Thanksgiving is the ultimate American family holiday. Even more than Christmas, Thanksgiving is about gathering with family, setting aside what divides us (except getting in each others way in the kitchen) and being thankful for another year you can spend together. So, Thanksgiving is probably the toughest holiday to spend away from family. Because of that, Americans overseas tend to cling together at Thanksgiving, and the Foreign Service is no exception.
It’s a bit more complex when you’re 8000 miles away from the nearest Butterball, and the first challenge is hunting down a turkey. There are turkeys in Benin (I am told) but I have only ever seen their wings and drumsticks for sale locally, and even those I’d bet were imported. The military has their commissaries, and if you’re in a country with a U.S. military presence, their shelves will provide the cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes and bird. Some Embassies also have commissaries, but we’re not one of them, so Cotonou “has always depended on the kindness of strangers :)).” Well, not strangers exactly, but other nearby embassies. For the past couple of years, the folks in Accra, Ghana have helped us out. They even got us Butterballs.
In the absence of family we gather together. That’s not only true at Thanksgiving, but it’s particularly true in this season of holidays. As is not unusual, there is an official gathering and sometime after, people celebrate in smaller groups. As we all have our favorite Thanksgiving foods, we bring them with us. In that way, we bring a little bit of home and family with us wherever we are and with whomever we are. As I write this, some of my contributions are in the oven.
Friday was a work day for us. If you think that’s tough, the kids here with Embassy families either go to French of English schools, so they didn’t get off Thursday either! In any case, Friday I had to opportunity to be part of the delegation from the Embassy at the opening of a new processing center for manioc. It’s part of the “self help project” effort, where local groups can ask the U.S. Embassy for small amounts of money to help complete a project in their village. It can be drilling a well, buying some sewing machines, or in this case, providing the funding for a small facility where manioc can be processed. There’s a gasoline powered press and a building which contains a series of open ovens where the pressed manioc is dried. For a few thousand dollars, the village has a new source of food and income. Some of the best “bang for the buck” we get from our foreign aid anywhere. Very low overhead, big return, and real benefits to the people.
The ribbon cutting (yes there was a ribbon, and scissors) was in many ways like any other. Politicians gave speeches. There was a tour of the facility. But being in Africa provides its own color to the proceedings. We were in the middle of the village, so in addition to the politicians and guests, and the local singing and dancing group (who were quite good) there were all the children of the village. Some clung to their mothers. Others did a reasonable impression of Michael Jackson, dancing along to the music. The loudspeaker (don’t know where it came from, we didn’t provide it) had the echo setting so high I expected to hear Bob Shepard announce “Number 2…..Derek….Jeter….Number 2”. But what couldn’t be ignored was that this was important to the people of the village. They had helped build it. They would operate it. And we were able to help.
Since before I thought about joining the Foreign Service, I’ve been floating micro-loans all around the world through a site called Kiva. After I came to Benin, I continued. Some of my loans have gone to Beninese, others are still scattered across the globe. I’ve had pretty good luck getting paid back, and have rolled all my loans over to new people as they have been paid off. I started four new loans this weekend. It’s just a small thing. But as I saw this Friday, small things can have big results.
Happy Thanksgiving everyone!