Thanksgiving with an African Twist

Celebrations with an African Twist.

 

Thanksgiving with an African Twist


Thanksgiving in Africa

ThanksgivingThe Norfolk Hotel, was not something I had grown up with, but after coming to America became quickly used to it. After all it usually was a four day weekend, and that does not take a lot of getting used to, one simply enjoys. After a few years it became a highlight of the year, especially once children came into the fold. I never will forget the picture of Ryan, my oldest at the age of three, this huge drumstick in his pudgy little hand. Even now I cannot help myself but smile.

There was the year my daughter Katie went on the low-fat and healthy diet kick and I as the head thanksgiving chef made sure everything was done Low-Fat style...as I think back, it did not make a difference, we just ate more and still gained weight...but then it was the thought...Then came along Dana who in school was learning about Thanksgiving and gave us a miniature history lesson prior to the feast.

There was the thanksgiving of the big storm when the power went out at just the right time, and Survival Jon went into action...the wood-stove was engaged as the platform for many a dish, the turkey went onto the gas-BBQ and it was improvisation time, something I had seen on God's favorite TV program "Little House on the Prairie."

Then came a time where thanksgiving was just another hot day in equatorial Africa. Most of the people I knew and worked with were not of American origin so there was no one to share nut cups with or to create an improvised turkey dinner by using a local chicken that just had been plucked clean from the market.

Some years I was so busy organizing relief efforts or another orphanage that I had not even time to think about it, but one in particular stands out. Thanksgiving 1995 in Nairobi.

I lived with a few others in my organization's house in Nairobi and decided it was an appropriate day to go and celebrate Thanksgiving. Frantically I had my secretary check if there was any major hotel like the American Hilton putting on a traditional feast with no luck. Finally she did have the headwaiter from the prestigious Norfolk Hotel tell her "that of course they would be celebrating American Thanksgiving with a special dinner." Delighted our band of International workers headed off that evening to that Hotel of old to eat what I thought would be a traditional thanksgiving dinner and at the same time introduce some of my coworkers and friends to some traditional American culinary delights, but little did I know.

We arrived to our reserved table on the patio of the old Hotel and were greeted by the staff with traditional "Jambo Bwana"...As I was seated I glanced at the other tables to see if I could spot any turkey, sweet or mashed potatoes...but figured that the people around me were probably from Europe and not American...hmmm.

Our waiter approached with a great big smile and the menu...announcing that this was the American Thanksgiving menu and he would be coming back for our orders. I smiled and glanced at the paper in front of me only to notice the absence of the bird that almost had become the National symbol of the USA, the all American Turkey...there was none...there were Indian samosas for appetizers, chicken, beef or vegetarian, there was ugali, the traditional maize mush, steak and kidney pie, steak, and special Kentucky Fried Chicken for our American friends in honor of their Thanksgiving holiday...yes, the waiter was right "Jambo, or welcome to Africa....where anything goes."

I simply smiled, laughed is a better word and ordered steak and kidney pie with mushrooms, it came with mashed potatoes and peas on the side...at least I would like it. My co-workers joked and said asked about their traditional American dinner. When they inquired of the waiter he simply replied, "We try to please at the Norfolk and have provided the best we can offer in honor of the American holiday."

This was Thanksgiving African style where one learns to improvise and make do with what one has, and after all they did try...a bit of false advertisement I would call it, but then this is Africa...as we would always say.

I looked around, sitting in my short sleeve shirt, the evening sounds coming to me...like the African music from near the bar, the shouts of taxi drivers looking for customers, waiters hustling and bustling about, diners sharing conversations with one another.

Yes, I concluded I was thankful on this day, thankful to have life, thankful to have a family even though my kids were thousands of miles from me on that night, yet they were close to my heart. I was thankful to be in a place where I could be a change agent and take an active part in making a difference in the lives of thousands of children.

Just today I had taken a walk into the Kibera slum with all of its filth, disease, with people eking out an existence that no one in the West could believe. I had visited a home, sat in a small room with one bed, housing two adults and eight children, rats the size of cats scurrying around. Yes, I was thankful.

A week earlier I have been to South Sudan, the place that journalists have named "the Hunger and Death Triangle." Where I saw hunger, death and disease...even now the images were still roaming in my head.

Yes, I had no turkey, but I did have so many things to be thankful for, I was surrounded by friends, good food on the way, even though it was English...it did not matter, for Thanksgiving is not a meal, not an isolated day in the year but a state of mind, a condition of the heart, and that state brought joy and peace to one, removed the striving, the hunt for more, the discontent within replacing it with a state of deep contentment, that is almost divine in origin.

Did I enjoy my dinner that night?....the answer is a resounding yes...and a better understanding of what it means to have a heart of thanksgiving.

Today is Thanksgiving and once again there was no turkey, no yams, no nut cups...I made some home made soup...I am celebrating thanksgiving on Saturday with my family, my kids are coming up on that day to spend a day with dad on the beach....and guess what? In the tradition of the Norfolk Hotel we will have a sort of unconventional Thanksgiving Dinner...Oh, there will be turkey breast, and yes there yams with escalloped apples, but then there will be Matoke, green bananas mashed and steamed surrounded by a ground peanut sauce, fried rice with mini corn, broccoli, water chestnuts, carrots and shrimp. We will have a variety of beans (Ethiopian style). For dessert it will be strawberry-kiwi sorbet, lemon meringue pie, and yes pumpkin...a sort of combination of the traditional and the whatever...we will even chapattis instead of rolls...yes I was thankful today, even though I was alone...and did not have the traditional meal, the football, the chips and dips...I had and have a heart of thanks for all that I have....life...when I was confirmed as a young man I was given a verse from the Bible "Jon 10:10 I have come that you might have life and that life abundantly..."

This evening I stood on my deck looking at the quiet bay, the crescent moon overhead, African music drifting to my ears from my CD player...I closed my eyes and simply thanked God, the Universe for that life which I have, for every breath that I take, for every thought I think...yes...it is thanksgiving today...but so is every day....jon 


 

The Norfolk Hotel

The Norfolk Hotel where my infamous Thanksgiving Meal took place has a long history going back to the very early days of Nairobi. The high and mighty have stayed there and frequented. People like Churchill, Roosevelt, Hemingway and Karen Blixen who gave us the wonderful book "Out of Africa." BesideTerrace Restaurant, Norfolk Hotels them and many others like them, plain old vanilla folks wearing jeans, hiking boots, and khaki shirt like myself frequented the restaurant, and once I stayed there while working with an ITV producer from England.

You could always tell the tourists from those who lived there like myself. Tourists would point their cameras at any moving object, while I came there to pick up some newspapers and enjoy a decent pizza, even though it had cheddar cheese on it instead of mozzarella.
If you ever visit Nairobi...this a place to at least have a meal at and you can remember the story you just read.


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Celebrations with an African Twist

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