Baking Birthdays

In the village, birthdays aren’t celebrated. There usually isn’t the money to make anything special, much less to buy gifts. I learned this when I first arrived to the village. We were eating dinner one night (just like every other night) when my bamaama mentioned it was Sandra’s birthday. But how could this be a birthday? It’s just like every other dinner, every other day. Where is the fun? The excitement? I LOVE birthdays! I feel like everyone should have a day to feel really special, especially in Zambia. I started to devise my plan.

I didn’t want to buy everyone something for their birthday. That would get expensive since there are 15 of us. I also wanted to do something that the family could continue after I left.

The next birthday, Sitemba’s, was right around the corner and I still had no idea what to do. So I went to the tuck shops in the village to buy cookies and juice for him. That night after we ate nshima and relish, I gave Sitemba his birthday treat. He shared with everyone even though their wasn’t enough cookies for everyone to have one full one! I had seen the communal way families live here-sharing relish and mealie meal and cooking oil when another family doesn’t have food to eat, sharing plows and ox carts for field work, and sharing what little a family has to help a neighbor in need. What I hadn’t expected or experienced yet was a 6 year old boy sharing his birthday cookies and juice with his entire family. Obviously I needed to devise yet another plan.

My bamaama, who is the best cook I have ever met in Zambia, said she knew how to bake cakes. She just didn’t have the ingredients. Well, I have the basics of any American kitchen: flour, sugar, butter, milk, and eggs. “I could bring them over and you could show me how to bake a cake,” I told her. And that is what we did for the next birthday.

My bamaama’s oven is brilliant. It’s a hole in the ground. She builds the fire in the hole to heat up the ground. Then when the wood becomes coals they are taken out of the hole and placed on an iron sheet. The pan is put into the hole and the iron sheet is placed on top. Presto! An oven in born!

It was a bigger hit than the cookies and juice. A tradition was born!

For every birthday since, my sister Jacqueline and I have baked birthday cake. I even have my very own oven that a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer made for me. It’s made of mud bricks for the sides and the back of the oven with an iron sheet for the top and a piece of metal for the door. My bataata even found some scrap pieces of metal rods that act as the shelf inside the oven. And boy is it AMESOME!!!!!!

The kids look forward to every birthday now. As soon as I wake up on a birthday, the kids are at my house excitedly asking, “Kupanga birthday? Kupanga birthday?” Which means in English, “Baking birthday? Baking birthday?” And I’ll tell them yes, which they already knew, and they get even more excited. Running around my house screaming and yelling while I try to put water on to boil for coffee.

Every birthday person gets to choose what kind of cake they want. Jacqueline and I have also added brownies and more recently Toll House Cookies (minus the chocolate chips) to our repertoire of birthday choices. With 15 birthdays a year, Jacqueline and I have become professional bakers!

My hope is that when I leave, the family will continue to celebrate birthdays by baking cakes. I also hope that long after I’m gone, the kids will remember all the fun we had baking birthdays.

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