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“Hey! Unto you a child is born!” Gladys Herdman; from: The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.

The dog-eared, water stained copy of the book had made it to the keeper pile. It had survived the steady; in and out of what goes to Botswana and what doesn’t. “So, it’s definitely in the “go” pile?” Jeff asked, looking down at the shabby red paperback. “Yup” I replied, without looking up. “OK with you?” already knowing what his answer would be. The quiet that filled the next moments spoke volumes. Our annual family reading; and by now almost reciting, of the book, was to be suspended, and with the 2011 Christmas season in full swing, silence and reflection had become more and more common place. Holidays-certainly Christmas, would be the hardest. No one needed to say it; it hung in the air, making each tradition bittersweet. Getting “home” in time for the family to sit together at the Christmas Eve Service took on a new urgency. And when we finally assembled we drank it in and savored it, looking first at our sons and their wives, then to one another.

Perhaps more than the specific traditions themselves is the idea of traditions. It’s part of being in the human family. What connects us in traditions is that we establish them and keep them and they mark our lives. For our family, it’s the 4th of July flag cake, the ubiquitous “this year I’m thankful for_____” around the Thanksgiving table, Christmas Eve at church, Christmas day at home. Keeping traditions alive is part of how we keep our loved ones alive, as I learned at 10 when cancer took my too young mother. Every Christmas –even now- she lives on in me. That’s what makes the traditions worth the keeping. The place it touches in us is in the sharedness, the repetition, the anticipation. The history of who we are becoming, our own combination of what we kept from childhood and what we created, sometimes more by accident than design. “We do__________ every Christmas Eve. Time is what fills in the blank. Not what it is, but that it is.

“After church you watch Elf and eat pepperoni and cheese? Is that how most Christians spend Christmas Eve?” Our family recently shared the tradition of lighting of Hanukah candles with my Jewish daughter-in-law. In the blending and embracing we are all enriched and stretched. As family grows you find you can let the world grow and your heart get bigger, or smaller if you choose, or aren’t careful.

So it’s Elf and junk food Christmas Eve and beef tenderloin (and now a vegetarian dish) Christmas day. Mountains of cookies stored in the frigid garage (and people disappearing from time to time into the garage). Cookie gift platters carted off to church, neighbors and friends. Spilled garbage on the kitchen floor-that’s a recent one, instituted by my grand puppies! The reading of the list of ornaments gifted each year by Grandma and Grandpa-and now just Grandma, as they emerge from the collapsing boxes. Replacing those old boxes is not to be whispered! THOSE are the Christmas boxes. Thirty eight such Christmases now practically fills the tree. And, accompanied by tattered trophies from the kindergarten years, produce physical evidence of what accumulates over time in even the most modest of beginnings. Every item that goes on the tree has some memory or significance. A once sparse tree provides the stage where our family story is retold each year. As Jeff and I sit and recall the first ornament; a white mailbox topped with a red bird and tiny holly berries- Shaver printed on one side and 1976 on the other, Jeff suddenly disappears to the garage, not to eat cookies, but to begin crafting white mailboxes, with holly and red birds on top. This passing of the tradition lessens the sting of things going in the pile marked Botswana; re focuses the rejoicing on the things coming out of the box marked Christmas.

2013 our youngest son and daughter-in-law will be with us Christmas day at Water Lilly Lodge. Christmas with Lucky, who could have seen that coming in 1976 when the mail box first went on our tree? When their plans for visits to Africa took shape around who would come for birthdays and who would cover Christmas, we knew the torch had been passed. They too were anchoring in tradition.

Of course the great joy will be when we are all together again. But until then the sadness is mitigated by undeniable personal growth. As much as it has hurt on many levels we will return to America better people, better spouses, better parents. Not so much for what we have given as what we have been given. Recently I came across a quote in an old journal; scribbled there during the Peace Corps “waiting” months. It reminded me of why I’m here and not producing cookie favorites for one more Christmas.

“By learning from and with each other (Botswana) we sharpen our vision and practice in ways that could never happen alone. We need each other. Our connected lives and cultures make us better people.”

Botswana has caused my world view to grow; my life to grow and my heart. God is bigger than I used to think and isn’t that at least part of what “Hey; unto you a child is born” is really all about?

Oh, one more thing: It can be read on safari as well as any place, don’t you think?


The Botswana Ministry of Health aspires to a lofty goal: attain an internationally recognized accreditation for two of its clinics and one hospital. This is the backdrop in which I present:

A Snap Shot Of Xhosa Clinic.

I pass the rail tracks and stock yards leaving the tarred road behind. Just ahead on the right, Xhosa Clinic comes into view through the dust of the passing taxi and donkey cart. It is early but the sun is already unbearably hot. A passerby looks with envy as I push the button on my popup umbrella. Sun umbrellas are everywhere, but not the collapsible kind. I wait for her to ask me for it, or rather for her to tell me to give it to her-but today she passes without comment. Perhaps I’m becoming a fixture and she passes without seeing. One child spots me and a chorus of shouts echo through the tiny neighborhood; “Mma Dana, Mma Dana.” I wave and am reminded that this is the favorite part of my morning ritual and I will miss their competition to decide who I spotted first and therefore received my first wave. Their family home is a shabin (sells the local brew) and there are a few lingering drunks lying about their yard. As I enter the battered gate to the clinic my eyes rest on the recently erected sign announcing Xhosa as a TB clinic and its commitment to “ A World free of TB “. The current infection rate is alarming and on the rise. Before HIV the TB rate was below one percent. Inside I stop to exchange greetings with Rejoice, our security guard. It doesn’t take me long to reach the end of my Setswana niceties. Rejoice, seated in her makeshift chair, is chatting with the lady who will spend her day here selling sweets (candy) peanuts and rolls from her rickety wheelbarrow. On the other side of the fence, directly behind her is another vendor selling almost exactly the same things. His wares hang from plastic bags off the wire of the fence. He fairly often is taken with seizures. Maybe that prompts him to sell near the clinic. Just steps beyond him is a small store. Chickens, people and bare footed children move about inside their high wire fence. Sweets of the same brands and flavours are for sale here as well. No one seems to mind. They share change and visit back and forth with one another throughout the long, hot and dusty day. Overhead –providing shade is a blackberry tree. School children stand on broken chairs to reach the fruit or they bat it with sticks. It’s possible this is breakfast. To the right-under no roof or covering sit the ladies waiting for the midwife. “Dumela BoMma” (“Good morning ladies”-) I say as I pass. “Ah! You are Motswana now Mma Dana “. These few simple phrases bring high praise! “Yes “ I reply “I even drink 5 Roses (tea ) in the heat! They respond with laughter. A van pulls up and begins to unload fresh chips- (french fries). He moves inside to sell directly to the patients seated on backless wooden benches and broken office chairs. This is the triage and waiting area and is at least under a tin roof. It being open front and back to the elements makes for better ventilation and more desirable as a TB clinic site. At least that is how we feel until the rains start. Some of the patients won’t buy from this man selling fresh chips.” He’s a Zim-(from Zimbabwe )they are dirty” I’m told. He looks very clean to me, and fairly prosperous, not to mention ambitious. But I am just a lacoah (white person) so do not know about such things.