Part 1: The American Version
I spent Thanksgiving itself down in Cotonou, celebrating with other volunteers. We spent Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning in a waltz of cooking, an amusing choreography and synchronization that fell a smidgen short of chaotic as at least ten volunteers tried to match one (bread box sized, single object at a time) oven, three functioning burners, single basin sink (remember all dishes must be washed by hand and preferably before the next person’s use), and very limited counter space to their Thanksgiving needs. Tinika and Novella even chose to stay up all night baking to ensure a more relaxing process and their unlimited access to all of our (admittedly limited) kitchen supplies.
Regardless, we managed to each create our potluck items as well as enough for a Thanksgiving lunch amongst volunteers. Even better, we entertained ourselves during the meal going around in a circle saying what we were grateful for this year. In an overwhelming chorus, we all mentioned this experience and the people – both volunteers, in village, and all of you back home – who make it possible.
After only a few short digestion hours (and time for last minute cleaning/ food finalizations), we all headed out to the ambassador’s house for his Thanksgiving Potluck, an invitation issued to all government staff in Benin. We joked that the peace corps dishes were instantly recognizable….not so much for the quality (we’ve learned creative cooking) but for their presentation in plastic bowls, pots with handles broken off, or whatever else we could find. And I have to admit, we couldn’t quite compete with turkey or homemade rolls or chocolate pecan pie or all the other delicious options. Yet, we got to eat them – so in the end we all won with a meal truly resembling both old and new Thanksgiving traditions.
Part 2: The Beninese Version
I celebrated Thanksgiving with my clinic a week later in a delayed fete. I splurged in preparations, making a quiche using laughing cow cheese, the last of my canned ham, and an amount of effort I usually do not put forth in day to day cooking and cleaning (my meals often alternate between the one pot options of macaroni, lentils, or oatmeal). It looked gorgeous, smelled delicious, and I was really looking forward to both sharing and eating it. Only Africa intervened again as it slipped from its string and bungee cord attachments to fall from my bike and face plant in the sand, leaving the dish ruined and the side of canned brussel spouts (on sale and the cheapest grocery store option) as the only sustenance. I have to say, it put me in a bad mood, especially with the additional guilt as all of the staff (not just those working for that day’s guard) slowly trickled in for the celebration.
And then Mama Chirstine came – bearing a perfect solution in prepared wagashi, rabbit, accassa, and tomato/onion chutney. We arranged everything – including my brussel sprouts – out on a few plates and began communal eating with all of us grabbing from the same shared plates. It was honestly one of the best experiences to date since being here. And even my stuttered explanations (both then and now) of the whole Thanksgiving concept and how I had wanted to have this fete as a means of sharing it with them both to show them and to thank them for being what I am most grateful for this year failed to match the moment. In short, it was a Thanksgiving I will never forget.