Probably the hardest holiday for me to miss at home is Thanksgiving. Christmas may have presents, but Thanksgiving has so much more – the presence of my family and friends (sorry I couldn’t resist wordplay). In my mother’s family we have a tradition of being together, or at least trying to, driving or flying to make it in time. It is the one of those rare times of the year where all of the tables are set into one long one, and everyone can partake in the massive passing of every dish my mother, grandmother, sister, or aunt could think of, attempting to make room on the table, then our plates, and eventually our stomachs.
Missing Thanksgiving is hard, missing friendsgiving is harder! Over ten years ago my high school friends and I started a tradition of having dinner together, the day or two after the real Thanksgiving to celebrate our friendship. It was usually the only time we could all get together in the same room for the entire year. The one time our close knit group could actually catch up, and remain connected. Many years have been postponed due to my absence, or we’ve resorted to “virtual friendsgiving,” which definitely isn’t the same. What always, remains, however, is our giving box. Every year, we write on slips of paper things we are thankful for, and hide them in the box, to be read next year. Every year we open the box and read aloud the slips, appreciating what has changed, and what is still true. We laugh, cry, think, and then put the box away, to be read again next year.
Being in Cameroon, I was grateful when my friends invited me to join them in their massive American Thanksgiving celebration. Not only was the food wonderful, but the company was great too, American Peace Corps Volunteers, American international school teachers, American development workers…Most of the people there I had never met before, but we all shared the same gratefulness in not being alone for Thanksgiving. It’s very comforting somehow to be in an unfamiliar place, with unfamiliar people, who yet have the same connection to food and culture as you do, excited over bread rolls and cranberries. I even convinced them to write on slips of paper for our own box, saving it for next year to be read again.
However, the true mixing of old and new traditions was tested when I convinced my teacher’s association that we could mix their monthly tradition of staff social with my crazy American annual turkey day. True we didn’t really have a budget for a turkey (although they do exist in rare instances in Cameroon), and no we weren’t going to subject all of our friends to completely bizarre food. We had to compromise: chicken for turkey, stuffing in place of bread, potatoes in place of cassava.
Not all of the chickens were stuffed, and not everyone truly understood the tradition I explained as best I could, but at least the chicken was appreciated and everything was eaten, one way or another. Best of all, everyone wrote down one thing on our poster describing something they were grateful for. Their answers were far more powerful and humbling than any of my American friends, new and old had ever written. Rather than being thankful for a new adventure or good food and alcohol, or that cute girl they were dating, aside from a few jokes, my Cameroonian friends’ answers were the same: Thankful for life, love, and God. It was the first moment in a long time where I finally was grateful to be away from home on this day. Instead I was grateful to be around people who see what’s important so clearly, much clearer than I could ever dare. Grateful to spend this special day with them.
As my colleague Marie Flore and I sat down exhausted after two days of killing chickens, cleaning fish, and cooking over wood fires (I will never accuse a Cameroonian housewife of being lazy…EVER), she turned to look at me and asked: “Well, what did you think of our Thanksgiving?” I smiled back. “Perfect in every way.”