Ten years ago a group of young, naive Americans went to northern Afghanistan. We went to help with some relief and development work, focusing on newly returned refugees and some long term capacity building projects. We had no idea what any of those words meant.
Through trial and error, lots of error, we went to work. We spent the mornings in language lessons and the afternoons in the office or out in villages asking questions, taking surveys and doing some distributions of clothes and blankets.
We learned what some of those development words meant and we learned a lot of Dari vocabulary.
Interesting fact: we learned to say “it is dangerous” in lesson three and “please and thank you” in lessons five and six. Priorities.
What got us through those first crazy months was our amazing Afghan staff. We were so clueless in language, culture and project work and they all just kinda shook their heads and helped us along. My husband had a 13 year old boy show him how to tie on the large baggy pants the men wear. When I insisted that surely we could eat something besides greasy mutton, my driver took me on a city wide hunt to buy a chicken. We bought that chicken — alive, with it’s head, feathers and beating heart and put it in the van with me. I’m not a farm kid, I had no idea what to do. Our cook, bless her, deftly took it from me, butchered it, cleaned it and cooked it up for us. It took her twice as long as the mutton preparation and with the gas and time it took to find and buy that scrawny fowl, I learned a valuable lesson — wanting variety, different tastes and even nutrition in your food are something only rich people have the time and means to think about.
By November, we had gotten our bearings for the most part and had several projects going. All of us, American, Canadian and Afghan, were working crazy long hours and the weather had turned freezing cold. We wanted to show our Afghan friends our appreciation for all their help and hard work and so we decided to host an American style Thanksgiving (our Canadian team mates graciously joined in even though their thanksgiving was a month earlier).
We raided stores that sold “foreigner food” (read: food that somehow found it’s way into the bazaar from NATO bases) and bought dusty cans of cranberries and packets of jello at exorbitant prices. Mr. Incredible arranged with a village elder to get us a couple wild turkeys, pre-butchered this time, and we all spent a long time in the kitchen preparing vegetables and salads. In Afghanistan you can’t just wash and peal a vegetable. You have to make sure you are using clean, boiled water and you have to soak everything in an iodine solution, to avoid fun things like dysentery and cholera. We even made pie.
We spread out the dhaster-khan, the large plastic mat for eating, and laid out the food. We made sure the oldest men and our office manager were seated in the place of honor and that our cook and housekeeper had their own eating area, away from the men.
Afghans eat from common dishes with their hands, so that is how we’d set the dhaster-khan. We all laughed at each other trying to scoop up mashed potatoes, salad and cranberries with our fingers. I did notice that everyone managed to get pie in their mouths with not too much difficulty.
As we passed around food I noticed our two drivers talking and debating over a bowl of bright green jello. They were frowning at it, but both took a scoop. “Uncle” I said, “is everything okay?”
“This is dish soap?” he asked. “No, it’s an American food. It’s okay, it’s sweet.” And then, I said, “Uncle, did you think I would serve you a bowl of dish soap to eat?” And he laughed and looked sheepish, but there was no doubt, that neither he, nor any of the staff, was entirely sure what crazy thing we would do!
But what I love most, is that he took a scoop, before he knew what it was. Maybe we were trying to poison him, but he wasn’t going to be rude about.
We took turns after the feast, each saying something we were thankful for. I don’t think any of our Afghan friends had ever done this before, and certainly no one had ever said to them, thank you for your hard work, your sacrifice, your service. Even our most hardened, former mujahadeen fighter had tears in his eyes.
We were so far away from America and this most American of holidays, but that cold dark night in northern Afghanistan, Thanksgiving was truly celebrated.