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.