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In Paul’s Massawe’s childhood home near Mt. Kilimanjaro, Christmas was not about gifts for children. Except once.

A Christmas tale: “It really drove home the impact those kinds of things can have.” 

Greg Weatherford
VCU School of Pharmacy

There’s a saying in Swahili: “Kidogo kidogo hujaza kibaba.” Little by little fills the cup.

In other words, every step counts — no matter how small. Sometimes those steps come in the form of a little stack of empty red-and-green shoeboxes.  

It had been more than a decade since he had seen those boxes covered in red and green Christmas paper. But as soon as Paul Massawe saw them in a room at VCU School of Pharmacy, where is a Pharm.D. student, he remembered. 

He must have done a double take. His classmates looked askance at his reaction. 

To them, these were just shoeboxes that as members of a student organization called Christian Pharmacist Fellowship International they were working to fill with donated toys and household items for children around the world, a project of the nonprofit group Samaritan’s Purse

Massawe assured them there was nothing wrong. He just had not expected to see those distinctive Christmas packages again. Not since he was a child himself years ago, many miles away. 

For that moment, Paul was back in 2004, a young child in Tanzania on a field trip with his schoolmates. Jouncing in a rented minibus to a big building in town, where he is handed a red-and-green box. Inside, presents — little perfumed soaps and a container of shampoo, which Paul has never seen before. Best of all: a toy elephant that makes sounds when you press a button. 

It was the first real Christmas gift Paul had ever received. 

Paul Massawe grew up in the shadow of Kilimanjaro, in the town of Moshi, Tanzania. Massawe’s father left when Paul was a small child, taking his two older children, so Paul grew up with his mother and grandmother in their little home without running water or electricity. 

Paul Massawe’s mother, an ardent evangelical Christian, was opposed on religious grounds to giving Christmas presents — Christmas should be about Jesus and good deeds, she said, not material things. On Christmas Day, after church they would join family members for a rare feast of jollof rice, chicken and beef. The next day was spent visiting sick or hospitalized friends and family with gifts, fruit and other food.

But in Paul’s home, Christmas was not about gifts for children. When Paul’s friends showed off the new suits of clothes or bright new shoes they had received for Christmas, Paul had none to show. 

Paul’s mother had a collection of sayings. The saying she repeated most often was “Kidogo kidogo hujaza kibaba.” Little by little fills the cup.

When Paul would ask why she needed to carry baskets of homemade buns on her head to sell at the local market, walking 10 miles each way, or why they would walk 25 miles to their farm to hoe their small plots of corn or beans, she might remind her young son that every little thing they did helped. Kidogo kidogo hujaza kibaba. Little by little fills the cup.

Moshi’s town market. (2009 photo, courtesy Wikimedia)

Paul took his schoolwork seriously. When his mother found a way for him to be accepted into an English-style primary school supported by Christian donors in the United States, he worked hard. When finances were tight and the family of three had little to eat but corn porridge, they made do. When his mother ran short of money she needed to pay her share of Paul’s tuition, she brought goods to the school and bartered so he could keep up with his schooling for another month. Little by little fills the cup. 

He particularly loved biology. By the time he graduated high school, he was so focused he would read two or three biology textbooks and highlight differences between them. Step by step, he advanced. Little by little fills the cup.

When Paul graduated and become a teacher himself, he took a job at his younger cousin’s school so he could tutor her for the all-important placement exams. 

When Paul’s friend invited him to join a mission trip to teach science in underserved schools in Tanzania, he said no — too busy tutoring his cousin. When his friend asked again, Paul said no again  — he didn’t want to give up the pay he used to help his grandmother and mother. Finally, his friend asked him to join the mission trip during a school break. This time Paul said yes. 

“I loved it,” he says now. When he returned to work, he marched to the office of his headmaster and negotiated a deal in which he would teach after hours and still volunteer for the mission work. “I was so bold,” he marvels now, laughing. 

Kidogo kidogo hujaza kibaba. Little by little fills the cup.

When his mission experiences connected him with an American family who offered to fund his premedical studies at Oral Roberts University in the United States, he was thrilled. His first ride in an airplane took him from Tanzania to Tulsa. When his premed grades faltered in this strange new place and his sponsors withdrew financial support, Paul did not give up; he worked out a deal in which he worked for the university to advise other international students. The rest he raised through small donations from friends who pooled funds every year. Kidogo kidogo hujaza kibaba. Little by little fills the cup.

Inspired by a newfound love of chemistry, Paul graduated from Oral Roberts and enrolled in pharmacy school at VCU. He lives in Richmond, pays for school through side jobs, scholarships and donations, and sends money home to help support his mother as well as an adoptive child being raised by Paul’s sister. (As an adult, inspired by his faith, Paul reconnected with his father, a successful physician in Tanzania, and has built relationships with his siblings.) He expects to graduate with a doctorate in pharmacy in 2024 and plans to lead a health clinic in Tanzania. Kidogo kidogo hujaza kibaba.

Massawe today. He expects to graduate with a doctorate in pharmacy in 2024 and plans to lead a health clinic in Tanzania.

Back at the School of Pharmacy, once he had recovered from his surprise at seeing the little red-and-green boxes from his childhood, Paul told his classmates of his connection to the project. 

“Knowing that we are actually in class with someone whose life has been positively affected by this project is really endearing,” says project co-organizer Mmesoma Azi, a third-year Pharm.D. student. 

“It really drove home the impact those kinds of things can have,” says project co-organizer Courtney Jenkins-Lipscomb, another third-year pharmacy student. “It made it very real.”

Massawe, Mmesoma Azi, Courtney Jenkins-Lipscomb and fellow classmates collected and packed 31 boxes of Christmas gifts this year. (Photos: Courtney Jenkins-Lipscomb.)

They shared Paul’s story with their classmates. The toy drive grew from a half-dozen boxes filled with toys last year, the student group’s first, to 31 this year. The stack of gifts filled Jenkins-Lipscomb’s car to the roof. 

The story of Paul’s childhood connection spread. “I told my parents about it and my mom filled three boxes,” Jenkins-Lipscomb reports. “She was so excited!”

Those 31 boxes filled with presents have been shipped out across the world. Paul Massawe helped pack many of them himself. Somewhere, a child will open a Christmas present, maybe for the first time. 

Little by little fills the cup.

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