I had only been away from Nairobi for three months when I celebrated Thanksgiving. The day started with a friend bringing me eggnog. For years, I had watched it being venerated on U.S. TV as the drink that made the holidays complete, and now I was finally going to taste it. I took one sip. And then another. It tasted like maziwa mala with additional, unnecessary ingredients. How can adulterated maziwa mala be a celebratory drink? It was an inauspicious start to the day.
Luckily, my family lived a close train-ride away. I took the red line train and arrived in about an hour. When we gathered—uncles, aunts, cousins, nephews, and nieces—we were glad to see each other, though most of us met often outside the holidays.
The meal was served buffet style. As I was eager to have an American experience, I stayed away from the ugali and I skipped the chapatis, as I could make those for myself later. Then there was turkey and cranberry sauce. Turkey is just meat. Meat in the way chicken is not considered meat. Cranberry sauce reminded me of the expensive types of jam we could never afford at home. Meat and jam. Who’d have thought these could go together?
After eating, we sang, “Baraka za Mungu, kweli, ni za ajabu.” No Kenyan gathering is complete without this song, and singing it made Kenya present. In this space, with my relatives, I switched from English to Kiswahili in the same sentence, just as I did in Kenya. It was easy to be away from home, as we carried home with us, in our songs and our sentences.
Thanksgiving, I learned, was not simply gathering with family and eating a meal. It extended to Black Friday, an event even more anticipated than the shared meal. My cousin, her mother, and I decided to go to Lakeforest Mall in Gaithersburg.
Unlike those people on TV who camp outside stores waiting for them to open at midnight, we chose to arrive after the initial rush, but while it was still dark outside. We did not need to camp outside the stores because we were not going to the mall to search for exclusive items. We wanted regular things for less money. It was my first winter in the U.S., and I’d been told I needed a peacoat and boots. Everything else I just wanted: I wanted a camera, I wanted fancy pajamas, and I wanted things to make my shared apartment feel less empty.
Even though we were not running out of time, nor were the things that we wanted getting finished, there was a rhythm inside the mall that kept us moving fast. Everywhere there were people ahead of us going to the places we wanted to go and there were people breathing behind us and threatening to overtake us. We rushed through stores inspecting clothing racks, trying on things, and leaving them behind.
When the Macy’s staff handed out snow globes, I took one. I grab free things wherever they are offered. I saw things I had no intention of buying but wanted because of the reduced price. An extra shoulder bag could be useful. An extra pair of shoes, why not. We walked and walked. We inspected the racks and I caught myself staring at the jacket I could be buying that was in another customer’s hands. I watched this customer hoping she would put it down. This jacket was not on the list of things that I needed. Our warm attire felt heavy and cumbersome but we kept walking.
The mall lighting, the music, the constant movement kept us unaware of how the time was moving. We returned to stores that we’d already been to, only to see items replaced, more items displayed on the floor, and workers busy restoring order. We walked out of some stores without purchasing anything because the lines to the cashier were too long. It’s only when we decided that we were making our last purchases that we noticed it was bright and sunny outside. We’d been shopping and walking for at least six hours.
We placed our shopping bags in the car, glad to be heading home. My aunt tried to start the car. Nothing happened. She tried again. Still nothing. The car engine was dead, as if it had been running all night along with us. We called a cousin to rescue us and sat silently, tired. When we got home, we ate leftover turkey before we collapsed into our beds. Spent.