I love birthdays. I love to bake delicious cake, create invitations, decide on a menu, and select the perfect present. Gift-giving is one of my love languages so birthdays are a very natural day for me to show love.
I have a love/hate relationship with my own birthday. It’s difficult to explain why; I’ve tried to verbalize it on many occasions and generally failed. I’m not sure I quite understand myself. I’m somewhat of a control-freak so I generally plan and execute my own birthday plans, not because I want to but I have a deep seated fear that if I don’t, no one will. Over the past couple years this has looked like a birthday dinner that I arranged with a few close friends. Inevitably I feel disappointed that I had to plan it myself. Except perhaps in infancy (when everything is a surprise), I’ve never had a surprise birthday party and secretly I’ve always wanted one.
I’ve been examining these thoughts for the last couple weeks, turning them over and over again in my mind as my birthday approached. A couple weeks ago I was invited to a special cultural event that was celebrating a young girl’s birthday. The event itself is a discussion for another time but I was struck by the importance that was put on the guests. There were perhaps 50 women seated on mats. They sang verses from their religious book and foodstuff was passed around. Coffee was served to each seated guest. And at the end of the ceremony, a gift bag was passed around to each guest that contained a soda, some packaged cookies and candy. I was delighted. First because junk food is hard to come by here and secondly because it was like a light bulb went off over my head. I felt so honored to be a guest. It was apparent that my presence was desired-not just mine, but each guest. It was as if the girl’s mother, on the occasion of her daughter’s birthday, was taking the time to say thank you to each invitee for being a part of their lives. I contrasted this with what I generally expect to feel after my birthday and why I am so often disappointed. I have always looked at birthdays as a time to celebrate me. Tell me I’m important. Tell me how much you love me. Show me how much you care.
This year I made a choice to approach my 28th birthday with a different attitude. This year I wanted to celebrate my new island friends, those I am so happy to have met and with whom I have shared this life transition. And so I chose to throw myself a birthday party- my version of island-style. I would serve plates of food, a mixture of island party food and some American favorites; I would show a movie and as guests left they would receive a gift. All I expected or wished for was their presence.
I could have never imagined the outpouring of blessing that came from this simple decision to view my birthday in a less selfish light. It began when I casually mentioned to Aisha* that I was going to have a party and I was wondering if at our next language lesson she could help me word the invitations since the French they use for invitations is more formal than I am used to. She arrived at our next language lesson with the invitation completed, printed up with clip art included. I definitely teared up a little at her thoughtfulness.
When I passed out the invitations to my 10 closest island friends, my homestay sisters and Abby’s homestay sister asked if they could come over earlier on the day of the party to help get everything ready. Of course!
The past couple days I have been gathering the necessary supplies: paper plates, sugar for brownies, butterscotch candies, napkins and corn kernels to pop. Yesterday (my birthday) dawned and after FaceTiming with my family and one of my closest friends (the one Fairy Tales was written about), I swept and mopped our floor then headed to my team leaders’ house to hang out for lunch (and special birthday cookies!). I made my way back to my town and began baking brownies and popping popcorn. Abby had already made cookies while I was in the capital with our team leaders so those were distributed to plates. (Cultural note: we’ve learned that you must predetermine how much food each person gets to ensure that everyone gets some. If you do a “buffet style” the first couple people may take all the food. There is no concept of rationing yourself to accommodate other guests. If the host didn’t make enough food for everyone- shame on her.)
Our host sisters showed up and I immediately put them to work. I sent them out to the market to buy peanuts and more snacks for their gift bag. When they returned, they roasted the peanuts and we packed the bags. I put aside 10 plates for my invited guests and then we wrapped 12 plates in plastic wrap to deliver to neighbors and send home with guests to share with their families. I asked An.D.* if I should deliver food to the neighbors before or after the party. She advised before. If I waited until afterwards they would think it was the leftovers. So Abby and I set out. I had prepared a speech in local language: “Today is the day I was born. Here, I want to give you this gift.” I practiced it over and over again with my host sisters before I went out. It’s much more complicated than it sounds in English, I promise!
The neighbors were very happy and I received countless bisous (the French cheek kisses).
Upon our return, we rearranged the living room to be theater style and I set up the projector I’d borrowed from our team leaders. I turned on the computer, plugged in the speakers and then, we waited. My two neighbors who are literally seconds away (one is downstairs, the other immediately across the alley) were only 17 minutes late. They came bearing gifts! Jasmine flowers for my hair and rings for my fingers. Another 15 minutes passed and more guests began arriving. Everyone had dressed up for the occasion. (Another cultural note: according to African Friends and Money Matters, “In Africa the general rule is that people dress for others, not for themselves…Being properly clothed honors the other persons). I felt very honored.
Food plates were distributed, soda was poured then I gave a short speech, which is very much expected. It was mostly French with some local language phrases thrown in whenever I knew how to say something. The movie of the night, Spiderman, was started. We watched it in English with French subtitles as most of my guests are fairly well-educated, so they speak, read and write French and semi-English speakers. There were gasps and laughs at proper places and some laughs from the three men in the room at, in my mind, improper places like when the Green Goblin gives Spiderman the choice between saving Mary Jane and the sky car full of children. How is that funny?
When the lights came back on my friends spontaneously starting singing Happy Birthday in French, then again in local language and then again in English. Once that was finished, my host sister began singing an original song in local language, one she had composed for me. The chorus was well known and the whole room joined in singing in French that they love me and want to hug me! (Click here to view 2 minutes of the song). I was so touched. Each person then brought me a wrapped gift and we finished the evening with taking pictures. One of my friends is a wedding videographer and he’d brought his video camera. While everyone wanted their picture with me, then men were quite taken with one of my neighbors so they also wanted their picture with her! I told them she is engaged, but they didn’t seem to mind.
As my friends filed down the stairs I gave them each a gift bag which now seemed a very small token in comparison to the love and gifts they had lavished upon me. I was extremely humbled by the entire experience. Here I thought I would be a selfless, generous friend, inviting people into my home, providing them with food and a gift on my birthday! These same people who sometimes cannot afford the $1 taxi fare to come to our town, gave me with their presence, their time, their creativity and their gifts. This wealthy American, who thought she would be generous, was humbled on her birthday to see true generosity in her African friends.
*Names have been changed.
 Maranz, David E., African Friends and Money Matters. Dallas: SIL International, 2001. Pg. 173