Birthdays in Africa can be super great, but you just have to set your sights at being creative, and think out of the box. So when I was packing for Juba in January I decided to add a few things to help me make K’s up coming 30th birthday a bit more fun. I decided to make a cake mix, thinking that I would not be able to find anything close to a birthday cake. I was kind of right, there are actually a few options for cake and other sweets in Juba, but it is really expensive and to be honest it would not even come close to satisfy K’s sweet tooth. So bringing a chocolate cake mix was a genius idea. Well it was until I learned that the NP guesthouse, where we are living does not have an oven. But being determined to make K’s birthday super great and memorable I got a bit creative.
A week or so before K’s birthday a colleague of mine introduced me to a local Ugandan bakery that is right around the corner from our office. This bakery specializes in mendazi. These lovely raised dough balls are deep-fried, beautifully crispy on the outside and nice and fluffy on the inside. The bakery supplies several hotels so they are busy making hundreds of mendazi a day. The bakery also has a large oven where they bake bread and I noted this while I was given the tour of the bakery.
Now if you know me at all, you know that I secretly, or maybe not so secretly love to bake and dream about having my own bakery some day. So not only was I in heaven hanging out in the bakery but I was also thinking that perhaps these kind Ugandans would not mind letting me bake a small cake for my husband. So my coworker and I asked and they were very gracious and agreed to let me use the oven.
So let me paint a picture for you. A normal oven has a door and a number of dials to control the temperature. This oven however did not have those two things, which I normally think are vital for an oven. But I am always up for an adventure so no problem I just decided to wing it. The oven is close to the size of a small kitchen, and is powered by an open fire. Knowing that they bake bread in this oven, I estimated that the temp was at least 350F degrees and that the cake would take about 20 to 25 minutes. With that solved I only needed to work out a baking pan in which to bake the cake in.
K and I have been eating lunch locally at a restaurant a few blocks from our office, called, (I kid you not) My Local. We normally have an order of rice and beans and take half of it back to the office for the next day. It is a smoking good deal as we both can eat two meals for about five or six bucks. I cannot cook for less than that, and honestly it is really good. But these take-away boxes are flimsy metal trays with paper tops. A few nights before K’s birthday I was laying awake, listening to the loud dance music of our neighboring pool hall when I remembered these trays and thought they would be perfect. I would need two trays but I just happened to have two trays of left overs in the frig just waiting for me to use them.
The night before K’s birthday I sent him to our common room for an hour and quickly water-colored several pieces of paper to make a paper chain to decorate the front door of our room. It is all about the color and being creative in your decorating. If money and constant electricity were not an issue, there is a grocery store here in Juba that sells five-foot trees that light up on the tips, and I totally would have bought one, as it would have been a stellar decoration! Nothing screams happy 30th birthday like a fake tree that lights up.
The morning of the big day I woke up early and quietly snuck into the kitchen and whipped up a batch of French toast and surprised K with breakfast in bed. Growing up my Mom used to always give us breakfast in bed on our birthdays. I always remember it being super special and a great way to start your birthday. Breakfast was a hit, as well as the fun paper chain which I hung before I brought breakfast in. However, I’m short and didn’t have a chair or anything to stand on to hang the chain higher… so the lowest part of the chain actually came to K’s shoulder… we both had a good laugh about it.
The day flew by with meetings and the business of being in Juba, but I kept looking forward to my trip to the bakery. When the time finally came I quickly mixed the cake and poured the batter into two trays. I carefully walked around the corner and into the bakery, where I had 20 some Ugandan bakers waiting for me.
More to come…