That’s the really uplifting text I got from a fellow PCV the morning of my 25th birthday, December 17, 2010. I guess by Senegalese standards I am old, or at least old in that I don’t have a husband and don’t have any children. But, as I reflect back on the quarter of a century that I’ve been alive, I have come to the conclusion that I have learned a lot and have come a long way – but I’m really just getting warmed up: I have so much more to learn and a lot farther to go. Seeing as it was my birthday, I figured I should learn how birthdays are celebrated in Senegal. Last year I spent my birthday in Kaolack celebrating with several other PCVs, but this year I wanted to spend the day in Kaymor. Many people in Senegal (like most developing countries) don’t know what their birth date is, so birthdays aren’t a big deal at all, so my birthday party was the first birthday party most of the people – if not everyone – had ever been to. It was the second birthday party I’d attended in Kaymor – my friend Yassa had a small joint party with a friend last year for her birthday (January 1). My host mom helped me plan my party, which involved deciding what food and drinks I wanted to have, what music to play (if any), and who to invite. For food, I made banana bread, chocolate chip cookies, and snickerdoodles in Kaolack (since I was there for a meeting a couple days before my birthday). Then in Kaymor, I made a cake from 2 brownie mixes, complete with frosting and caramel (which I made from boiling sweetened condensed milk in its can for 4 hours – isn’t that cool?!?!) and popcorn, and my host mom and several other women and girls helped me make beignets, which are balls of fried sweet bread. For drinks, we made juice from a simple powder mix we can buy at any store here. And for music, my host mom was nice enough to let me play American music on my computer rather than getting a stereo and playing Senegalese music. (Playing American music made it difficult to get people to dance because they claimed they didn’t know how to “dance American” but I was able to get the kids to dance – and my host mom even got up and danced for a while.) As far as who to invite, I obviously had to invite my entire family, including extended family that lives in Kaymor, and then beyond them I invited just a few friends: the guy I tutor in English, Tomsir, my friend (who was also my Wolof teacher), Malick, and his family, and my Talibe friends (who have a garden that I help with). I was hoping Yassa and my other friends that are in high school in Thiès would be back for their Christmas break in time for my birthday party, but they weren’t. I invited most people by telling them about my birthday and my party, and any family members I didn’t see my host mom invited.
On the day of my birthday, I got up early and went for a long run. I ran out on the main road into Kaymor and got a little homesick when I reached the river because it was so calm and beautiful that it reminded me of going out to the lake early in the morning in Minnesota. It was a great way to start the day, though, because running always gets me energized. I had to do some work in the morning but wrapped it up quickly so I could help the women and girls make the beignets and so I could make my cake because no one knows how to make a cake here, and for good reason – it was a bit challenging. Even though I could have gotten all the ingredients to make a cake from scratch in Kaymor (except vanilla, though I can buy small packets of vanilla-flavored sugar, which might work just as well…?), I just used brownie mixes for my cake because it was easier and faster. But then I had to bake the cake…we obviously don’t have an oven here, so I was hoping to make an oven by putting the pot with cake dough inside another pot with charcoal inside the big pot and on top of it. But my host mom was correct to argue that putting charcoal in the pot would wreck it, so we just put the big pot on top of the charcoal, as you can see from the pictures below.
After a while we realized that the big pot might be getting wrecked because there wasn’t anything in it (besides the other pot), so we took the small pot out and just put that on top of an old canned tomato can on top of the charcoal, which turned out to be a better system anyway (the second cake wasn’t burnt on the bottom at all like the first one was):
While I was messing with my cake, my host mom and the girls that live with us to go to school made lunch (it was my host mom’s turn to cook lunch). If I had been in America, my mom would have cooked me a special meal, but seeing as the women in my family cook for 25+ people every day, I didn’t think it was feasible to try to make an American meal for all of them. And, I lucked out and the fish car came to Kaymor that day, so we were able to have one of my favorite Senegalese dishes: rice and fish (with lots of veggies!).
While the second cake was baking, we made the beignets. This was much more of a team effort (since making beignets is much more common so everyone knows how to make them). We put some of the beignets in little plastic bags so people would have some treats to take home (you can’t really go to a party in Senegal and not bring back something to share with your family).
While we were wrapping up the beignets, some of the girls made the juice quickly and put them in little plastic bags so each person could be handed a little bag to drink the juice from (this is much more common than everyone having a cup; in fact, when people are traveling here and want to buy water, they usually just buy a small plastic bag of it because that’s much cheaper than getting a bottle of water). Then my host mom and I quickly popped the popcorn, and I put my cake together. The frosting quickly started running off the cake – it was not that warm, but certainly warm enough to “melt” the frosting.
Once all the food was prepared, I took a bucket bath and put my “nice” clothes on – my mom was surprised when I came out of my room wearing “American clothes” because she thought I was going to wear my new Senegalese outfit from Tabaski, but she understood me when I explained that celebrating birthdays is more American than Senegalese so I wanted to wear my American clothes (and my pants/tank top are a lot cooler and more comfortable than my Tabaski outfit!). Right when I was done getting dressed Tomsir and my Talibe friends came over. They were the only ones (besides Malick) who actually brought me a present (not that I expected it by any means, but it was super nice of them). They brought me a pencil and a couple pens, as well as an (apparently pretty rare) photo of their marabou (whom they really revere, seeing as they’re his talibe/he’s their marabou). (Malick brought over 2 bottles of pop to add to the treats I already had.) They were the first “real” guests to arrive (i.e., the first people besides the people that live in my compound), but other people gradually trickled over as the afternoon progressed. Most of the time we just sat around listening to my music and chatting, though I was able to get people up dancing for a little while. The whole thing was slightly anti-climatic because it wasn’t like what I would consider a normal party in America where people mingle around, eating, drinking, and talking. Here, everyone just sat there and chatted a little with the person sitting next to them, and my host mom said we had to wait to give people food until the end because that’s what they do here to make sure everyone gets some and to make sure things are proportioned out properly I guess. That’s one thing that bothered me (and has bothered me in general the whole time I’ve been here) – the way food and other things are distributed among family/friends: the older men get the best and the most of whatever it is, and then the middle-aged men, and then the older women, and then the middle-aged women, and then all the kids. I know this is all based on respect and everything, but it still bothered me that the kids got last dibs on the treats – I don’t know about other people’s families, but in my family whenever we have a big family gathering or a multi-generational party (such as a neighborhood Christmas party), the kids almost always get to go through the line and get food first while the adults wait patiently, and if there’s only one piece of cake left, an adult with leave it for a child. That just isn’t the case here. Don’t get me wrong, the kids certainly got enough of the treats, but my host dad and uncles certainly got a much bigger share (and much bigger than is proportional to their larger size as adults). Before everyone dug into the food, the three people at the party that understand at least some English (Tomsir, Malick, and Gallo, one of my Talibe friends) sang “Happy Birthday” to me while everyone else just sat there staring at them confusedly. It was cute. After that I went over to my host mom’s “kitchen” to get a knife to cut the cake and by the time I had come back (literally less than 30 seconds later), everyone was digging in to the food and someone had already stuck their hand in the cake a taken out a chunk – clearly I shouldn’t have assumed people would understand the concept of me cutting the cake…or of the birthday girl getting the first piece of cake. I cut the cake and then let my host mom distribute it as she saw fit. By this point I had to step back from the food because it was just too crazy – I guess I should take it as a compliment (or maybe everyone was just really hungry): the food was just devoured. Fortunately for my sanity, my sister called me when everyone was eating so I had an excuse to step away and talk with her. Everyone wanted to know if she was having her party at the same time as mine, and they were surprised (as they always are) when I said that she was going to have her party later because in America, it was only mid-day. The food was more or less gone by the time it was time for the 5th (and last for the day) call to prayer, so everyone went home to pray and to eat dinner. (The adults prayed the evening/4th call to prayer at my party, as you can see from the photos below.)
I was pretty tired by this point, and just read a little before going to bed myself. Overall, I’m glad I had my birthday party in Kaymor, mostly so people here could get a glimpse of what birthday parties are like in the States and so they could have some treats since eating beignets and drinking juice is not a common activity for villagers. And as an added bonus, my host mom insisted I eat the leftovers for breakfast the next morning – my real mom would never insist that I eat beignets, cookies, and cake for breakfast, though perhaps that’s because in America we could store the food so it wouldn’t spoil… :)