A Zambian Christmas Unlike Any Other

Can you believe 2014 is already coming to an end?! This year really flew by. One year ago I was preparing to depart for my volunteer program in Livingstone, Zambia. December 2013 marked my first Christmas away from home, making it an extra special holiday season!

Something about doing the same thing every Christmas really struck me. Sure, it’s important to spend time with family and friends, but there’s also the gifts and the exorbitant amount of food. It was time to take a step back. What better way to give back during the holiday season than by volunteering! And of course, I took that even further by traveling half way across the world to volunteer in Zambia, where more than 70% of Zambians live in poverty according to National Geographic.

Girls in Zambia Volunteer Abroad

I really wasn’t sure what to expect when arriving in Livingstone. I knew I would be pushing the boundaries of my comfort zone, but I was confident it was going to be worth it, despite those that were not thrilled with my decision. Having staff and other volunteers from African Impact, the organization I volunteered with, right there with me on site was certainly helpful in getting comfortable in this foreign land.

Volunteer Teaching in Zambia

The program was focused on teaching the local children and helping out with community development. The day after I arrived, I jumped right in to join a few other volunteers teaching at “Holiday Club,” which provides the children with the opportunity to still attend school while the teachers are off work. Managing a class of around 75 students on average, aged anywhere from babies to 14-year-olds, was quite the challenge! Especially since I had no prior teaching experience!

With the help of the other volunteers, we managed to have fun with the kids and feed their hunger for knowledge and learning. Although it was wonderful to teach the students, it was impossible to overlook the harsh conditions in which they live. Class was held every day in an old, run down building that had some rusty bars for windows and bare walls with chipped paint. Many of the children wore the same thing to school every day, and some would even come with their pajamas still on.

Zambia School

While there is nothing that would immediately solve the poverty issue in the country, I was able to spread a little extra Christmas cheer and play a role in providing a special Christmas surprise for the kids. Santa came to visit Holiday Club! The students were beyond excited to meet Santa. Seeing the joy on their faces from this simple gesture is when I knew I made the right decision in giving back to the community of Zambia during Christmas.

Even though I am going to be back home in Chicago this Christmas, there was one important lesson I learned that stood out among the rest. Sometimes, seemingly insignificant gifts to one person may be treasures to another. It reminded me of the charm of the spirt of Christmas that tends to get lost in the hustle and bustle of the holiday season. This year, I’ll be taking an extra moment to appreciate the abundance of food I’ll get to enjoy in the company of close family and friends. I will cherish the memories of giving to the Zambian community and will forever be grateful for all they gave to back to me.

Never forget to appreciate the little things.

Have you ever spent a Christmas away from home?
Would love to hear about your experience in the comments below!


  1. Wow! That’s awesome that you volunteered & helped out in Zambia. I would love to do something like that one day. It’s always refreshing to see children with smiling faces. I actually spent my first Christmas away from home two years ago in Savannah, GA. I missed my family but I had an awesome time in Savannah. I wouldn’t do it every year, but I think it’s kinda cool to switch things up and do something different. Thanks for sharing and please feel free to visit my travel blog.

  2. What a great way to spend Christmas, Marissa. Your post arrived at the best time of the year: a time when we should all be thinking less at ourselves and more to what we can do to help other. It’s so easy to get carried away with the glitter and glamour of Christmas and forget that most of this planet is inhabited by people in need, people who have absolutely nothing. I commend you for trying to do something useful for the less fortunate.

    • Thanks Anda! It really was a special way to spend last Christmas, and has certainly impacted my outlook on the holiday this year and what it truly means to give back. Hope you have a wonderful holiday season!

  3. Hi Marisa, what a wonderful. rewarding Christmas you had in Zambia. It truly is an eye-opener. It must truly be refreshing to step out of your comfort zone on Christmas time and appreciate the simple need of others in other parts of the globe during this season. It must also be refreshing to finally go home and fully appreciate what you normally take for granted.

    • Hi Marisol, thanks for reading! It really was a memorable Christmas that has made me even more grateful this year. While I would love to go back to visit Zambia someday, I am cherishing the time I get to spend in great company with my family and friends.

  4. I was a volunteer on a mission in Tanzania and December last year was the time of my big preparations. I’m missing it so much now. Even today I have received an e-mail from the director of the school I used to work. I don’t know how it’s possible but I fell in love with Africa completely, with the nature, people and its “pole pole” philosophy! 🙂

  5. What a fantastic and fascinating post – so different from spending Christmas at home or on a usual holiday. Sounds like you have learnt so much too.

  6. This piece warmed my heart. And what better time than Christmas for such a beautiful story of caring and compassion. Good job!

  7. Really awesome way to spend the holidays. I’ve heard wonderful things about Zambia and I really enjoyed reading about your experience.

  8. I’d so love to try what you’ve done for Christmas. Being with family and friends is wonderful but it’s truly over-the-top with food and presents. We’ve gotten better about giving but your experience is in the reals spirit of Christmas. Thanks for posting.

    • Thanks Elaine! I completely agree, and sometimes it can be hard to look past all the extravagant celebrations that we can get used to year after year. This was a wonderful way to take a step back and do something more meaningful that really supports the Christmas spirit.

  9. Over the years I’ve come to realize that all the important things about Christmas – family, friends, good food, great memories – can actually be created and enjoyed the other 364 days of the year, too. Who knows – your decision to spend this season giving to others may end up being one of your most precious memories. What an amazing experience. Kudos!

    • Thanks Linda, that is so true! There is always time to spend with family and friends throughout the year, and this was the perfect way to do something that highlights the real spirit of Christmas.

  10. How long did you spend in Zambia? I’m sure it was an incredibly rewarding experience. I spent a year teaching in Namibia and wouldn’t trade the experience for the world. I agree with you that, as volunteers, we cannot expect to have a revolutionary impact on the communities we serve, but that small actions CAN go a long way. And we end up gaining so much in the process in terms of perspective and empathy.

    • Hi Erika, I was only in Zambia for 2 weeks, certainly too short in my opinion! How long were you in Namibia for? I am a strong believer in the impact that those little actions can make and I can only hope that I made a difference in at least one of those kid’s lives that I taught. It’s always reassuring to hear others who feel the same!

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