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How Kiwi aid workers abroad are celebrating Christmas

Amanda Patterson. Photo/Supplied

From Afghanistan to Tonga, New Zealand aid workers in some of the world’s poorest countries explain how they will be marking the festive season. 

The Kiwi Christmas is often very traditional. After the opening of wrapped and bowed presents comes a feast, usually featuring a roast or BBQ in the family home, bach or at the beach. Even the decorated tree and seasonal rituals tend to follow a decades-long pattern. For some New Zealanders, however, Christmas will be spent far from home where the festivities are different – or non-existent.

Amanda Patterson, Afghanistan

Amanda Patterson is a field worker for humanitarian organisation Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). Since early January, she has been in Afghanistan, a country of contrasts and complexities, “where scars run so much deeper than is often shared or said; where surrounded by active conflict are gardens brimming with the most fragrant of roses; where shops with an Aladdin’s cave of artisan treasures can be destroyed in a single moment; and the serenity of a blue-sky day is ruptured by low-flying helicopters”.

Christmas this year will be a normal working day for Patterson, either in Afghanistan or Tajikistan. “In my heart, I hope it will be Afghanistan, which has become like a second home to me. It’s hard to describe the intensity of emotion each time I arrive here, from the aircraft descent between rugged mountain ranges, to the warm welcome of my Afghan colleagues who await me with a smile and ‘as-salāmu ‘alaykum’.”

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

If Christmas is a day for family, peace and giving, she says, there is no way she’d rather spend it than working in support of a country and communities that have suffered so much trauma and where the need is great.

“As an aid worker, you are there for but a passing moment in the lives of those you work to support. Perhaps something about you or your work will be remembered by a small few, but it’s the work of the organisation as a whole, the combination of the many different skills and experiences of all those who came before you, are there with you and will come after you that has the ability to make a real difference. If I can contribute to making someone’s day a little brighter, enjoy some smiles and laughter with my Afghan colleagues who bring so much courage and humour to each day, and share with those at home the beauty of a country and people outside of what is so often seen in the media, then this would be the best Christmas Day I could hope for.”

GDP*: $67,462 million (world ranking: 102nd)
Life expectancy: 62.7 years

*GDP is gross domestic product converted to international dollars using purchasing power parity rates. Sources: International Monetary Fund, WHO.

Birgit Krickl. Photo/Supplied

Birgit Krickl, Uzbekistan

For Tauranga’s Birgit Krickl, this Christmas Day will be a very obvious break from tradition. Since April, she has been working as a mental-health co-ordinator for a tuberculosis project run by MSF in Nukus, the capital of the autonomous Karakalpakstan republic in Uzbekistan in Central Asia. The weather will be cold, down to an expected -20°C, and festivities muted.

“I will be working over Christmas as Uzbekistan is a Muslim country, therefore it doesn’t celebrate the holiday. There are no Christmas lights or decorations in the streets, so it is a bit difficult to feel the festive spirit.”

It is a far cry from her traditional Kiwi Christmas, chipping in with a BBQ followed by pavlova or strawberries and ice cream with friends and their families (her immediate family live in Austria) then taking a walk or swimming at the beach.

But this year’s Christmas won’t go unmarked. Krickl and other international MSF staff in Nukus will organise a festive dinner the weekend before Christmas. “Everyone will prepare some food, preferably traditional food from the person’s country. We will decorate the house with self-made Christmas decorations and put up a little tree. One person will dress up as Santa and surprise us with little presents.

“Spending Christmas here in Uzbekistan is different from what I am used to. I live with people from different countries, but we all share the same circumstances – being away from our families, friends and loved ones. So, you rely on each other and you learn to trust. We’ve decided to enjoy what we have here with the resources available and make the best out of this festive time.”

However, it won’t end there. “I have heard I will soon be surrounded by Christmas decorations in an unusual way, because for people here, Santa, reindeer, decorated trees and lights are not about Christmas but rather New Year’s celebrations. So, in that way, Uzbekistan has adopted all the typical Christmas decorations from the West.”

GDP: $222,792 million (63rd)
Life expectancy: 72.3

Gillian Mellsop.

Gillian Mellsop, Ethiopia

Christmas Day far from home is not unusual for Gillian Mellsop. She has spent more than 20 years on overseas assignments in Bangladesh, China, Nepal, India, Laos and the Pacific, and every Christmas has been a blend of local customs and Kiwi traditions. For the past four years, she has been working in Ethiopia as the Unicef representative in the capital, Addis Ababa, in a lively neighbourhood “filled with cafes and restaurants and, occasionally, sheep and goats and donkeys, which carry water to nearby houses”.

Although every year has had its challenges, this year was exceptionally difficult, with nearly three million people displaced by ethnic conflicts and drought, placing Ethiopia at the top of countries whose populations have had to leave their homes, and an estimated 350,000 children needing treatment for severe acute malnutrition. “Most of the displaced are children and women who are living in extremely difficult conditions and will not be able to celebrate Christmas.”

This Christmas Day, Mellsop will host Christmas lunch for her visiting children together with some Ethiopian and international friends. Although the food will be mainly Ethiopian, she was able to buy a Christmas ham during a recent trip abroad (it’s difficult to find ham in Ethiopia given that neither Orthodox Christians nor Muslims, who constitute the bulk of the population, eat pork) and plans to prepare her grandmother’s pineapple and carrot jelly to go with the meat. “It’s a family Christmas recipe passed down from my great-grandmother who also happened to have taught Katherine Mansfield at Karori Primary. We will gather under an acacia tree decorated with weaverbird nests, one of the many colourful indigenous birds. I will also celebrate the Ethiopian Orthodox Christmas on January 7 with doro wat, a spicy local chicken stew, which is a traditional dish for holidays and, of course, lots of injeraEthiopia’s fermented pancake staple made from teff.”

GDP: $194,980 million (64th)
Life expectancy: 65.5

Luciano Calestini.

Luciano Calestini, Tajikistan

This year, Luciano Calestini will be spending Christmas in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, where he is the country’s Unicef representative. Tajikistan is a remote, mountainous and poor country of nine million people nestled between Afghanistan, China and Uzbekistan.

It’s a world away from the Wellington suburb of Tawa where he grew up. “I remember Christmases there as a child in the 1970s and 80s. There would always be Mass on Christmas Eve at one of the local churches, with people piling into the streets afterwards, and then, on Christmas morning, I would wake up before anyone and tear open the pile of presents waiting under the tree. There would always be a huge family lunch that day, inevitably a roast dinner. I remember it being the most exciting day of the year, and thinking back, I am thankful to my mother for making it all magically happen while keeping everything a big surprise.

“Tajikistan is a country where Islam is the dominant faith – over 98% of Tajiks are Muslim – and Christmas here is not celebrated at all. It is also one of the few countries in the world where the usual shopping malls and chain stores do not yet have a presence, so even the commercial and cultural aspects of Christmas don’t reach here: no ad campaigns, no Christmas trees, no lights, no mince pies. In fact, it’s just a normal working day. So, I will be in the office as usual, and the only way it will be different from any other day will be when I speak to my nine-year-old daughter, who lives in the UK, and hear what Father Christmas brought her this year.”

GDP: $27,802 million (132nd)
Life expectancy: 70.8

Tim and Helen Manson with their children in Kampala. Photo/Supplied

Helen Manson, Uganda

Helen Manson, her husband, Tim, and their children, Hope (4), Eva (3) and Maz (20 months), will be celebrating Christmas Day in Kampala, Uganda, a “big, dusty, smoggy city” with lots of motorbikes, matatu vans and noise most of the day. The family live in a gated compound with barbed wire, high fences and a full-time guard. “Our streets are bumpy and filled with potholes, the power often goes out and the water supply frequently fails… but we love living in Uganda.”

The Mansons have been in Uganda for five years. Tim’s organisation provides trauma counselling and rehabilitation to victims of war and to refugees; Helen is a humanitarian photographer and writer for organisations such as Tearfund and World Vision.

A traditional Christmas Day in New Zealand would begin with watching the children open their stockings, before going to Helen’s parents’ house for a pancake breakfast, present opening and a BBQ lunch of salmon, chicken and sausages, with salads and sides and ambrosia for dessert.

“This year, we’ll be getting our tree from the side of the road and cutting it down ourselves. Christmas trees aren’t really a thing here so we have to find our own, and we look very strange doing it. We will decorate it with mainly homemade craft items as it’s hard to get Christmas decorations in the middle of Africa. If there is a power surge, I will lose my fairy lights for the third year in a row. I would have pre-purchased our families’ gifts on Amazon. We’ll do stockings as normal and then a big breakfast with just the five of us. After that, we’ll call our families on Facetime in New Zealand to wish everyone a Merry Christmas. We’ll probably host an early dinner under the big trees in our yard with our expat friends in town. We’ll do a Secret Santa, silly games and end with roasting marshmallows in our fire pit.”

GDP: $91,212 million (86th)
Life expectancy: 62.5

Craig Courtis.

Craig Courtis, Kiribati

VSA volunteer Craig Courtis has been working as an English-language trainer for the Marine Training Centre on South Tarawa. He has been there since January and will be returning to New Zealand on December 31.

“Tarawa is pretty heavily populated, but across the lagoon, North Tarawa is a real Pacific paradise – turquoise waters, coconut palms down to the water’s edge, crystal-clear water …”

A traditional Christmas Day in New Zealand is usually a low-key affair. “I’m not really a fan of Christmas so I avoid it as much as I can. Usually it would be a low-key lunch with my wife and kids, and if she isn’t working [she is a midwife], we’d go for a walk or head to the beach at Kakanui near Ōamaru. Ideally, we’d get outdoors and enjoy the day, walking, swimming, having a picnic or BBQ and avoiding the usual traditional Christmas excesses.

This year, the usual Christmas excesses will be even less evident.

“Most of the other VSA volunteers will be returning to New Zealand before Christmas and a number of the other i-matung [foreigners] will be heading off overseas, so there might not be many of us around. At this stage, I’m thinking of taking a ferry to North Tarawa and staying there for a couple of days. I’ll take my bike and explore the northern end of the atoll. I’ll also try to Skype my wife and kids but I’ll have a relaxing non-Christmasy day. I’m glad to be away from the hustle, bustle and madness of the New Zealand silly season but looking forward to seeing how people out here celebrate Christmas.”

GDP: $222 million (188th)
Life expectancy: 66.1

Julie McIlwraith.

Julie McIlwraith, Tonga

Julie McIlwraith is a VSA volunteer working as a quality-assurance adviser for the Tupou Tertiary Institute in Tonga. Christmas Day for her, back in Christchurch, would generally be very traditional: “Family, laughter, presents, turkey and trifle.” This year, she and her partner, Robert, will be spending Christmas in the village of Houma on Tonga’s Tongatapu Island, which has been their home for the past 10 months. She is planning a relaxed island-style Christmas.

“We have inherited the Christmas box from other volunteers so we will decorate. We plan to have an open-house brunch for those who have not travelled home or to other islands, then hitting Ha’atafu beach in the afternoon to practise my snorkelling.”

GDP: $597 million (185th)
Life expectancy: 73.4

Trevor Johnston, Kiribati

On Christmas Day this year, Trevor Johnston, Volunteer Service Abroad’s Kiribati and Tuvalu programme manager, will be on Tarawa, an atoll of the Gilbert Island Group and the capital of the Republic of Kiribati.

For Johnston and his wife, Michelle, a traditional Christmas Day in New Zealand would usually involve a large family lunch with at least a dozen people, including their daughter and grandkids. Guests contribute to a lunch that often includes a seafood starter, followed by curry, roast lamb, turkey or ham. Dessert is traditionally trifle. “We would then open presents while discussing the stupidity of eating too much.”

Two months after they arrived in Kiribati, this Christmas will be very different. “My wife and I will be in a foreign country by ourselves. We hope to go to a little resort in North Tarawa for Christmas to celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary, but what we would really like to do is get a donation sent from New Zealand of toys for the children here and books for the local libraries.”

This article was first published in the December 15, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.