Thanksgiving Comes to Dodowa
The fourth Thursday in November was more or less like any other day. I excitedly queued up the Michael Buble Christmas album for the first time this year as I got ready in the morning and I spent a few minutes reflecting on the many things I’m grateful for this year, but it definitely did not feel like Thanksgiving as I went to work like usual, sweated profusely in the 90 degree heat and sat down to a dinner of yam chips and egg stew. What made the day special for me was the arrival of my parents’ Thanksgiving package (right on time! They are pro package senders) and the surprise of an additional package from my cousins that apparently actually arrived in Dodowa in October, but somehow didn’t make its way to me until now. So I had treats for dessert and felt love from my family, even though I wasn’t sitting at their Thanksgiving table.
Our real Thanksgiving celebration took place on Saturday. There’s a tradition of Georgetown students cooking a few American dishes to celebrate Thanksgiving with Auntie Esther’s family, and we’d spent a lot of time thinking about what we would attempt to make for the meals. We finally decided that our contributions would be stuffing, mashed potatoes, green beans, an Indian fried eggplant dish from Shradha, and pumpkin bread (thanks to a Trader Joe’s mix sent by my forward-thinking mother). But the most traditional contribution of the Georgetown students is killing the chickens that will be eaten at the meal. Shradha, who’s vegetarian, recused herself from the task, leaving Chizzy and I as the designated chicken executioners. The family purchased our two chickens a few weeks ago and we’d seen them walking around the yard at the house on several occasions, but it got very real when we showed up early Saturday morning and saw Vale (apparently the master chicken killer of the family) making preparations.
The two birds were sitting underneath a parked taxi down the hill from the house (hiding from the sun? from us?) until Elvis scared them out and unceremoniously stuffed one under each arm. Once Vale built a fire and got a pot of water boiling over it, she scratched a small hole in the dirt and stretched the chicken out next to it, showing me how to hold it down with one foot on a wing and the other foot on its legs. One hand holds the head taut, exposing a section of neck from which she’d already plucked a few feathers, and the other hand holds the knife. I was relieved to hear that we didn’t have to cut off the whole head, but just slice the jugular — although even this proved to be a challenge, and I needed Vale’s encouragement to put enough force on the knife to cut the tough skin on the throat. Once the blood started flowing (there was much less than you’d expect) I couldn’t really watch it anymore and I just let Vale guide my hand. What happened next was actually the worst part. Even though it was clearly dead, the chicken flapped around sporadically in the big metal pot for what felt like at least a minute. After it was good and dead, Vale dipped in in the pot of boiling water, which made it easy to strip the feathers off. It’s amazing how much of a chicken is feathers — the actual carcass looked so small! Although Shradha and Chizzy, pre-med students that they are, curiously observed Vale as she dismembered the birds efficiently, I tried to pay minimal attention so I could maximally enjoy whatever piece of the chicken I got at dinner.
So by 9:15 in the morning, it had already been quite a day and we still had a lot of cooking ahead of us. Fortunately, we were able to borrow a pot and a few serving dishes from Skutor to supplement our own grand total of one pot and one casserole dish. We also have two dull knives, one gas oven that works sporadically…and that’s about the extent of our kitchen operation. On top of that, the power went out a little ways into our preparations and stayed out until just a few minutes before we finished. But all things considered, the food preparation went remarkably smoothly. We had a bit of a seasoning debacle with our first batch of stuffing — all the spices here are so much more potent than in the US, it’s really easy to over-salt or over-pepper things — but the second batch turned out much better. Even with only a spatula for mashing, the potatoes came out pretty smooth, and although the green beans took longer to cook than we expected, they eventually became tender.
We knew the family wanted to make Thanksgiving special — Lovelyn had already told us that her sister Peace (who lives about 30 minutes away in Tema) and Auntie Esther would be coming to town for the celebration, and Skutor and Auntie Esther had Millicent (our seamstress) make us the most beautiful matching dresses as presents for the day. But we had no idea just how much effort they were going to put into the celebration, and were blown away when we walked up to the house and saw that the kids had decorated with paper chains, balloons, drawings and “Happy Thanksgiving signs,” that the couch had been pulled out to the porch to make room for a huge table in the living room, and that that huge table was already laden with food that Auntie Esther and Skutor must have been preparing all day. Peace even brought a special cake with “Happy Thanksgiving” written in the frosting, an impressive get for a country that doesn’t even celebrate the holiday!
We danced and goofed around with the kids for a while, and took lots of family pictures. In addition to all the members of Auntie Esther’s family, Irene (our coordinator at the research center) and her sister and nephew came — although Ema couldn’t come join us, we made him a plate and gave it to him when he drove us home, and we also took a Tupperware to the lady at our favorite provision shop, so one way or another we were able to include many of our Ghanaian friends in the celebration! Dinner, in true Ghanaian fashion, began ceremoniously. Lovelyn asked us to explain the day of Thanksgiving, then Irene prayed over the food and then we asked everyone to say something they were thankful for (although most of the kids covered their mouths with their hands in a fit of shyness).
And then we ate.
In true American Thanksgiving fashion, I stuffed myself. Besides the dishes we brought, there was jollof rice, fried rice, fried fish, our chickens, kele wele (spicy fried plantains served with peanuts), coleslaw and a corn maize dish we’d never tried before. Unsurprisingly, the foods we made were not that popular — Ghanaians seem to have a hard time appreciating any dishes that aren’t spicy. But we weren’t too upset…more leftover stuffing for us!
By the grace of the Ghanaian electricity companies, the power stayed on for almost the whole party. They took light right after Lovelyn finished orchestrating a “champagne” toast and we served dessert, so it was easy enough to move out to the cooler air of the porch, where the kids told stories and riddles and Irene’s sister showed us Ghanaian dance moves until it was time to go.
All last week, our Thanksgiving celebration felt more like a source of stress than an upcoming holiday. We had to buy a lot of groceries, I was nervous about killing the chicken, there were so many things that could go wrong in the kitchen. But it ended up being one of the happiest and most joyful days I’ve had this semester. Although I’ve found myself feeling grateful for many many things over the course of the last 12 weeks, having a family here who takes care of me like one of their own is one of my absolute biggest blessings. And it’s being part of a family that will make leaving (in just two and a half short weeks!) so difficult, even when I can’t wait to get home to the families I’m part of in the U.S.