Three months after completing our Peace Corps training in Naivasha, Kenya, Cory and I were back at our training camp for a training session known as IST. It just happened to fall over Thanksgiving, a time when most of us were just a touch homesick, thinking about our families sitting around tables stacked with food while we popped malaria pills and fought diarrhea.
When we arrived at IST, our training coordinator, Simon, asked us if we wanted anything special for dinner for Thanksgiving. A handful of people in our group enjoyed cooking and immediately suggested that the cooks take the day off. Instead, they offered to help put together a menu and organize the meal. We all brainstormed what we wanted to eat. Forget the ugali and spaghetti noodles without sauce. We wanted the real deal: A turkey, sweet potatoes, stuffing.
Simon took our list, hopped in the 4WD with one of our Peace Corps drivers and headed for Nairobi. We all looked at each other doubtfully. Where in the world was he going to find a turkey in this country crawling with garbage-eating goats?
And yet he did. Thursday morning rolled around. The cooks in charge assigned everyone a time to work in the kitchen. It was tiny and outfitted with an oven that only had a broil setting, several stove top burners, a long tabletop and a deep sink. There was no good refrigeration system, and there was no good way to reheat anything that became cold.
As we took our turns in the kitchen, we picked up where the last set of volunteers had left off. We cut vegetables, washed dishes and stirred potatoes. I was content to do whatever easy chore was assigned to me as our three designated cooks figured out how to cook a turkey without standard oven settings and increased the size of recipes so that they could be cooked in the pots (the sufarias) that were big enough to fit a toddler in.
I spent my Thanksgiving with my Peace Corps family, doing what families do … Peace Corps style. We read and played cards. We watched the full season of Survivor – Kenya (a set of recorded shows on a set of VHS tapes kept in the training center). We had a pool tournament.
Then the sun fell. The guards (askaris) began their evening walks around the gated compound. We set tables up in a giant circle and laid a plastic table cloth across the table top where we were going to set the dishes out. Like any Thanksgiving table, we needed a centerpiece, so together we created a work of art that defined our Peace Corps Kenya experience: A giraffe carving, an empty bottle of wine and a penis model clothed in a condom surrounded by several condoms that we’d blown up like balloons.
And then it was time to eat. Out came the giant pots with mashed potatoes, green beans, cranberry sauce and cornbread dressing. Next were bowls of fruit salad. Then a plate with the giant turkey (where did Simon find it?), prepared perfectly, considering the cooking conditions. Someone had received a package of Oreo cookies the day before in a care package. They became our dessert.
One of our group members, Scott, with whom we’ve long lost touch, read a poem he’d written about the Peace Corps. A few other people said some words of thanks. And then we dug in, laughing, talking, eating, enjoying each others’ company without concern for a few hours about droughts and dysentery.
After dinner, we invited the askaris to help themselves to anything left over. They poked at the unusual offerings on the table, wondering, I’m sure, why there wasn’t any ugali, then dug in.
I took our cheap Nokia cell phone outside and tried to find a place on the compound where there were more than two bars of signal. I dialed the long string of numbers that led halfway around the world to my parents’ house. Finally, a muffled “hello” from my dad. Despite my high spirits coming off of our Peace Corps Thanksgiving, I immediately felt myself choke up as the muscles in my neck tensed. We talked for only a few minutes, our words off by a few moments as they flew through unseen satellite systems. And then it was over, and I was left holding our cell phone, gazing up at the incredibly dark sky dotted with dozens of brilliant stars.
Cory walked up behind me and wrapped his arms around my shoulders. “I love you. Happy Thanksgiving.”
Even after the best Thanksgiving I’d ever experienced, the tears began to fall.