One of the hardest things to leave behind when Kathleen and I first moved to Kenya many, many years ago was Thanksgiving.
No matter what your religion or politics, Thanksgiving is a major American holiday, all-American so to speak. And even before a third of our society was obese, it was a day of gluttonous consumption. You were just proving how well off you were, even if you weren’t.
So when we finally got settled in a very remote village 3 days travel from Nairobi we immediately began making plans for Thanksgiving. We sent out messages through the bush grape vine that we wanted two turkeys.
Most people had never heard of turkeys, and it was a great mystery to Jozani, our house boy/translator/money market manager and cook. Although he cooked chicken well for us, he was part Maasai, and fowl was taboo.
He could understand we Mzungu eating chicken. Mzungu had eaten chicken ever since Britain had a king. Many Africans back then accepted without aversion all sorts of habits the white people had carried with them into Africa. So chicken was OK. He often burned to a crisp our chicken, but he cooked it.
So when we first asked him to find a turkey, I’m sure he had no idea what it was, because he enthusiastically immediately replied that of course he could find us two turkeys. Jozani never said no. If he said no or asked further what I meant, either I might get angry with him (he thought) or make his day far too simple. So he said, of course bwana, he would find and cook for us two turkeys for our American holiday of giving thanks.
I’m not sure how many Thanksgivings passed before Jozani announced one morning with great pride that two turkeys had been found and were coming. At rather extraordinary expense. I had completely forgotten about it but apparently I was the only one who had. That same morning on the walk to the school where I taught, every one was asking me when the turkeys would arrive.
In fact a week or so later, two hours before the turkeys actually did arrive, a holiday was declared at school, and the children lined up as they did for morning assembly to greet the turkeys.
It was hard for me to call these fowl turkeys. They were young birds, true, but they looked more like weasels than turkeys. After close inspection I did approve them, paid the king’s chicken ransom, and turned them over to Jozani to rear. I think we had 5 months or so before Jozani had to cook them.
Turkey dinner turkeys are supposed to grow fast, remarkably fast. The wild turkeys that now live outside my office take more than a year to get large, and two years before the Toms are really large, but turkey dinner turkeys can reach massive maturity (12 pounds) in 5 months. What a ridiculous hope.
At first I was going to name them, and to do that, it was necessary to know their gender. Jozani insisted, however, that they had no gender, so we left them unnamed.
They grew, but not as fast as they ate. They became bold and strong and rather offensive, chasing anyone who came into our compound until one day I saw Jozani walking around the house with a large flattened stick.
“What is that for?” I asked him as he was scrambling eggs.
“It is to beat the turkeys, bwana, they are growing rude.”
They were growing rude. They would try to come into the house and peck at the screening when we refused. Jozani didn’t stay the night, and you’d think that a day time bird would go to sleep. But they seemed to freak at the dogs in the area that barked when hyaenas or jackals were in the neighborhood so gobbled the night away.
The time finally came to roast the birds. Jozani was equivocal. He had decided they were wizards incarnate. And of course it’s either impossible or catastrophic to kill a wizard. But we had invited nearly several dozen colleagues in a wide area to celebrate this so important holiday called Thanksgiving. So I let Jozani know that I’d kill the birds if he wouldn’t.
He killed the birds. And sort of defeathered them.
Kathleen spent days making stuff – or more correctly, like Jozani think he was making stuff. Like Stuffing. Which Jozani felt was the epitome of evil. Throwing a chicken in a frying pan was one thing, but “dressing” a fowl and doing such wizardry things as sticking bread and wine in its hollow stomach sack must have seemed extraordinary.
It was a grand holiday evening. Candles which we now use for effect was all we had. The smell of savory rice, good wine that someone had managed to bring up from South Africa, wondrous puddings and breads infused the evening of delight with the merriment of the finest of Thanksgivings.
And as if on queue it began to rain. The start of the rains had been delayed for all sorts of mysterious reasons, and there was concern that it would become a drought. But lo and behold, that late November evening in far western Kenya, the rains arrived just as the two turkeys did.
The rains proved much more successful than the turkeys. They looked OK if a bit shrunken. But the meat had the texture of something already worked into a piece of clothing. There was a not knife to be found capable of slicing it. We set it aside for a later soup.
So everyone was happy. Our guests probably because of the wine and Kathleen’s remarkable savory rice. Jozani because we didn’t eat the wizard. And the world because the rains had come. So though I don’t know to this day where our two Kenyan turkeys came from, nor for that matter where they went (there was never a soup), I know it was because of them that we celebrated Thanksgiving far, far from home.