Bicultural birthdays

Our family is halfway through birthday season. It begins with mine in mid-May and ends with 50 Cedis in mid-September. The most recent celebration was for the only* girl in the family, Treasure, who turned 8 a couple of weeks ago. The next will be Abrantie, who officially becomes a teenager in August.

Celebrating Abrantie's birthday in Ghana. His cousin's direct look at the camera makes me wonder what he thought of our extravagance,

Celebrating Abrantie’s birthday in Ghana. In the background, his cousin’s direct stare makes me wonder what he thought of our extravagance.

So it’s got me thinking, is there anything particularly bicultural about the way our family celebrates birthdays? Apart from the fact that celebrating at all is probably a sign of our biculturality. DadaK tells me that in general, birthdays are not a big deal in Ghana, although judging from Facebook posts by Ghanaian friends, I think his information on that may be a bit out of date. But perhaps celebrating birthdays in Ghana depends on your level of:

a) exposure to western culture (Hey, birthdays look fun, let’s do it);

b) affluence (there’s not a lot of cash in the village to splurge on individual indulgences like birthdays); and

c) the importance of the birthday (or the person having it, e.g. treasured only daughter).

When I think of the incredible amounts of money spent on birthdays in rich countries like Australia, the immense significance accorded the simple achievement of ticking over one more year, and the license for greed on that ‘special’ day, I can’t help feeling it’s all way out of proportion. I was particularly aware of this when we celebrated the children’s birthdays in Ghana. Everyone enjoyed the parties – the Ghanaian cousins and neighbours got to have treats that wouldn’t normally come their way – but the money I spent on cakes and treats could have given all the children a week of breakfasts.

But then, every day in Ghana brought feelings of ambivalence or guilt about being so much richer than my in-laws. It’s not really helpful to get stuck in that morass. I’m guessing it’s a common feeling for the white/privileged half of mixed race couples – at least for those with families in poor countries – and would be interested to know how others deal with it.

Anyway … compared to other forms of conspicuous consumption, birthdays are pretty benign, and I’m not giving up on them just yet. After all, birthdays are about celebrating friendship and family, and the more of that, the better. But perhaps we in western societies could scale back a bit on how we celebrate. Less dollars, more love. So maybe that’s another way in which our family birthdays are bicultural – I’ve learned to curb my extravagance.

So there’s that. What else?

At first I found it hard to think of anything, after all, a birthday is a birthday, right? But then, paying attention to the detail, I came up with this:

Design your own Bicultural Birthday Celebration by choosing from either column for each row. Obviously the items that span both rows are independent of being bicultural, although I like to think that AM is channelling the Ghanaian trickster Anansi when he hides people’s presents and packs my dressing gown into the wrapping instead …

Ghanaian Me (Anglo-Australian)
Malt – Ghana’s (unofficial) national drink. If Malt is available AM won’t drink anything else. Strange, cheap soft drinks imported from Arabic speaking countries. Apple malt. Apple cider / sparkling grape juice – I introduced it to the family years ago in preference to soft drinks. It’s a big hit.
Some combination of: chicken or goat soup with fufu/ yams and stew /deep fried chicken wingettes /fried plantain / RedRed / Jollof rice, etc. etc. Lamb roast with lots of roasted vegies. It’s the only thing I cook that everyone likes. Especially with lots of gravy and plenty of (white or purple) sweet potato and broccoli (yes, broccoli …. I’m not sure why a plain steamed vegetable is such a hit with my Ghanaian family who love salt and chilli and oil).
Birthdays are always at Home, because all our birthdays are in the colder months
No special crockery. Plastic plates and spoons for the cake. No cutlery unless eating rice, except if the food is really hot the obruni (me) uses a spoon or fork. Placemats. (At the moment they’re white Disney heroines). Special glasses and plates. Some of the glasses and dessert plates belonged to my mum. Knives and forks. Gravy boats. (I can’t believe I just wrote that!) Tureens for the vegies. A nice table cloth. I don’t get to entertain very often so I’ve got to go all out.
Pink cake with loads of mock cream (basically butter and sugar), heavily decorated. Provided by Godmother. Flashy but not really that nice. Unless you like sugared butter. Home baked cake, sometimes slightly burnt due to the vagaries of ovens in rental properties. But the passionfruit cake I baked for Treasure was a success (yummy with raspberries and cream). If I’ve no time to bake I buy a caramel mud cake from Michel’s.
Everyone sings happy birthday while the special person blows out the candles
Lollies. Sometimes chips. No lollies. Or, very occasionally, those ‘no artificial colour /flavour’ etc. types.
Clothes as presents, or money for the teenagers. Thoughtful educational toys/books. Actually I gave up on most of that a while ago. These days it’s dolls and video games.
teenage brother plays evil trick on baby sister (And just managed to stop before the tears started – so it was fun).

Well that’s about all I can think of. What about you?

* Obaapaa and I are of course ‘womans’, as G Ketewa informed us last week.


5 thoughts on “Bicultural birthdays

  1. Thanks Jill,

    I do usually enjoy your blog.

    The last Monday music, however, has been a dreadful frustration – such great vid clips and such a frap net connection. I have to coax it out over frame by frame “reload”s – haven’t made it all the way through yet. V v glad they’ll still be on the net when I get back to Aus.

    Take care,


    • Hi Cat, how frustrating. It makes me wonder how people are actually getting to hear this music in Africa if it’s so difficult in ghana, which is more developed than most. I guess it’s on radio but there’s so much on YouTube people must be downloading. Maybe Mobile phones have better bandwidth?

      I guess you will just have to ‘exercise patience’ as DadaK says, until a bandwidth miracle occurs or you get back to Oz.

      I have been enjoying your pix btw and have been saving your emails to read all in a big chunk again, it was so enjoyable when I caught up with #1-12 all at once, better than a book. Maybe this weekend I’ll catch up.

  2. Birthdays are still not that big a deal in Ghana. The more obrunis a person knows, the more chance they will celebrate, but more as an excuse to chill than anything else. That and this is rarely something that will happen yearly like at abroad. And if you forget someones birthday, the person usually doesn’t mind all that much. Generally no surprises, though, and the rule is the person celebrating pays for the drinks, so will usually buy bottles in advance and food is a plus if there (I have only seen it once).

    Being the person of privilege, I do what I can, but know guilt is useless and will bring me nowhere, instead finding ways to help sustainably. I used to help individuals, but have realized that my preference with helping the community makes far more sense, both sustainably and long-term. Pick your battles seems to be appropriate here.

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