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HAM BY MAIL
Or, The Ham that Crawled in From America
By Steve Van Nattan
We were living on Ukerewe Island which is in Lake Victoria in Tanzania, and our mission station was called Kazalankanda. Now, that's a bit of a tongue twister. I was about 12 years old and my brother and I were at home from boarding school on vacation. Ukerewe Island is a beautiful and rather large island. Our mission station was almost dead center in the island, and it was not possible to tell you were living on the island without traveling some distance.
It would have been about 1955, and my parents had not been on the mission field very long. But, already, there were several things we really missed. These missing things from America did not make us miserable, but we often mentioned certain things which we missed from back in the USA. We missed good apples and peaches. There are none in the tropics. We missed some of the meat choices we used to have. Meat in African markets was very tough as a rule.
But, the thing we missed the most I think was Hershey's chocolate. Right in second place would have been ham. The Africans would not even consider eating pork or ham. There was an Italian some miles away who raised hogs and sold the pork, but his prices were out of sight.
Some dear folks, in a church in the USA who supported our family financially, wrote and asked what we missed. Mom wrote back to the ladies mission society of that church and told them about our missing chocolate, ham, Life Savers, Kool Aid, and American chewing gum.
That was the end of the subject for about six months. Now, you need to understand something about sending mail to Africa. In the early 1950s the only way to get a parcel to Africa from the USA was by slow freighter. There was Air Mail, but it was horribly expensive. No one used Air Mail for parcels-- only for letters. Well, the missionary society of that church in the US made up a parcel with a huge cured ham in it. They surrounded it with Hershey bars, Kool Aid, and all sorts of candy, and they put it in the mail. Well cured hams will ordinarily store for many months at room temperature.
Now, that parcel had to go first to New York City. There, it would have been put into the hold of a slow freighter, and that freighter would then begin the slow and often interrupted journey across the Atlantic Ocean, around the Cape of South Africa, and up the East Coast of Africa. The hold of a freighter in the tropics is a veritable oven most of the time. Once at Dar es Salaam on the Tanzania coast, the parcel would sit in a tin shed at around 140 F. until a load of mail could be put together to send up country. This load would have been then put on a wood burning very slow train to Mwanza. From there, the mail would go to the Post Office in Mwanza, and finally on a ferry boat to Ukerewe Island.
One day Dad went to Nansio, the capital of Ukerewe Island, to pick up the mail. As he hopped out of the pick up truck, he noted a strange and very noxious odor on the wind. Never mind, this is Africa, and that could be just about anything. Dad went on into the Post Office, and as he entered, the foul smell got a lot stronger. The Indian Post Master saw Dad at once, and the man rushed from his office. He was nearly in a panic as he said, "Mr. Wan Nattan, I am wery glad to see you zir, One moment please." He tore into the back of the Post Office, and soon he came out holding a parcel by the knot in the middle of the top of the thing. He held it far out in front of him and his face was contorted in pain.
Dad was really wondering what was happening. The Indian Post Master came quickly to Dad, and he held out the parcel. "There, Mr. Wan Nattan," he exclaimed triumphantly, "Take your parcel, thank you please, quickly zir. No customs charges, thank you please. Just take your parcel at once." By now, Dad saw what was happening, and he could not believe that this horrid rotten smell was now his personal property. Dad looked at the return address, and his heart sunk. He at once realized someone "back home" had sent something which did not take the journey too well.
When Dad got home, we all went out to meet him as usual. It was then our turn to smell the most rotten thing we had ever smelled. We were almost gagging. Dad picked up the parcel by the middle knot again, and he carried it over under a mango tree behind the house. He set it on the ground, and he went and got a shovel. He opened the parcel with one chop of the shovel, and what we saw caused a very pathetic moment. There, in the middle of the parcel was a "cured" ham which was literally crawling with maggots. All around the ham was a wreath of Hershey's chocolate bars, Life Savers, Kool Aid, chewing gum, and many other delicacies which we had not seen in over two years. The rotted ham had destroyed all the other treats, and there was no way to salvage anything.
As we groaned, and as tears came to Mom's eyes, Dad laid the ham to rest in a hole nearby. Seldom has a country cured ham had a more emotional funeral. Some day, if the Lord does not come soon, some African farmer will unearth all those candy wrappers, and he will wonder who would bury all those things unused.
In perspective, Dad and Mom told my brother and I we should be very grateful for friends who would go to the trouble and expense to try to send us treats. But, to a twelve year old kid, Hershey's chocolate does not move the heart to joy quite as much as chocolate candy.
I must note that about a year later, the same ladies' missionary society in the US sent a box of Levis for my brother and I. That time, they sent the parcel by Air Mail, and the whole front of the box was covered with blue Air Mail stamps. We figured it up, and the postage had to cost far more the the cost of the Levis. We had some real choice and gentle friends "back home," so the ham quickly was forgotten. I hope you have friends who show such care for you once in a while. There is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother. Take good care of them.