This year I’m having two Thanksgivings.
But neither of them will be at home with my family. I’ve been in the Peace Corps since October of 2014, stationed in Ghana’s Northern Region. On Thursday, I’ll spend the day in northern Ghana with three friends, also Peace Corps volunteers. We plan to indulge ourselves by buying a few fried chicken legs from a roadside stand.
Then on Saturday, about 16 of us volunteers will gather, cook a feast and belatedly celebrate. We won’t be serving turkey, stuffing or apple pie, because key ingredients are not available or too expensive on our budgets. Instead, we’ll probably roast a guinea fowl or eat one of Ghana’s favorite dishes — fufu. It’s a ball of carbohydrates that nestles in soups and stews. In northern Ghana, it is often made from vigorously mashed yams. It’s a staple and a comfort food.
But it will still feel a lot like Thanksgiving. Because serving in the Peace Corps definitely makes you thankful.
Living in a village without running water or electricity for the last year has made me realize the vast privileges so many of us take for granted. At first, I cried with happiness when I saw rain after a five-month dry season. It cooled down the savannah and filled the buckets I use to fetch water from the community water spigot. But I also cried real tears when it rained almost every day; I couldn’t charge my phone via solar charger, severing my tenuous connection back home for a short while.
And I’ve also learned that even when you don’t have a lot, you can still share what little you have. My host family in Ghana has at least 12 members (not counting the huge extended family that is considered the same as immediate family here). Much of their food comes from their few acres of corn and hot peppers and small gardens of tomatoes and okra. Every night, we gather under the stars, sitting on the ground in the center of our open-air compound to share a meal. We dip fingers into tuo zaafi, a thick corn-porridge, then dip again into an accompanying soup.
If a visitor or two come by, members of my Ghanaian family will jump up and offer a stool and a hot bowl of tuo zaafi. They’re visibly disappointed if visitors are too full to eat but will literally clap their hands together if the guests dip their fingers into our bowls of tuo zaafi.
Over that meal, we laugh about the day’s challenges and successes, the baby’s newfound walking (or stumbling) skills or the seven-year-old’s hilarious dance moves. There are no smartphones to distract us. We don’t gather in front of the TV to watch the big game.
When I was growing up, Thanksgiving meant family and friends gathered around a table groaning with more food than we could possibly eat. We enjoyed the fellowship but didn’t really think of the day as anything more than that a fabulous feast fest.
But not here, not now. This year, Thanksgiving is a moment for me to gather with my Peace Corps friends and really understand what it means to be thankful.