I can't be sure, but I don't think I have ever shared a taxi with a sheep before. Then again, I certainly haven't shared a Thanksgiving and my birthday with a major Malian holiday before either. The most elaborate Islamic festival of the year, Eid al-Adha (Tabaski, or Seli Ba), happened to coincide with Thanksgiving weekend this year, making this perhaps the most celebrated few days in the last century. So here's to that...
Seli Ba (literally Big Party) is the second festival after Ramadan, during which each family slaughters a sheep and feasts for several days. Many Christians will be familiar with the story of Abraham's near-sacrifice of his only son; Eid al-Adha commemorates this event, honoring Abraham's strong faith and God's grace to provide him with a sheep instead. As we planned our Thanksgiving, so too were Malian families feverishly gathering the requisite goods. Over the last few weeks, sheep have been appearing literally everywhere. This morning, I saw one on a moto. Yesterday, there was one in our office courtyard (and, yes, sheep poop on our doormat)! And even better, the night before that, a sheep shared our taxi home.
On Thanksgiving eve, the girls and I made a special trip to the ex-pat grocery (they have cheese!) to scout out the key ingredients we can't get in our local store. We found cranberry sauce and cream of mushroom sauce look-alikes, picked out some cheap wines, crackers, and custard powder for an attempted pumpkin pudding, and splurged on some Camembert for hors d'œuvres. After our quasi-successful shopping trip, we piled four across into the backseat of a taxi. I slammed the door, and all of a sudden we were pelted with the hooves of an angry animal stored in the trunk. Taxi-tigi, saga be? Is there a sheep in here? Awo. Saga be!
Ay. So many things to be thankful for, sheep included.
Many Malian families (like mine) are too poor to afford even the cheapest 40,000CFA sheep (roughly $90), and so we will likely be relying on the kindness of others to provide the meat on this festive occasion. It is a point of pride for the community that every family be well-fed, and I am thankful for the opportunity to share in the generous spirit of the season. My family was able to give my host family 15,000 FCFA, a gift of thanksgiving for welcoming me so warmly into their home, and so I think we will all be eating well tomorrow!* Or at least, they will. I am not so sure I can eat another morsel after our Thanksgiving assault yesterday.
Here in the land of rice and fishy sauce, we decided we were going to do this Thanksgiving right: chicken*, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes and gravy, sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie and Devon's famous lemon curd. So good. So hard. I know, I know, you spent all day slaving in the kitchen too – but have you ever cooked an entire Thanksgiving meal on a card table with a two-burner gas stove and no sink? We did!
I walked to the market early Thursday morning to get green beans, onions, potatoes, garlic, yams and some pumpkin-like squash, but we had to time the meal so that everything would be ready when the street-side rotisserie chickens were done in the evening. We started cooking at noon, bleaching and peeling our vegetables, boiling our squash for the “custard.” Then we set in on the potatoes, mashing them by hand with some garlic, powdered milk and butter (nearly melted after an hour out of the grocer's fridge). And though there were no marshmallows to be found, I managed a pretty decent rendition of sweet potato casserole by glazing yams with butter, sugar and honey. Yum.
Unfortunately, the cranberry sauce we bought had chicken fat and veggies in it, and the mushroom sauce was just a little too French to make a decent Campbell's stand-in. I did my best to salvage these dishes, whipping up a mean relish from some dried cranberries I'd saved from some home-bought trail mix and creating some creamy green bean goodness from powdered milk, flour, soy sauce and Maggi seasoning. To top it off, we dipped onions in flour and fried them. Take that, French's!
The dessert menu was equally delicious, if a little goofy looking. Thanks to the Malian heat and our distressing lack of a refrigerator, our pumpkin custard never really set. Nonetheless, the flavors were pretty right (thanks to Leona's mini spice collection). Pumpkin-ish, creamy, nutmeggy goodness. And Devon mixed up a lemon curd from limes, butter, sugar, and eggs, which we served on butter cookies from the store. Yea, we did it.
And, as a special birthday treat, we had apples with wine and cheese to start!
Now that is something to be thankful for.
In all seriousness, my Thanksgiving was truly blessed. Being in Mali has given me many new (and sometimes unusual) reasons to give thanks. I swear, I will not bore you with stories of little starving children who have made me realize how lucky I am to have grown up in a home that could provide enough good food to grow my body and mind strong; I won't tell you that living in a desperately poor country has suddenly made me grateful for my superior education, my quality (if expensive) healthcare, my hopeful future. To be honest, I was thankful for those things already. Living here, I have realized its the smaller things that deserve my thanksgiving.
Things I am Grateful For this Thanksgiving:
- Fresh vegetables from the market.
- How I Met Your Mother.
- Bug nets and Doxycycline.
- My feet. (I've paid them back for all the abuse they've taken during my 8k work commutes by painting them up nicely for Seli Ba)
- Chocolate I packed from Trader Joe's.
- Trader Joe's.
- My fan.
- People who laugh (kindly) when I try to talk to them in Bambara.
- People who actually try to the teach me Bambara.
- The endless pots of seri, moni, sweet potatoes and sugared tea that my host mother plies me with in an attempt to fatten me up. (Um, she gave me six potatoes last night – after Thanksgiving dinner.)
- Luna Bars.
- Signed Malian contracts. (We finalized ours with the CHAG and the ASACOSISOU this week!)
- Finished clinics!
- The phrase, “It could be so much worse.”
- Laughs with my families...here, there and everywhere.
In addition to all these small things, there is one huge thing that I am honored to give thanks for this holiday season. Specifically, I am thankful all of those who have made my work here possible: the brilliant minds behind on FrontlineSMS and Medic, my hard working MHOP colleagues / Thanksgiving feast partners-in-crime and finally all of those who helped me get where I am today.
So as not to risk forgetting a name, suffice it to say that if you are reading this, you are on it. You encouraged me when I was terrified by this decision, pretended to believe me when I said I was ready, comforted me when I confided that I wasn't. Your generosity of spirit (and wallet) has sent me half way around the world to do work that I have always hoped I could do, and now I am quite sure that it would never get done without you. Behind every success there are a thousand hands. So, thank you.
Aw ni ce kosebe kosebe.
*Of course, I would love to give my family much, much more, but gift-giving in Mali is an intricate practice and I am slowly trying to figure out where my boundaries are. My family discussed the merits of buying them an entire sheep, but as a volunteer living on roughly 2,500FCFA ($5) a day, I am hesitant to set that kind of precedent. What do you think?