-made dinner. The hotel staff did a pretty good job re-creating a traditional meal complete with turkey, mashed potatoes, green beans, and corn on the cob. The corn unfortunately was too tough / too raw to eat, but everything else was quite good.
Then of course the Christmas season followed. Unlike other places I have lived overseas, Malawi went full on Christmas-mode. In late October I headed to the Shoprite supermarket at Gateway Mall for some grocery shopping. There the entrance was decorated in all its holiday splendor – a Christmas tree, gigantic tinsel arches, large dangling ornaments, and even a huge silver bow. Inside there were two aisles of plastic trees, tinsel, lights, tree topping stars, Santa and elf costumes, and loads of wrapping paper. Wrapping gifts would be no problem. Getting them is a little bit more work. In late October the Embassy mail room notified the Embassy community that in order to ensure delivery for Christmas orders would need to be received at the mail facility in Virginia by November 10! Impromptu gift shopping can be tricky for many of us overseas. Not even a chance to use Black Friday deals for Christmas gifts.
C and I headed back to the US in early December; I had training. The stores there too were chock full of Christmas. As usual the back corner of Target was as if Santa’s workshop had exploded. C wanted ALL the Christmas decorations. In particular, she wanted a three foot tall light-up lawn unicorn. I tried to explain that it would not fit in the suitcase. And that the plug and voltage would not work in Malawi. And finally, that in America people decorate their lawns for other people to see, but we had a high wall all the way around our house. C said that without that unicorn it would be the WORST Christmas EVER! But she also desperately wanted a gingerbread house, so I bought one. I put it in the suitcase, snug so that it would not get crushed, and transported it the two flights and 17 hours back to Lilongwe. Not a piece broken. C said it would be the BEST Christmas EVER!
We missed the Embassy Christmas parties, but returned in time for our own Christmas celebrations. We made the gingerbread house. We put up our tree and decorated it–C had insisted I trade in the small tree I bought in Shanghai for a larger one, so I had purchased a five foot fake in the US and brought in my household goods shipment. I hung up our stockings, with two new stocking holders just bought at Target — great for those who have no idea if they will have a fireplace or anything resembling one as they regularly shift around the world. And I began the my tradition of the weeks of gifts for C. We also prepared gift baskets for the staff. I know, I still feel weird saying–and writing–that I have staff. But it is a reality for many in the Foreign Service and there is no reason to pretend otherwise. I had initially not been sure what to include thinking I might get something special while back in the States. But I learned that what most people want are the staples – rice, sugar, salt, cooking oil, biscuits for tea – because Christmas in Malawi is about food and family. I really enjoyed buying the baskets and the contents and assembling them, though giving was most definitely the best part. Because I spend so much time overseas and even when back in the US my family has opted for the past several Christmases to do a gift exchange, it had been a long time since I had given gifts to so many people.
Then we headed to Majete for Christmas. New Year’s was a quiet affair for us. We headed out again to Gateway Mall – the closest thing to come to a US-style mall in Lilongwe. C rode a motorized animal and we goofed off in the equivalent of the dollar store. At home we had ice cream and watched The Goonies. C, snuggled up against me on the couch, dozed off long before midnight — probably a good thing because when 2018 rolled around it sounded as if the neighborhood was under attack. I hugged her tight. Our holidays here, and our first five months, were different, but pretty okay.