I woke at 6 a.m. to the dulcet tones of my alarm clock, but treated myself to a one-hour lie-in as opposed to my usual morning run. Meagan woke up at 7 a.m. and wished me happy birthday loudly and with gusto (surprising, considering the hour).

“If you look under the TV,” she began, “there should be a bag with a card and a really lame gift.” I was touched. I hadn’t expected anything beyond a basic happy birthday so this caught me completely by surprise. I found the bag, which included a card and five cartons of mango juice, my new favourite drink since arriving in Tanzania. Meagan kept reiterating how lame it was but I thought it was brilliant. If she’d gotten me a gold necklace I would’ve thanked her politely but secretly lamented the social and environmental implications of the mining trade (not to mention my own allergy to precious metals). This gift might not have been particularly glamorous but it was perfect for me, and for the first time in weeks I felt excited about my birthday.

The day continued on much like any other. That night the other volunteers and I went out to Mama Perina’s, a local guest house for dinner. I invited the local staff and volunteers to join us as well but wasn’t certain how many of them would attend. To my surprise, Godfrey, our local assistant program officer, and Gasto, a local volunteer, and two of their friends joined us later that evening.

By the time we were all settled I was starving and ordered a huge helping of pasta with pesto sauce along with a helping of brochette. By the time I’d finished I already regretted the brochette and felt too full to move. I recommended to my fellow volunteers that we cancel the cake and ice cream for today, and maybe stop by Ricky’s café for desert later this week. I was surprised to see the girls’ faces drop as they glared back at me, shocked and appalled.

“You don’t want cake?” they asked, incredulously.

“I dunno,” I responded, surprised at what I considered a huge over-reaction. “I’m feeling kinda full and I don’t know if anyone else wants any. . .” and here the girls cut in with a quick series of counter-arguments before I had a chance to get a word in edge-wise.

“I’ll have some with you!”

“Me too!”

“I’ll have some, as well.”

“Cause you know you want some.”

“Yeah, you want cake.”

“I’ll go order it.” And Jillian was up from the table, seeking out our waitress before I even had a chance to process what I’d just agreed to. She returned a few minutes later with an immaculate cake purchased from the local bakery. Just a few days beforehand I’d had lunch with one of the volunteers and tried to order a piece of black forest cake. However the cake was not fresh and the owners refused to serve me a piece. I ordered a different type instead but complained to my colleague that it wasn’t cake I was craving, but icing, and was kind of disappointed that the one I’d ordered instead didn’t have any. After this incident, all three of the volunteers decided to pitch in buy me a cake with icing for my birthday.

Gasto as well, surprised me with a chocolate bar and a homemade birthday card bearing the following inscription: “Dear Sarah-Leane, You are not alone and we are here to make you happy. Happy birthday.”

I thanked him profusely and he explained the basis of the inscription: “I like the Michael Jackson song, ‘You are not Alone.’ That is why I write you are not alone in the card. Also, even when your family is far away, we can take care of you.”

If Michael Jackson is popular in North America, he is legend in Tanzania. People flogged to the streets and cried when they heard that he died. Anyways, it was a really sweet thing for Gasto to do and this card plus the plastic wand from my birthday cake are hands-down my most treasured souvenirs thus far.

For someone who was initially so reluctant to celebrate their birthday I’m so glad that I did. It might have been difficult being so far from my friends and family, but I was so touched by the people in my community who came together to make it the best that it could be.

-Sarah-Leanne Deslippe was a YCI Youth Ambassador in Morogoro, Tanzania from January to March 2010. She is currently completing her University of Ottawa co-op placement with YCI.

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