01 December 2011

Don't Fence Me In: Traditions Kept, Bent and Broken

Part One: Traditions Kept

Note: This will probably be my only Incredibly Pro-American Post, but it follows in the tone of how we created Thanksgiving for our guests.  So deal.

I’m on a trotro out of Lawra, heading down the Jirapa road toward Wa. The road is rough, but it definitely could be worse; the plastic windows are open as far as they'll go, which is about halfway. Ghana’s Upper West region is rushing by, abstracted by that infamous gritty red haze. I’ve been watching a layer of that same grit gather on the vinyl of the seat back in front of me, because that's the price you pay for the circulation of air. Figure out for yourself what that means for my clothes and hair and lungs. However, for the moment, I’m thinking more about the last week I've spent here. I cohosted an American holiday – Thanksgiving– with Abbie, another American volunteer, at her home. All for a bunch of Brits, a couple of Dutch, and a Canadian. I'm not sure, but I think we’ve been planning since March. Many, many laborious hours have been spent in coordinating this event. We've learned a lot, and as volunteers, we're all about CAPACITY-BUILDING and the SHARING OF SKILLS.  So let’s review the recently compiled 15 Steps to a Successful American Thanksgiving in Ghana:

1. Turkey selection and purchase (by someone qualified, in this case, Enoch).

2. Turkey naming (Slutty MW, full name not to be disclosed - this is careful work, not to be rushed. Name turkey something meaningful, yet not something you might have difficulty murdering).

3. Ongoing feeding of Turkey (Enoch!).

4. Menu decisions.

5. Guest decisions.

6.  Request Thanksgiving-related items from family/friends.* This may include: Honeymaid graham crackers, Hershey's chocolate, marshmallows (oh, you don't recall s'mores as part of the Thanksgiving holiday tradition? it's new.), stuffing, cornbread and biscuits (American biscuits, not British biscuits, there is a clear distinction).

7. Guest revisions, based on food availability.

8. Request immediate emergency back-up box of Thanksgiving-related items be sent by family/friends.(*) As in, that box filled with stuffing and cornbread hasn't arrived yet, and it's been 6 weeks. Can another set of parents send an identical box?

9. Decisions as to how to spend guests’ money on menu items. (Very important)

10. Selection and download of (American) football game (please don’t call it a ‘match’, it’s a GAME; 'match' implies politeness, like 'tennis match' - football isn't polite.).

11. Procurement of projector for watching football game (I'm assuming you have learned your lesson on country origin of game and its distinction from  a 'match') and surface for projecting game onto. The nice white reverse surface of a world map taped to a door frame with blue electrical tape is acceptable.

12. Last minute call for forgotten items from nearby swank cosmopolitan hubs, like Wa (please don't ignore sarcasm).  Forgotten items may include: canned corn (not available in stores but in a volunteer's possession who is willing to part with 2 cans, for small fee) and extra baking dishes (not available at all).

13. Preparation of Thanksgiving-related oratories/songs (i.e. Pledge of Allegiance, America the Beautiful) and Thanksgiving crafts.

14. Last visit to Turkey, and Pre-Day of Slaughter Picture-Taking.

15. Get ready to have some fun! (too much?)

*So ok, in reality, Thanksgiving was actually only made possible through the support of our generous (American) family and friends, either sending or bringing packages filled with food and construction paper and marshmallows (we’ll get to that). And we are EXTREMELY grateful.  

So here's the breakdown. 

Upon our Monday arrival in Lawra, Abbie took me immediately  (Step 14) to where Slutty has (oh! had...) been fattening up to his full beautiful 20 pound self  over the last 7 months – the home of Enoch, our Turkey Daddy.  We didn't care that the light was fading, or that Abbie had never driven her moto in the dark, or that she had almost no experience driving with a passenger. Sometimes you just have to look at what's really important, and count to three.

both Slutty and I looking a little ... wild

Tuesday, we did nothing. I recovered from my many injuries sustained thus far on the journey (tripping over a cement block at 4 a.m. in the Tamale bus station, scraping up left leg and foot and hand, in front of a lot of people; followed almost immediately by falling in the mud at the beginning of the Safari Walk at Mole National Park the next morning, which actually didn't hurt but was also in front of a lot of people; and finally, the 2nd degree burn on my right leg from the exhaust pipe of a moto 2 hours after falling in the mud, while leaving Mole National Park).

Not so bad, but for comfort food, I'm sticking
with (American) Kraft Mac N Cheese.
But Wednesday was a big day. As a matter of fact, it was officially Day One.

We let the Brits do One Non-American Thing, which was beans on toast with egg, tomato on the side.  

Abbie and I did some Pre-T-day baking. 
How Domestic!!

And shortly before 3 p.m., we made our way to Enoch's house.  So I could explain the murder, but I think perhaps photos say it best.
the Last Walk of Slutty

A & K learn to slit a turkey's throat
with a water bottle as a visual aid
The Traditional Thanksgiving Turkey Chase
(Enoch thought we were crazy.
he sprinkled a little food on the ground, and slutty came right over.
imagine that.)
Releasing Slutty for the Traditional Thanksgiving Turkey Chase.
What - don't you do that at home?
Turkey Mamas and Aunties
Moment of truth, and thus death. Except we don't do it right.
So a moment later Enoch will step in.

Enoch looks on...worriedly

nothing to say here.

A quick note here.  Right off, Abbie and I had developed a points system for all Non-Americans.  Points would be accumulated based on general enthusiasm for all activities; demonstrated knowledge of enjoyment of T-day, including foods involved; "natural" use of american slang and/or swears; and doing things that Abbie and Kelly approve of.

Given that, try to identify the guests who received (or lost!) points based on above criteria:

waiting Brit #3: Adele
waiting Brit #1: Georg

waiting Brit #2: Hannah -
but she is keeping amused.

T-day kick-off continued, and shall otherwise be known as S'mores Day (all products imported). The Brits received very careful instructions on  S'mores-related topics (Stick Selection, Proper Graham Cracker Breakage, Marshmallow Placement, Toasted vs Burned Marshmallow, Teamwork for S'mores Success and Eating Your S'more), but (I have to say) they were quick learners. God this was a complicated holiday.

Obviously, we started with the Pledge of Allegiance

Essential S'mores ingredients.

Teamwork for S'mores Success!

Eating Your S'mores

Thanksgiving... also, Day Two.

Obviously, more baking was done.  Enoch put Slutty in the oven at noon.  And we undertook the time-honored elementary school (yes, same as primary school) tradition of making the Thanksgiving Turkey Hand.  It took alot of explaining, but the Brits finally caught onto what we were trying to accomplish. Go ahead, play the "who won points" game with yourself.  It's easy. 

We each did two - one for what we're thankful for here in Ghana, and the other was what we're thankful for back in our home countries. Some examples:
"I am thankful for..."
Ghana - flushing toilets; Koala (posh supermarket in Accra); sunlight dish soap (which cleans dishes and turkeys, we've learned); mangoes; Raid
US/UK - reliable public transport, fresh cold milk, cheese, family and friends, proper mattresses

So the baking was finished...

Slutty arrived...

...and was sliced up, in a manner of speaking, since it's really difficult to 'carve' when you don't have any sharp knives.

the Plate.
Then we ate RIDICULOUS amounts of food and listened to only American music.  Points were gained by Brits who compiled American musicians into a Thanksgiving Dinner Playlist.  Points were lost because some Brits tried to eat their biscuits with a fork and knife, and worse, their cornbread muffins with a fork and knife. Points were also lost for those who didn't like pumpkin pie.  Points were regained by going back for seconds, and then for thirds, post-football game.

And finally, we watched the football game - Bears vs Eagles - original play from sometime in early November. And - i have to say - points to Georg for actually getting into the game, unlike other people (Adele) who just fell asleep but pretended to be watching.

And Day Three.

Day Three brought one Central Region volunteer and a bunch of UW volunteers into Lawra on their motos, bringing their own contributions, just like the Pilgrims.  That's right, it was a little potluck dinner - although 'potluck' is evidently an American term, and thus had to be explained. 

They went through the Turkey Hand activity beautifully. Adrienne even raised her hand to ask a question without being told to do so!

The Pledge was said again, this time with proper group participation.
Adele was treated to a 'cake' made up of leftover mashed potatoes, yams and stuffing with birthday candles. 
Then we called her inside and a very select group ate it.  That includes Georg, she's taking the picture. I don't want her to feel left out by not mentioning her.

Finally, the award ceremony for First Place winner of Most Points, and Runner-up! 

Congratulations went to Adrienne, our First Place winner, who received the pumpkin centerpiece and an autographed picture of Abbie and Kelly, with the charge to recreate an American Thanksgiving next year - thus beginning a new Ghana tradition! And congrats also to runner-up, Bob, who received an autographed picture.  Adrienne was selected for her Outstanding Participation in the Turkey Thanksgiving Hand activity (particularly for raising her hand), the fact that she enjoyed and asked for extra pumpkin pie, enjoyed and asked for more s'mores, wanted to learn the words to the Pledge of Allegiance, and built and kept the bonfire; plus she is generally cool.  Bob won because he sang a song during his Turkey Hand presentation, asked for seconds at dinner, brought Bailey's and sang again at the bonfire. 

But really, to the original Brits - major Points.  We couldn't have done it without you. Well, we probably could have, but it wouldn't have been as fun.
So recently, someone asked me: why do you bother to keep this tradition? Pretty simple, really. It's a way of reconnecting with the familiar.  Abbie and I truly did start planning this back in March or April - because we wanted, or perhaps needed, a little something from home.  Traditions are certainly comforting, be they found in food or elementary school crafts; but the irony is how much our traditions actually change over the years.   As a child, I remember going to my aunt and uncle's house, playing with my cousins and the dogs in the backyard, relatives everywhere, food a distant thought.  Well, the pie was important.  When my parents got divorced, all the holidays shifted left and right and sideways, but eventually settled into new patterns that accommodated a new community of individuals.  Then I grew up a little more, to that age when you prepare a Thanksgiving dinner on your own for the first time; traditions shifted again.  We make it what we want, don't we?  We define where and what and how as we choose, and with whom we choose to share it.  Some things from the past we are willing to let go of, like a physical location, or even a set list of people.  Some things we aren't.  Like pie, that's still really important.  Oh, and maybe giving thanks. 
Now some people try to recreate past holidays, whether by using their grandmother's china, or carving the turkey how their father taught them, or by making their great aunt's stuffing.  So we provide ourselves with a sense of continuity, and the reassurance that previous generations are not being lost.  Does that mean that we won't be lost, either? Will my niece bake my mother's pumpkin pie, and use her great-grandmother's china on her table?  Will that even be important to her? 

I don't know what my niece's traditions will be.  What's important for her to find in them, however, is the same thing that's important for all of us to find: a community of loved ones and the closeness that follows, the sense of continuity found in chosen rituals, and maybe the comfort of really good pie. Because in all of this, in all of our traditions kept, is the renewal of shared experiences and expressions of love.
Boil it all down, down to the very basics: What's the REAL American Thanksgiving recipe?  Ok, Brits, here it is, copy and paste if you need to. 
1. Food (negotiable),
2. Friends and/or family (not negotiable),
3. Fun (inevitable), and
4. Actually doing the whole "giving thanks" bit (indisputable). 

And seriously, you can't eat cornbread with a fork and knife.  Stop it right now.

Hannah, Georgina, Kelly, Abbie, Adele

1 comment:

  1. I'm fighting tears as I write this Kincaid...I can't imagine a more perfectly meaningful Thanksgiving celebration...or truthful definition of tradition.