I love Thanksgiving. I think it is the ultimate American holiday where for just one day of the year almost everyone in this great big crazy spread out disparate country of ours is doing the same thing. And while others may do it now, the idea of having a holiday where we simply give thanks for all that we have always strikes me as uniquely American (and something we should do more).
If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to share with you my most memorable Thanksgiving, which happened in 2001 while I was living in Malawi. I was volunteering at the Malawi Children’s Village and was teaching, primarily math and English. The event of 9/11 were still, of course fresh. I sent out the below dispatch and I’ll just let it speak for itself. Happy Thanksgiving everyone!
December 9, 2001
Hello and happy holidays from Africa.
I hope everyone is having a wonderful holiday season. Being literally on the other side of the world I can only imagine what things are like in the U.S. and how special these holidays must be. As I think I have said recently, it’s during these times that I really miss being home with friends and family.
Many of you have asked how I spent my Thanksgiving and I would like to devote most of this dispatch to
Obviously in Malawi they don’t celebrate U.S. Thanksgiving, matter-of-fact they don’t even know what it is. Having lived in Malawi for a while now, maybe I had fooled myself into thinking that I had assimilated into the culture more than I had (well as much as a 6’4, 230 pound red-headed American can). I sometimes forget just how big the cultural divide can be, which was brought home for me in trying to explain Thanksgiving to my students.
To digress for just a moment, one of my biggest frustrations for the people here is the utter lack of variety that permeates almost every aspect of their lives, their diet being a perfect metaphor for this. As I have mentioned in past emails, the staple food in Malawi is nsima, which is made from corn meal that is sifted and then boiled until it takes on a consistency of overcooked Cream of Wheat, without the flavor. You eat it communally, taking a small amount from the shared bowl, rolling it into a ball in your hand, and then dipping it in a relish – usually vegetable or fish, sometimes chicken. This is what the villagers eat for lunch and dinner, without fail, every single day. If you ask Tamanda what she had for lunch yesterday, it was nsima. Ask Mbubakar what he had for dinner last Tuesday? Nsima. Three months ago Friday for Imed? You got it, nsima.
Now, I don’t say this to sound culturally insensitive, but think about that; what if you ate the exact same thing for lunch and dinner every single day of your life? How would you feel about food? Think of the pleasure we take in food and particularly different foods from around the world. Well for the most part, folks in Malawi are never afforded that simple opportunity. A small example: a few weeks ago, I made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for some of my students – none of them had ever had one – and it was like they were eating at Le Cirque.
So back to Thanksgiving: I explained how all over the country, families and friends come together to enjoy a great meal, each other’s company, and in our own different ways give thanks for what we have. I started explaining how cool I thought it was that on this one day of the year almost every American shares a common experience as almost every household has a turkey, mashed potatoes, apple or pumpkin pie and so on. And then looking at them I realized they had no idea what a turkey, mashed potatoes or pumpkin pie are.
So right there I decided that we were going to have a Thanksgiving dinner.
In case you’re wondering, making a Thanksgiving dinner in third world Africa can be a bit of a challenge (though I am sure Martha Stewart could make a beautiful centerpiece from the dead bird and hippo dropping she found by the lake). You can bet there are no turkeys, and the chickens are all pretty scrawny.
So I decided we would have a slightly unconventional Thanksgiving dinner – pasta, mashed potatoes and gravy, garlic bread, green beans and a little cake for dessert.
I was able to get the pasta and canned green beans from the Catholic Bishop’s residence (it comes over from Italy … seriously). The tomatoes, potatoes, and onions and garlic for sauce were bought from the local marketplace. And finally from the store in town I bought some powdered mushroom soup (which by using much less water than directed would serve as the gravy), some sausages for the pasta sauce, and some flower, sugar and canned fruit for the cake.
The attached pictures show the process and results; the first is cooking the pasta over an open fire – gathering the wood, lighting and stoking a fire, and then feeling like you’re in a sauna; the second is the magnificent feast; and finally everyone enjoying their first experience with pasta. We had such a fun time that evening and for me it was just so rewarding watching the expressions on their faces as they tried each of the foods and scrambled for seconds. The big
hit, as you could guess, was the cake – like everything else we had that night, none of the kids had ever had cake. Again, it’s flavors they have never tasted or knew to taste and in just a very small way, that they probably don’t even realize, just opening their eyes to other things life has to offer.
The week before, our Form 4 secondary students returned from school having all graduated. They are
now waiting for the results of the national exams to see who will be afforded a place at the University. It gets me down a little, because once again these kids have accomplished something pretty big – graduating from the equivalent of high school – and no one really recognizes their achievement. So I decided that just the six of us would have a celebration: we went to one of the local hotels where we swam, had a great lunch and I gave each of them a watch and a solar calculator (so they don’t have to try to find and buy batteries) that I had brought with me from the States. They were so excited! Every time I would see them they would be sure to tell me what time it was…
As it came time for me to leave, all the students came by to say good-bye and to thank me for what I had done. I once again told them that the pleasure has been mine, that I feel so enriched for having met all of these special people. Life is an amazing thing, and as I think about the events of September 11th, and what is going on all over the world, I can think of spending time with people from a culture so foreign to mine, and mine to theirs, and how that didn’t matter.
Although there are so many things that are different about us, we shared a commonality, that of being human beings that care about each other and at least here
with these people, that know right from wrong.
On several occasions people commented to me that they just didn’t understand why Americans, who have so much, would come to a place like Malawi, and live with so little and without all the creature comforts of home, and yet actually be happy. And I would tell them if I hadn’t have done this I would have never had the opportunity to meet all of them, experience a part of their life, make these great new friends and once again I would tell them that I took way more out of it than I could have possibly given them.
As has been my norm, I would like to end this dispatch with a poem that was given to me as a Christmas gift
by one of my students.
The Jolly Maker
Samuel Aristotle Mtaula
Jolly maker, oh!
I remembered then, for a moment,
With your golden voice,
You taught students.
With wisdom of yours
You created a nice future.
Jolly maker, hmm!
I salute you!
In time of sorrow
You set them with smiles.
When they fall in trouble,
With your presence,
They were self.
Oh! A source of happiness.
There you are,
Indeed you’re a jolly maker.
Let nothing trouble you,
Since you are
With your kindness they enjoyed
Swimming in the swimming pool
No need to get a witness.
With your presence
Many of t hem visited
They visited many places indeed
Ho! Jolly maker!
May the almighty God,
Shower you with blessings,
Oh! Jolly maker.
With that I will close and wish all of you the very best this holiday season. Remember, life is precious so take a moment to smile at people, call an old friend, put aside petty differences with family members, make a commitment to make the world a better place, do something nice for a stranger and most importantly, be good to yourself and make life great!