One of my best Thanksgiving memories was just last year, sharing a feast of spaghetti omelets in a village in the West African nation of Benin.
In 2017, I began my two-year service as an Education Peace Corps Volunteer. I expected to feel lonesome during the holiday season, longing for the traditions and comforts of home – which for me is now Mount Pleasant, South Carolina.
But my fears of holiday loneliness couldn't have been farther from reality.
From the first Thanksgiving to the last Christmas of my service, I felt more thankful and loved than I remember feeling in a while, mostly due to the people I was surrounded by — and not necessarily what was on the table or gifts given.
Life in Benin was definitely challenging. I was an English teacher at a secondary school in Gouandé, a rural village of some 20,000 people. In addition to teaching three classes on my own and two with my colleagues, I had to adjust to a different living situation. My accommodations were relatively spacious – a three-room concrete house. But there was no electricity or running water.
I quickly fell into a rhythm at home: fetching water from the neighborhood pump, doing laundry by hand, sweeping Saharan dust off every surface, attempting to cook nutritious meals on a gas stove with the few ingredients available in a food desert (mainly tomatoes, onions, corn, beans and rice).
As I grew more comfortable with life in Benin, I wanted to share American culture with the community. Those moments of cultural exchange helped me discover that we all had a great deal in common.
Last year, I decided to invite colleagues, supervisors and friends to my house for a feast of a Beninese favorite: spaghetti omelets, the Italian classic of pasta and tomato sauce served with an oily, spicy omelet on top. It's considered a scrumptious and filling treat, both among Beninese and Peace Corps volunteers.
Though my American family wasn't able to visit during my time in Benin, I felt as if I had new circle to celebrate with — my host family, whom I lived with for two weeks of training and stayed in touch with, as well as colleagues and friends I'd made.
Since Thanksgiving is just another Thursday in November in Benin, I didn't have lots of time to prepare the meal. I started during my three-hour lunch break between the English classes I taught.
I recruited some of my host family's brothers and sister to chop onions, tomatoes and peppers for a savory sauce. I was grateful for the assistance, which made the job so much easier. And my host siblings loved being included in the creation of a holiday meal.
Two hours flew by, and the tomato sauce was simmering up familiar flavors of both a Beninese "sauce tomate" and my great-grandfather's Italian pasta sauce. After teaching an afternoon class, I rushed back home to set up seating in my living room, make some sweet potato gnocchi (an added treat) and cook the pasta and omelets.
Before long, my "mamans" (a collection of women who took me under their wings) arrived with serving plates. Beninese women are expected to cook, clean and raise children; they are the backbone of a household and a nation. But this time, a meal was being prepared for them.
Yet they couldn't help but join in, lending a hand as I began to whisk eggs and flip omelets. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and just appreciated being in their presence of these women, who had helped me feel at home in Benin, nourishing me with food and love. I was finally getting to do the same for them.
The other guests arrived slowly but surely. Soon the mamans and I were serving the principal and vice principal of the school where I taught, along with the local English teacher with whom I taught classes.
My principal nodded in approval, smiled ever so slightly and took the first bite of the omelet, inviting everyone to join in. Toddlers, teenagers and parents sat side-by-side in a large circle in my tiny living room. With all the chatter and sighs of satisfaction from my guests, I almost forgot there wasn't a table to set our plates upon.
I took a few moments to say why I had invited them all for a feast for a holiday that was new to them. I explained that every November, Americans gather with their families to enjoy a meal and share gratitude for each other and blessings in their lives. I said that Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday because you can celebrate with friends as well as family.
Smiles and cheers broke out as I admitted that, despite not being with my American family, I felt so lucky to be with my new Beninese "family" on this special day.
Moments like this helped me discover that we all had a great deal in common. In a way, Beninese folks (from the Fon of the south to the Berba of the north) celebrate Thanksgiving every day. At the core of their culture are strong familial bonds and a love for enjoying a meal together.
Keeping with a Reilly family tradition, at my Thanksgiving dinner in Benin everyone shared what they were grateful for: good health, family, religion and food.
As for me, serving in the Peace Corps taught me more about giving thanks than any other experience I've had. I had a newfound and overwhelming appreciation for the support a stranger can find in a new community.
I know that when I sit down at the table this year in South Carolina, surrounded by family and food I missed for 27 months, I will absolutely appreciate everything I have in my life. But a great part of my heart will be aching for Benin, longing to cook just one more feast with my mamans and telling everyone just one more time: Je suis reconnaissante de vous. I am thankful for you.
Abby Reilly has completed her stint as a Peace Corps volunteer and hopes to work in international education. She is re-adjusting to American life by baking bread, running, practicing yoga and enjoying time with family and friends. You can read more about her experiences in Benin at thebeninchapter.wordpress.com.