Thanksgiving in Gabon
- TEREZ ROSE http://www.dailynews.com/theiropinion/ci_4686489
THANKSGIVING, when you get down to it, is all about tradition. Year
after year, we seek out (or avoid) family and familiar recipes, pull
out Grandma s china, and strive to create the same meal we ve had
every year. Turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and
pumpkin pie overeating, too, is part of the tradition.
The variables quickly change, however, when you re 6,000 miles from
family, unable to return home for the holidays. Then, homesickness is
what cramps your stomach. But perhaps this, too, is part of the
Consider the band of 50 survivors in Plymouth of 1621, who gathered
to celebrate their harvest with their newfound Native American
friends. The Pilgrims-to-be had left extended family and a familiar
world behind, and in the course of a year, had lost an alarming 50
percent of their compatriots to sickness.
Now that s a recipe for homesickness.
My first taste of a foreign Thanksgiving came in 1985, when I left my
native Kansas for the Peace Corps in Gabon, Central Africa. The early
months, amid Gabon s heat, staggering humidity and unfamiliarity,
were the hardest. At my provincial post where I taught high-school
English, my white skin stuck out like a beacon. Whispers and stares
accompanied me everywhere I went. I persevered with a grim
determination, teaching, dressing and acting like the American I was.
November brought with it dreams of the upcoming holiday. Back home on
the Big Day, Mom would set the table early with linens, her delicate
china and fine silverware. The rich smell of slow-roasting turkey
would pervade the air as family members congregated throughout the
day. Laughter would fill the dining room later as ravenous eaters
stuffed themselves into a stupor.
Home. So very far away.
The only way to combat the homesickness, I decided, was to host my
own traditional Thanksgiving dinner. My announcement to the other
Peace Corps volunteers, however, was met with skepticism.
Good luck finding the ingredients, one said.
Last year, we just drank beer, another offered. Trust me it s the
Perusing the local store brought only further discouragement. No
whole turkeys, only the wings (the good parts went to the U.S.). No
fresh vegetables and no potatoes, only local tubers like manioc, taro
and plantains. Not a chance of pumpkin. Forget it, then, I snapped at
my friends. No Thanksgiving dinner this year then.
But why does it have to be a traditional dinner? a Gabonese friend
Well, that s the point, to do it the way it's always been done, with
the turkey and stuffing, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie.
Maybe if you compromised, you'd have better luck, he said.
Compromise. That action, so difficult for us to consider
politically, socially and personally. Why do we resist compromise?
Maybe the Pilgrims would have fared better early on had they
compromised in myriad ways. Maybe I, too, would fare better in this
foreign country if I tried embracing the culture instead of peddling
The Thanksgiving feast I ended up serving was unlike any I'd had
before. It included turkey wings, stuffing, mashed taro root and
canned French peas. Flour biscuits became dinner rolls. For pumpkin
pie, I boiled green papayas from the market, spiced them up with
cinnamon and nutmeg, then proceeded with the traditional recipe. The
guests, both American and Gabonese, were delighted.
I've never had turkey wings baked this way before, said one Gabonese
man. Another reveled in the concept of biscuits with dinner. I
thought back to the first Thanksgiving dinner, where the Pilgrims
cooked unfamiliar food with familiar recipes. Maybe a Native American
invited to the feast tasted a dish and said, Hey, I never thought of
doing that with corn before.
When I served the green papaya pie, I watched the other Americans
expression as they took the first bite, trepidation changing to
amazement. This tastes just like my Mom's pumpkin pie! one exclaimed.
How did you do it?
Tears stung my eyes and at that moment I felt happier than I'd ever
felt in Africa, more fulfilled by Thanksgiving dinner. For the first
time, I truly gave thanks: for friends, for bounty, for opportunity.
And for my newest lesson: the art of compromise. Not a bad addition
to a traditional American celebration.
Terez Rose lives in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Write to her by e-mail