“Excuse me? How does one celebrate a birthday in Africa?”
Toasted almond eyes smiled at me from behind the sales counter. The girl was the color of coffee with a single drop of cream. Curls cascaded in ringlets around her broad forehead. Her name tag said “Hosanna”.
“How perfect”, I thought.
“We are traveling on safari tomorrow morning to Serengeti with Zablon Sunday’s group.” I explained. “One of my travel mates will be celebrating her birthday while we are there. I’d like to know if you have any suggestions for how we might celebrate her birthday. I believe she turns 73.”
The girl’s expression remained unchanged. Whether she was processing my words, a strange gibberish of simultaneous rapid-fire slow-syllabled Southern drawl or was simply contemplating the answer, I was not sure. I have a terrible habit, a tendency to fill in any silences in a conversation with mindless chatter; it’s a trait I share with my sister. “She is such a nice lady.” I continued. “Well, I really don’t know her that well, but she is soo-oo-o interesting. She is a writer, a journalist actually named Sonya. She was a war correspondent in Poland during the Communist uprising, back when there were hardly any women doing that job. She’s traveling single with two friends from the states.”
I had to pause to breathe sometime…
“You could have a birthday cake, maybe some champagne. Your guide can arrange it for you, ” the girl interjected.
“Gee, that is exactly how we would celebrate it in the US. Can you think of something that is more… ugh African?”
“Ah!”, she brightened. “You could do Mama Afrika.”
I didn’t know what she meant and said as much, but I was definitely intrigued.
“You get some fabric and wrap it around your head like a scarf, ” she explained. “Wrap it around your waist for a skirt and around your shoulders. Oh, and you could dance!” The staff at the lodge where we were staying and where Hosanna worked was always trying to get us to stay up and dance with them after dinner. We never did; we were too tired.
Mama Afrika! I liked this idea but where could I find an African wardrobe before we left for Serengeti the next morning? So far, I had not seen a single Wal-Mart or Joanne’s Fabrics since arriving in Africa. Hosanna offered to bring me her tribe’s fabrics; she would even bring them by my room the next morning and show me how to wear them.
Hosanna appeared promptly at 7 AM with three fabrics, none of which seemed to match. In Africa, there seems to be no rules about mixing patterns or colors. She wound me up like a spool, round and round from head to waist. I looked in the mirror at her completed creation. I looked like a colorful chicken, nothing like the elegant African ladies who strolled the villages.
My sister giggled.
The next few days were busy with our travel cross-country to and subsequent set-up at Serengeti. Safaris, hot air balloon rides, learning to live in a tent. I was thankful to be sharing my tent with my sister; several others like Sonya slept alone. Sonya was deathly afraid of encountering a Black Mamba and we teased her about it mercilessly. At the time, I must admit I had no idea the second most venomous snake in the world was the Black Mamba and that it made its home in our new back yard. Capable of moving at very high speeds, its bite can kill a human being in as little as twenty minutes.
As Sonya’s birthday drew near, I realized the drive into Serengeti had been so thrilling, I had completely forgot to remind Zablon to get champagne. Fortunately, I was able to embezzle a bottle from the champagne breakfast that followed our balloon ride. My sister and I befriended two nice couples from Colombia. When they heard about Sonya’s upcoming birthday celebration and how I had procured her authentic African garb, they became our accomplices by helping me smuggle an unopened bottle off the table and into my jacket. They even insisted on taking a picture of it!
Sonya’s birthday came off in true Africa style, which means it was perfect but not quite as planned. Zablon had mistakenly told the chef her birthday was one day early. Since having the scent of a freshly baked cake and a delicious dinner wafting around the tent was a likely invitation to have our food stolen by the baboons, we celebrated her birthday the first time with a dinner, birthday cake and a special surprise. We were lost in the quiet of after dinner conversation when from the darkness all the crew from the Serengeti camp sprung into our tent beating drums and banging on pots. Enough hooping and hollering, my mama would have said to beat the band! Two men including our handsome young chef who by day was the quiet and consummate professional now danced around us with wild eyes, faces painted with vanilla cake icing and pregnant, protruding bellies stuffed with pillows. “I have no idea what they are doing,” I said to my friend Jenny who stared in amazement. “Maybe it’s the word “birthday? Maybe they take the word literally…”
It was one of the most remarkable things I had ever seen before. Round and round they went, chanting and beating their way into the night. Sonya laughed and danced. Suddenly I realized something so pervasive to African culture that I had never understood before. The singing, the fires, the drumming, the celebration. This was the survival of man, and woman of course, in Africa. It flows in their African blood. Rituals surrounding birth and death. Like the lions we heard roaring in the stillness of late night, the monkeys who carefully stalked lost morsels of food, this noisy celebration was our claim to our brief time with Africa.
The next day was Sonya’s actual birthday. Unfortunately, she did not feel well enough to go with us on our safari that afternoon. While driving back to camp, Zablon spotted a large egg laying in the grass beside the road. He brought it back to the jeep to show us. It was a perfect ostrich egg. He explained how sometimes the female ostrich will simply drop an egg wherever she happens to be. If the egg is not deposited safely into the nest, it cannot be transported by the mother ostrich and thus, would never hatch. Zablon would bring it back to camp to show the others and give the camp staff a treat for breakfast the next day. One ostrich egg equals about sixteen regular chicken eggs, he explained.
That night, despite not really understanding what it meant, we dressed Sonya up as Mama Afrika. Zablon helped me tie the cloth around her head and waist. Just like me, she resembled a chicken. On African soil, we popped the cork from the stolen French champagne and shared it with everyone. We gave Sonya one of her most memorable birthdays. A great night for a great lady, for our new friend.
In the meantime, when we arrived back at camp from our afternoon safari. Zablon presented Sonya the egg as a birthday present telling her “We have brought you a Black Mambo egg!”