I have to admit that I didn’t have particularly high expectations for my 24th birthday celebration. I felt there were a few obstacles to me having the alcohol soaked good time that usually characterizes June 30th. For example, the fact that I currently live in a rural African village. Here, seventeen men sitting around an earthen pot drinking local brew through reed straws, constitutes a ‘party.’ These parties generally happen every market day, and are usually accompanied by loud, repetitive music that shakes the windows of the Guest House well into the night. I’ve flirted several times with the idea of crashing one of these communal drinking parties. I imagine striding confidently into the little mud hut of a bar, then hearing the ziiiiiiiiip of the music shutting off, as all eyes slowly swivel in my direction. Mouths gape open, a few men drop their straws . . . . Also, I’m fairly sure that the local brew is close to 100% pure alcohol and would probably make me blind. Anyhoo, I decided that it would do nothing positive for my standing in the community to attempt such an infiltration, so that option was out. I contemplated having people over to the Guest House. It probably would have amounted to a few brave souls sitting on our blue plastic chairs out near the trash pit, avoiding the regular chicken/goat/cow/dog visitors and politely declining the warm beer on offer because drinking is only for those crazy dudes with the clay pot.

So, I was stumped. That is, until Ms. Bonita Sen arrived from Washington DC with her apparently endless source of infectious energy and good humor. She’s the first AAH volunteer we’ve had in a long time, and before we had even completed the drive back from the airport we had established that we were going to take all the volunteers out in Mbale for my birthday. And so, Muzungus Gone Wild 2008 was born.

We have a pretty packed Guest House right now, so I posted a little flier letting everyone know about the planned field trip. I’m proud to say the house was abuzz. Talk of strappy tops and high heels began to circulate; concepts I hadn’t considered in months. A rumor spread that someone had a functioning hair straightener. A hair straightener for God’s sake! The night before the ladies began practicing some dance moves that we felt would really enhance our muzunguness for the largely Uganda population we expected to encounter at Club Oasis. Nirav—the sole male resident of the Guest House at the time—cowered quietly in the corner. Bonita introduced the stunningly classy ‘guitar leg,’ which is a two person dance requiring some flexibility. I’ll let you imagine the details.

The big day rolled around, bright and sunny. In the morning I decided to do an 18 kilometer hike, with no sun block or water, in order to achieve the neon red skin coloring that I know brings out my eyes so well. I also thoughtfully left my purse on at such an angle as to tattoo myself with a large, white diagonal stripe across my chest. Who needs jewelry when you can have artful tan lines instead? After recovering from the hike we all packed ridiculous amounts of non-essential items into backpacks, and invaded the next passing matatu. We hit a small snag when one of the tires punctured and we had to sit on the side of the road begging every passing vehicle to use their spare. Apparently matatus operate a sort of informal barter program with their spare tires. The other girls used the time to listen to their ipods and en-trance the locals with some sweet dance moves. David came across me standing under a very dusty bush, rubbing my arms with some dry, dirty leaves. I vaguely remember assuming that the leaves would have some moisture in them that would cool my scorched skin. We established that I seemed to have a mild case of sun stroke/temporary insanity, and he let me chug his entire water bottle. He had already given me his birthday present a few days earlier. He knows that I like to do yoga, but it’s hard when the house is so busy. He went to Mbale and bought the materials to fashion a makeshift yoga mat, cleaned out the store room behind the house, and put in a light to create a little yoga room for me. Now I can do downward facing dog facing large sacks of rice and sugar. Probably one of the most thoughtful presents of all time.

David and Bonita chillin with our broke-ass matatu

We got to Mbale in one piece and located the Kaddo Guest House (for Executive Accommodation). Apparently executives don’t require luxuries like bathroom doors or shower stalls, but do appreciate cable TV. I also appreciate cable TV, and watched the last 30 minutes of the Zorro movie. Is it meant to be a comedy? I haven’t laughed that hard in a while.

The night out was a pretty big success. Our first stop after dinner was the notorious Wimpy Restaurant which has a sort of courtyard-pool hall-amusement park vibe going on out the back. Beer is the main beverage on offer, but if hard liquor is your thing then you have to order it by the bottle. It’s quite efficient actually, if slightly dangerous for undisciplined drinkers like myself. Some of the school and clinic staff came and joined, and at midnight we made our merry way over to the club. Some haggling and frisking and arguing over cameras later we were in. We had a big enough mixed-gender group to form a circle and participate in a good old middle-school style dance moves contest. There was some running-man, and some funky chicken (Ugandan style), although sadly, guitar leg never made an appearance. Our guy friends acted as sentries against the other, creepier men. Women tossed their hair and sang along loudly and guarded the door for each other in the bathroom. I harassed the DJ at ten minute intervals, until my new friend, Simple Freddy, led Bonita and I through a Narnia-like labyrinth of corridors which led straight into his booth. Then I actually flicked through his collection and handed him the CD I wanted him to play. He was very good natured about it, and yelled ‘Happy Birthday Ruth’ over the speaker system a lot. I made frequent return trips to the booth, just because I could.

David and I hanging at Wimpy before the club (exhibit A in the ‘Ruth has an abnormally large head’ debate)

An amazing thing about clubs in Uganda is that they generally have a small restaurant somewhere in the establishment. Several plates of late-night French fries and a few greasy samosas later we were all ready to head back to our guest house. I had the number of the night manager who the day manager had guaranteed would be available at any hour to open the gate for us. It was 4:30am by the time we made it there, and it took three phone calls, but sure enough he begrudgingly opened it up for us. The lingering effects of gin-by-the-bottle bathed the hotel room in a rosy glow, and I slept like a log.

The ladies hanging outside the famed (and grotty) Club Oasis

In terms of a birthday celebration, I was highly satisfied. But it didn’t end there. On Monday morning the entire school sang to me during the morning assembly. If you haven’t ever had Happy Birthday sung to you by 325 Ugandan children, you should try it sometime. They also do the whole ‘how old are you now’ bit, and add in an extra verse, which at first listen sounds like ‘you look like a mango,’ and left me vaguely insulted. Turns out it’s actually ‘you look like an angel,’ which is much better.

Godfrey leads the school in a rousing chorus of ‘You Look Like a Mango.’

Then teacher Godfrey handed me a large pile of packages he’d been holding for the day. My sister Kate, and friends Rebecca, Kristina and Jack get a major shout out for those. I sat at my desk happily for an hour, sorting through my new treasures. My mom and friend Cynthia had already sent stuff with other visitors, so I was loaded. I had a lot of work to do for the rest of the day, so I was running around a bit. I’d occasionally see Bonita slinking around with a quiet little smile on her face, and ran into a few teachers who quickly thrust red envelops behind their backs upon spotting me. Finally I was summoned to the staff room in the middle of the lunch hour, and found everyone assembled around a big white cake with ‘Happy Birth Ruth’ written on it in smeared icing. Everyone sang, and the headmaster placed a white napkin with happy birthday written on it over my head. Ugandan tradition perhaps? I was prepared for the ‘you look like a mango’ bit, and smiled appropriately. Then I received a thick stack of red envelops filled with birthday cards signed by every student in the school.

Honestly, I can’t think of a better birthday celebration that I’ve had in my life. It combined many of my great loves: dancing, alcohol, late-night food, children, and friends. It worries me that I chose to write those loves in that order. Anyway. I’m over five months in now, and still largely avoiding the homesickness demons. It’s times like those that help.

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