Today is Hannah’s birthday. Hannah is the girl who lives in the room next to mine. She’s a student in Form One at the school (Form One is equivalent to 7th grade). She’s neither a nun nor planning on becoming one, but she lives at the convent to attend school and to do chores for the sisters around the house. When I first came to Ghana, she told me she was 16, but later I overheard someone saying she was 15, so I wasn’t sure quite how old she was. I knew that she was older than the rest of her classmates (most of whom are 11, 12, or 13), but since she’s so tiny, shorter than five feet, she doesn’t stand out too much.
I knew her birthday was this weekend, so I asked her how old she would be. I expected her to say 16 or 17.
“I’ll be 19,” she replied.
“19? So you’re 18 right now?”
She nodded. I was so surprised by this.
“You told me you were 16!” I said.
Hannah shrugged. “I was telling lies.”
19 seems a little young to be lying about one’s age, don’t you think? But I suppose I understand why. She graduated from primary (elementary) school last year, when she was 18. 18! Imagine being 18 in 6th grade! Now she’s 19, in the middle of her first year of secondary school – 7th grade. After this, she still has 5 years until she graduates high school! That would put her at age 24 when she finishes high school. Well, better late than never, I say.
I do feel sorry for her. It is true we are both non-nuns living in a convent... but I have freedom to come and go as I please. They give me a small allowance that allows me to go out and experience a little bit of Ghana when I want. Hannah has none of that. They treat her like a child, as though she actually were the same age as her 12-year-old classmates. They give her a little bit of money to buy the things she needs like soap or underwear, but not enough to go out and enjoy herself. Even when she wants to go out to visit a friend, she has to ask, and when she leaves without permission, the nuns get mad. They had given her an old cell phone that she used to call her family and friends in her hometown, but then they took it away. I think they just want to have more control over her.
For her birthday, I took her to Accra’s only shopping mall, a little bit of Western culture right in the middle of a very non-Western country. As we climbed into the trotro, she told me she had never been there before. This girl is 19 today, and she’s never been to the mall?
“The sisters don’t let me go out,” she explained.
I thought back to my 19th year. That summer, I was working the mall, at Hollister in the Los Cerritos Center. That summer was also the first time I went to Las Vegas with friends. I spent five months as a 19-year-old traveling about Europe. I went out all the time and did crazy things with my friends. Oh, nothing too crazy, but I did have that freedom to do what I wanted, and I learned sooooo much along the way.
Hannah was so excited to be going to the mall for the first time! She had requested that we go out for lunch, so I took her to the food court at the mall. I really wanted her to try some western food like a hamburger or a pizza, but when I asked her what she wanted, she said, “Fried rice.”
“I told you they don’t sell Ghanaian food here. There isn’t any fried rice!” I said.
“Yes there is. Look,” and she pointed to the Chinese buffet.
“You have fried rice all the time. Don’t you want to try something new?” I pleaded. She didn’t. There is something about picky eaters that really bugs me, especially if they refuse to try something they’ve never tasted before just because “it looks gross.” Hannah told me she had tried pizza before but didn’t like it. Okay, fair enough, but why not try a hamburger? She thought hamburgers “didn’t look nice.” If it hadn’t been her birthday, I would have forced her to try something new, but I wanted her to be happy on her birthday, so we ate Chinese. She kind of freaked out when she saw how expensive the meal was (it ended up being around Gh¢11 for everything, which is less than $10). She felt guilty that I spent so much money on her, but I told her it’s her birthday! That’s how we do it at my place.
I told her about my 19th birthday. It was my first birthday away from home, when I was going to college in Ohio. It also happened to fall on Easter Sunday. All of my friends had traveled to be with their families except me. My only friend who stayed on campus was my best friend Lauren, whose sister Kelly was visiting her. In the rush and excitement of the holidays, my birthday was basically forgotten. I stayed in my room for most of the day and did homework for Shakespeare class. I ate all my meals at the cafeteria by myself. Then, two things happened to make me smile. I got a phone call from switchboard telling me to pick up the flowers that had been sent there by my family. Flowers always make me so happy! Also, in the evening, Lauren called asking me to hang out in her room, and when I got to her dorm, I saw that she and Kelly had baked a cake for me. So thoughtful!
“So you see?” I said to Hannah. “Even though I was far away from my family and most of my friends on my 19th birthday, my friend Lauren made it very nice. Since your family can’t be here to help you celebrate, I’ll do something nice, just like Lauren did for me.”
We walked around the mall for a while, stopping into different stores that caught her interest. She was so amazed by everything she saw! Hannah does all her shopping at the market, you see, where everything is secondhand and just thrown into a pile for shoppers to look through. She kept repeating that everything in the mall was “so nice!” She was also amazed by how expensive everything was. True, we did enter a store selling designer shoes for Gh¢500. Another store imported Bath and Bodywork's body spray and marked up the price quite a bit. However, some of the stores had average prices for a mall, but for a girl like Hannah who bargains at the market to buy a pair of secondhand shoes for $4, even a $35 pair of shoes or a $20 shirt seems very highly priced!
After we had walked around for a while, she asked for ice cream, so we sat down and each had a little cup. When we went into Shoprite, the grocery store, just to look around, and saw an assortment of ceramic mugs for sell, she eyed them longingly. I told her she could pick one. She chose a beautiful cup with pink roses on it, and I bought it for her so she’d have something to help her remember her 19th birthday.
After the trotro had dropped us off at our junction and we were walking back that night, she told me that no one at the house cares that it’s her birthday. They didn’t do anything special for her. It was sadly true. There was no special meal, no cake, and I didn’t even hear any “Happy birthday, Hannah” (although it’s possible they said it out of my hearing).
“Would you rather have them celebrate it at the house, or go out with me to Shoprite?” I asked.
“Shoprite!” she said, and gave me a huge hug. “Thank you soooo much for making my birthday so happy!”
I was really glad I could help make her birthday special! I’ve been blessed with such amazing friends who have gone out of their way to make sure my birthday was celebrated each year, and now I’m paying it forward to Hannah, a little 19-year-old Ghanaian girl who finally had the chance to experience a mall for the first time.