He knew he was born about 28 years ago, but my friend Mbola had never celebrated his birthday.
“I don’t have one,” he told me when I asked when his birthday was. He knew the year he was born, but that’s as much information he could find. His mother didn’t remember the date — she’s had ten kids anyway, the particular day seemed insignificant — and his official birth certificate only listed: 1989.
“Well, let’s choose one,” I suggested. He seemed to like the idea and after some joking around and trivial questions (what’s your favorite season, for example), we decided on a date. On May 25, at 28 years old, Mbola would celebrate his very first birthday.
Not having a “birthday” isn’t uncommon, I came to learn, for people living in my rural village. Celebrating the day you were born can seem like a foreign idea — and almost superfluous in a setting where there is constantly work to be done and arguably, more important things to worry about. The day you were born is almost an irrelevant detail, when there is coffee to be ground, cassava to be farmed and water to be fetched. If anything, celebrating yourself on the day you were born is a privilege afforded to few, living in southern Madagascar.
Of all the memories I’ve made in the two years I’ve spent in this community, one of my favorites has been celebrating others. It was an attempt to normalize an opportunity to pause from the every day hustle and bustle, sometimes mundane and often tiring Antandroy lifestyle and say: “Let’s take a break to celebrate you.”
It stared when I asked my little friend, Sylvie, when her birthday was. She didn’t know, but the next day her older brother, Hery, arrived at my house with the date scribbled on a piece of notebook paper: August 6. It became my trademark to bake a chocolate chip banana cake for birthdays— mainly because all of its ingredients could be found in my village (though it’s pretty darn tasty, too). In the beginning, I had to teach all my little kid friends the words to ‘Happy Birthday.’ I wrote the lyrics on the blackboard and we rehearsed a few times before celebrating. I explained the tradition of closing your eyes before making a wish and blowing out the candles. The tiny, colorful candles always intrigued them; they had never seen a candle used for another purpose than illuminating a home.
Sylvie invited her close friends, which were all the kids that lived in the houses next to us. We tied a garland around her head to wear as a crown, and she rushed back to her house to change into a brand new white dress. I counted to three and we all began to sing. I realized I had forgotten to tell them that we only sing it once — they continued to sing as we reached the end of the song (and they could have sang for hours) but I told them that we were finished. Sylvie blew out the candles, we cheered and then cut the cake 14 ways. To top it off, we had a little dance party.
My chocolate chip banana cake became a hit and soon enough, whenever I went to the market to buy flour, sugar and bananas, someone would ask, “whose birthday is it?”
I showed up at Nazorah’s house, cake in tow, after she finished a long day of selling coffee and bread at the market. She said she had forgot it was even her birthday. Her husband, son, brother-in-law and I sang to her as the sun went down.
Lahiale told me he didn’t celebrate his birthday because he didn’t have any money. Insisting that we celebrate, I baked a cake and we shared it with his mom, brother and friends, singing ‘Happy Birthday’, first in French and then in English.
Fozine couldn’t wait for her birthday this past year, knowing that we would celebrate, and was eager to help me bake. She made a small list of friends that she would invite to celebrate with her outside my house. We sat on a small straw mat as we sang and ate cake.
Tsivery’s tenth birthday fell on a day where I couldn’t bake a cake, so we stuck a few candles in a banana instead. He laughed as we all sang to him.
By the time Mbola’s birthday came in May, all of the kids were masters in birthday celebrations — even two-year-old Justinah could sing the song with near-perfect pronunciation. I told Mbola I would bake my traditional chocolate chip banana cake, but he took it upon himself to cook a meal and invite his neighbors for an official celebration. After we all sang and Mbola made a wish, I had to remind him to open his eyes as he sat with his eyes closed in front of the cake with a huge, goofy grin on his face. We all enjoyed ourselves that day, at Mbola’s first birthday, especially Mbola, who graciously reminded me how happy he was to finally have a birthday.
While my time here in the quaint village of Ambondro is nearing an end, I hope the habit of celebrating each other hangs around. We all deserve to feel appreciated and loved by others - why not do it over some chocolate chip banana cake?