National Thanksgiving Day isn’t celebrated around the world, but perhaps it should be.
Across the United States when the fourth Thursday in November rolls around once again, and if you happen to be fortunate enough to sit down to a Thanksgiving meal in the company of family or friends, you probably have a lot to be thankful for.
Of course, there are times when we imagine that life is conspiring against us. Times when it becomes no longer easy to think positively, and when there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel.
Nobody says it will be easy, but if we try to dig a little deeper – and minutely examine all we should be thankful for, – are we really doing so badly?
For many, just being born in a particular geographic location is enough to be thankful for.
There are millions for whom the lottery of life hasn’t been so fortunate. The mere act of being born in one country over another, or one region over another, or one side of the city over another, can determine much of the outcome of our lives.
The lottery of geography is a complicated one.
But, let me explain.
Not all tables are full
Some years ago I was traveling by train between the Kenyan city of Mombasa and the capital, Nairobi.
Back then the train was notoriously slow, almost every journey involved the prospect of breakdowns, snags, complications, and long hot delays.
Unusually, and rather guiltily, I was traveling first-class and in no great hurry, so the prospect of delays didn’t overly concern me. I would have a sleeping car, clean sheets, soft seats, refreshments, and a restaurant to dine in.
However, times have changed. The seats were torn and stained, the silver cutlery in the dining car wasn’t as highly-polished as it once had been, the waiter’s uniforms were no longer crisp and starched, and the antique fans had long ago given up the ghost.
But these were all first-world problems. In the overcrowded lower class carriages, life was not so grand.
Hard wooden benches were shared by whole families. Children slept, ate, and cried on the bare floor boards. Many of the windows were missing allowing billowing clouds of Kenya’s fine red dust to cover everything in sight and making it impossible to breathe.
Great towers of goods being transported to the capital were piled in every available space; fruits, vegetables, washing powders, cleaning fluids, plastic bowls, animal feeds, and dried fish. The stench was overpowering.
A journey from another time
The train lived up to its reputation. Departure was delayed by almost three hours and once finally onboard the heat in the compartment was stifling, even by Kenyan standards.
For the next four hours the train – once the pride of Africa – shuddered, shook, faltered, and sparked into life again and again.
With each passing mile-post the landscapes changed as the city gave way to villages, the villages gave way to isolated homesteads, and finally, the homesteads gave way to the lush greenery of Tsavo East National Park.
From plenty to nothing
For what seemed like forever I stood in the train’s corridor drinking in the beauty of the Kenyan countryside.
Eagles circled in the sky, herds of zebra grazed the open clearings, and giraffe towered above the treeline. Close to the small settlements we passed, herds of fat white goats nibbled on the abundant leaves as their minders, small healthy-looking boys wearing wide smiles, chased the train and waved in jubilation.
But this is Kenya, a land of contrasts and contradictions. A land where change can come as swiftly as the sweeping blade of a farmer’s panga.
Once the train had passed through Tsavo’s lushness it entered a landscape where the distant mountains no longer decided the weather. In an instant, the world changed dramatically.
Instead of the verdant greens we had just left behind, the earth was scorched and dry. The colors were of burnt ochres, sandy browns, rusted yellows, and hints of beige and khaki. In no more than a handful of miles, we had come from a land of plenty to a land of barren brutality.
Where time has no meaning
Passing a small dry riverbed, the train shuddered, slowed and stopped. From the distance, there was the sound of commotion.
A white-coated steward passed the window.
“What’s the problem?” I called.
“Big trouble, engine dead. A new engine will come from Sultan Hamud. Maybe four hours, maybe much more.”
There was no point being annoyed, this is just how it is in a place where time has little or no bearing on daily life. What will be, will be.
The travelers from the other carriages began to exit the train, some disappearing into the distance, perhaps already close enough to home. Others set up camp in what little shade they could find and settled down to sleep.
Overcome by thirst I made my way to the dining car.
The carriage was firmly shut and deserted. I cursed my stupidity. I hadn’t been smart enough to bring anything to drink with me – relying instead on the misguided knowledge that all would be provided.
The hours passed slowly, the heat increased, the buzz of the flies got louder, and my thirst grew greater.
From the window, I could see a collection of mud huts in the near distance. Perhaps there would be a small duka, or shop, where I might be lucky enough to find something to quench my thirst?
It didn’t take me long to reach the small huddled gathering of impoverished huts. Emaciated-looking dogs wandered in small packs, too listless and hot to care about the presence of a foreigner in their midst.
Suddenly, I heard a small voice and turned.
In the doorway of one of the huts, a young girl had appeared. “Jambo, mzungu!” she shouted. Perhaps I was the first white man she had ever seen.
She was tiny, with skinny arms and sunken cheeks. She looked no more than five or six, but I already knew that in places wracked by drought and a lack of fresh food, it’s common for children to look younger than they actually are. Malnutrition.
Her hair was braided into long neat plaits and matted with dust. She wore a torn and soiled tee-shirt that once displayed the words Super Girl, a very long time ago, in a very different world.
I made the universal sign for drinking something, “Maji?” I asked, “Water?”.
She shook her head slowly, there would be no water here. I smiled and turned to walk away.
“Bwana”, she called and disappeared into her ramshackle hut. A moment later she returned carrying a battered metal bowl half-full with ugali – a type of white maize porridge and a staple of these parts.
She lifted the bowl and offered it to me. Her face beaming like the equatorial sun.
A simple act of kindness
In the bowl, there was barely enough to feed a small child. A mere morsel, but here she was, among these crumbling shambolic huts, dressed in rags, her hair matted with the Kenyan earth, offering me the very thing which would sustain life.
It was plain from her smile that she wanted nothing in return, it was just the act of a selfless child, trying to help another human being. I was moved beyond words.
I thanked her but refused her kind gesture. From my pocket, I took some coins and held out my hand. But, she shook her head, smiled, and left.
Just then the train sounded its whistle. I returned with that short but moving encounter rooted firmly in my mind, and a tear in my eye. Life, like the landscape, had just changed irreparably.
Back at the train, puzzled that I had heard no replacement engine arrive I asked the returned steward what had happened. “Engineer fix engine,” he replied.
“And the one coming from Sultan Hamud?” I asked.
“No engine in Sultan Hamud,” he shrugged.
“I need some water,” I said.
“No problem boss,” he replied, “three-hundred shillings.”
Every day should be a thanksgiving day
It’s a small story, and perhaps one that holds no meaning for everyone. But it also may go a long way towards illustrating that even when we think that fate is slapping us firmly in the face, we still have much to be thankful for.
From the very first time the pilgrim brethren celebrated thanksgiving with their native American friends, people have taken time to remember their fortune on annual days of thanksgiving.
The name may even have changed to Turkey Day, T-Day, or even the day before Black Friday, but the reason people still travel hundreds, or even thousands of miles to be among those who are most important to them, is for giving thanks for the blessings which they have been afforded.
Sometimes, it’s easier to focus on what we don’t have, rather than what we do have. When that happens, it’s important to take time out and remember all that we can be thankful for, things which many of us take for granted. We should try learn to be more grateful.
Every day should be Thanksgiving Day and a chance to count our small blessings.