24 December 2012

Tanzania: Christmas 2012 - From Arusha With Love

CHRISTMAS seems to be losing its hold on Arusha residents; the bustling activities and fanfare that used to precede this Christendom's colourful holiday has been going down in recent years.

This year things are even cooler around here; of course it has also something to do with the fact that most Arusha residents vacate the city during end-of-the-year season, taking off to spend Christmas and New Year elsewhere.

People working with the United Nations International Tribunal for Rwanda (UN-ICTR), the Non-Tanzanian Staff of the East African Community (EAC) Secretariat, employees of the African Court and other international institutions and foreign organizations would normally return to their home countries.

Since International Organizations also pay their workers handsomely, many can afford exotic holidays in those 'travel magazine' destinations such as Switzerland, the Bahamas and South Africa and even in Kenya's coastal city of Mombasa. Foreigners who choose to remain in Tanzania also don't want to get stuck in Arusha; many travel to Zanzibar where beach tourism is better defined and others take the opportunity to visit National Parks such as Serengeti, located far away from the city and while at that, they may connect their itineraries with a tour of Mwanza.

Essentially most international institutions close shop as early as mid-November allowing ample time for their staff to book flights, hotels and other necessities that would see them out of Arusha long before the annual reminiscence of the legendary Caesar Augustus Census. Now the situation is almost the same for local residents; come December and many of them would vacate the town heading to their home villages.

Buses plying to the Lake Zone regions of Mwanza, Mara and Kagera are usually fully booked in the last month of the year and as dates advance to the 20s, the scramble for commuter buses connecting Arusha with Moshi (Kilimanjaro) intensifies. Improved roads and increased means of transport (more buses, planes and the recently introduced cheapest airline) have made it easy for people to travel constantly without worrying about money, time taken or duration of stay.

In the past when transport was difficult, many people chose to spend their holidays in town, fearing cumbersome and tedious procedures in booking and eventually getting bus tickets for the upcountry journeys. They also used to worry about how they will be getting back to work once the holidays were over because it used to be the same headache booking passage from whichever destination to Arusha.

In those days, things used to be the other way round; people would instead send for their up-country relatives and loved ones in advance, so that the latter could come to Arusha and spend the holidays with them. With most of the rural residents being farmers, they need not worry about getting late for work, once the holidays are over, so travel was not of paramount concern to them.

Now compared with the 70s, the 80s and early 90s, when Arusha used to be full of people during Christmas and New Year holidays, tables seem to have turned and now the City is usually rendered empty during this season. There is also the Kenyan factor; the neighbouring country which holds General Elections after every five years, used to conduct the polls in December and were it not for some changes, this year 2012 would have been Election year for Kenya.

Normally experiencing chaos during voting exercises in its urban centres such as Nairobi, Kenya used to 'send' a number of non-partisan, semi-political refugees, who used to safeguard themselves from the mayhem in the neighbouring country, with a month long stay in Arusha.

This time however, Kenya has pushed forward its polls to March 2013, which means the part-time refugees won't be crossing to Arusha this December and as a result the City's holiday population void is bound to be gaping wider. But Christmas in Arusha or its dwindling festive mood can best be described through the fencing material used by local residents to safeguard their houses.

In the past, 'live' fences were all the rage and come December, people would cut branches of the shrub-like enclosures and use them as 'inhouse' mistletoes decorations for Christmas. Today the live fencing has been replaced with towering brick and concrete walls, maybe due to increased safety concerns. Besides synthetic 'Christmas trees' are now available in shops and once one is bought, is bound to last for ages and this has killed this other part of the season's tradition.

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