A week before Christmas I began making the pastoral rounds of our 11
out-stations in Iramba Parish in Western Tanzania. I celebrated the Sacrament of
Reconciliation and helped the local Christians to prepare for the coming of
Jesus Christ on Christmas Day. I was well aware that many times the people teach
me the real meaning of Christmas more than I teach them.
On 23 December I was returning from Nyiboko Out-station, 30 kilometers from
Iramba Parish Centre. Several people were riding in my pick-up truck.
Transportation is scarce on these rough, dirt roads. Often the only option is a
long, tiring walk in the boiling African sun. The local people often say that
one of the most important services of the priest is to give “lifts” (“rides”) in
Near Masinki Village a young woman signaled for a lift. She was obviously
pregnant. I would have guessed eight months and 29 days! She wanted to go to
Iramba Health Centre. The other passengers insisted that the woman sit in front
with me. "She is with child," they said. Their happy faces told me so much about
African values and seemed to say: "This young Tanzanian woman will give birth in
the next few days. Children are life. Children are hope. Children are the
future. The new-born baby will carry on the family name."
As we drove along we talked. The young woman told me that her name is Veronica.
She was shy at first — part of the African tradition of a woman hesitating to
talk to a stranger. She explained that her first pregnancy had been difficult.
Her husband Jacob had wanted a boy, but she gave birth to a girl, Modesta, named
after her maternal grandmother. "It’s all in God’s plan," Veronica said. But
this time she really wanted a boy. Not just because her husband wanted a son,
but deep within her heart Veronica knew a boy would carry on the family line, so
important in the African extended family tradition.
As we jolted along a particularly rough section of the road we both fell silent.
I mused about this young Tanzanian woman sitting next to me. She was no more
than 20 years old. Veronica had finished primary school four years ago. Now she
was a busy mother, housewife, farmer and general provider that describe the
ordinary life of women in rural Africa. She was poor but Veronica radiated a joy
and happiness, in large part due to the anticipation of giving birth. I wondered
what would have happened if I hadn’t come along. Veronica would have waited for
another lift — perhaps standing for hours in the hot sun. Or she would have
started the long journey of 16 kilometers on foot. I thought of another woman
pregnant with child who had made a similar journey almost 2,000 years ago.
When we started talking again Veronica sheepishly admitted that she was a
Catholic but not much of a churchgoer. "I’m always so busy around the house,"
she said. But she emphasized that she knew Christmas would be coming in two days
time and that this is a great celebration for everyone. I said: "Veronica,
you’re very special." She looked at me with surprise and said: "Why is that, Padri? I’m just an ordinary woman."
I explained to Veronica that she is very special because she would give birth
around Christmas time. This reminds all of us of the most important birth of all
time: when Mary gave birth to Jesus in a stable in Bethlehem almost 2,000 years
ago. As Veronica listened with wide-eyed excitement I told her the story of the
first Christmas emphasizing the tender and loving role of Mary. I ended by
saying: "And this birth changed the whole world."
By now we were drawing near to Iramba. For Veronica’s sake I was glad the rough
ride was nearly over. The young Tanzanian woman said: "I really don’t know much
about the Christmas story, but this year I’ll remember what you have told me."
Then with downcast eyes she said: "But this year I won’t be able to go to church
on Christmas." "Don’t worry," I told Veronica. "The most important thing is that
you give birth safely. Think of Mary and Jesus as you lie on your bed in the
Health Centre." "I will," exclaimed Veronica. "Oh, yes, I will."
In front of the Iramba Health Centre Veronica slowly got out
of the truck. The other passengers and I wished her well and said good-bye. I
drove on to the church to meet a flurry of pre-Christmas activities. I thought
of Veronica a lot during the next 24 hours. After all pregnant Veronica and
pregnant Mary were teaching us the same thing.
On Christmas Eve I made the five-minute walk to the Iramba
Health Centre to see how Veronica was doing. She was getting close to delivery
time. Of course, the Blessed Virgin Mary was getting close too. The medical
assistant said that it would be a difficult delivery. Veronica had been right to
come to the health centre. I thought of the many African women who are not so
fortunate — especially those who give birth in isolated rural villages without
proper care. I blessed Veronica and prayed for a safe delivery.
Then I hurried back to the church. Last minute
preparations were underway for the Midnight Mass. I visited the Christmas Crib,
which we call "the Christmas Hut" and is designed in an African way. The carved
figures of Mary and Joseph had just been placed in the hut to parallel the time
of the first Christmas. The figure of the baby Jesus would be solemnly placed in
the manger during the reading of the Gospel about the birth of Jesus Christ
during the mass.
The next morning — Christmas day itself — I left very
early to celebrate the Christmas liturgy at two distant out-stations. I joked
with the people that I see many of them only twice a year — at Christmas and at
Easter. After a big Christmas meal and more celebrating I arrived back at the
Iramba Parish Centre about 5 p.m.
After resting for a few minutes I heard a knock at the
door and a woman’s voice say "Hodi, Padri" (the equivalent of "I’m here,
Father"). It was Veronica holding her newborn baby in her arms. The young
Tanzanian Mother was beaming and I was overjoyed to see her. I felt like the
first Christmas story was being relived right here in Iramba in Tanzania, East
I knew the African custom that after giving birth African mothers are often on
their feet the same day or the next day. If they give birth in a hospital or
health centre they often return home within a day or two. But seeing Veronica
was like a miracle. She exclaimed: "It’s a boy just like we hoped for. My
husband Jacob will be so happy." I broke in: "Oh, I’m so happy too." Veronica
went on: "I had a difficult time last night but gave birth about 11 p.m. That’s
very close to the time when the Blessed Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus
according to what you told me. I have felt good all day so the medical assistant
said that I could go home. Tonight I’ll be staying with my aunt here in Iramba.
Tomorrow I hope to get a lift to return to Masinki. I am very eager to show the
baby to Jacob and my parents. They will be so happy."
The joy on Veronica’s face communicated much more than
words. We talked for a few more minutes and then parted. I could only think to
myself" "God is good. Oh, yes, God is good. 2000 years ago in Bethlehem Mary
gave birth to a boy child. Last night here in Iramba Veronica gave birth to a
boy child also.