John’s Birthday Surprise

John and I spent the morning meeting with craftspeople in Kibera and then meeting up with our friend Jacquie to visit the Masai Market being held at a very  nice outdoor mall called Village Market. Returning to the city in the late afternoon, I was dusty, sweaty, and my feet were filthy from the morning in Kibera. Jacquie and John went back to the hotel, while I ‘ran an errand’. I took my scrubby self over to the Sarova Stanley Hotel and told the concierge that I just wanted to find out if I needed reservations at the Thorn Tree Cafe. They practically pushed me through the restaurant doors to speak with a host, as I tried to resist and apologize for my unkempt appearance. I mentioned that we were coming for a birthday dinner for a boy who had never celebrated his birthday, and the manager had me select a piece of cake that they would deliver after we ate. They also had a live band that evening that would sing Happy Birthday. I was thrilled! 

I made a quick stop to grab John’s birthday present then went back to the hotel to make myself presentable. We arrived back at the Stanley, passed the bell hops in their top hats and spiffy outfits, walked through hotel security, and entered the restaurant. I nodded to the manager to let him know we had arrived, and we were seated by a gracious host. We spent plenty of time studying the menu and drooling over the fare. Jacquie and I could not wait to eat some nice, Western food for a change and John was wondering what everything was. We ordered, then sat back to enjoy the band. Since it was the day before New Year’s Eve, it was pretty quiet at the restaurant. There was a nicely dressed old, muzungu man having coffee nearby and a few travelers here and there but that was it.

Then, a beautiful Kenyan woman walked in and sat at the table next to ours to have coffee (the Stanley is well-known for its coffee drinks and many locals gather here after work just for coffee). I’m familiar with the prostitution scene in Nairobi though and knew this wasn’t just another customer. I leaned over to Jacquie to share my suspicions. We watched as the woman brushed her hair back and eyed the old muzungu man. He was giving a stupidly, creepy smile and drool practically spilled over his lips. Finally, the woman made a bold move and went to sit with him. Discreetly, Jacquie informed John what was going on just behind our table and his jaw dropped. We laughed at his reactions, but if it wasn’t funny enough, he told us that he saw this woman sitting by herself right near us and considered inviting her to our table because she looked lonely. Let’s see here- a guy celebrating his 21st birthday inviting a prostitute to sit at his table… no nothing odd about that. Haha.

We enjoyed our dinner and ordered specialty coffee drinks. The band started to play the Happy Birthday song, while John remained oblivious. The staff circled our table, sang to him, and the hostess placed a big piece of black forest cake before him. He was so surprised.


John has never celebrated his birthday. Not a single one. Up until two weeks before his birthday, I thought his birthday was in August. That’s what he had always told me. But I had to dig up his birth certificate in order to start the application process at boarding schools for him. Onesmus, his older brother, handed me the document and as I read over it, I said, “John, your birthday is January 2nd? You told me it was in August… wait, that means you have a birthday really soon. And I’ll be here to celebrate it!” He even had to look at the birth certificate to check the date himself and just shrugged. “Well, I’ve never celebrated my birthday, so I don’t know when it is.” I told him what a big deal it is to celebrate his 21st birthday and my dad tried to tell him over Skype how people in America celebrate it (thanks dad… way to be a positive influence on him;)

So as you can imagine, having strangers in a fancy restaurant sing Happy Birthday to you and serve you cake with your name on it is kind of a big deal. He grinned ear to ear. John offered the hostess, who had affectionately called him ‘Johnny’ all evening, a bite of cake, and without hesitation, she picked up his spoon for a taste. Jacquie and I were a bit shocked at first, but then that’s how things work in Kenya… strangers act like close friends.

And a present!

We surprised John further with a birthday gift (a new phone to replace his broken one) and he was on cloud nine. The Thorn Tree Cafe is known for its message board surrounding an acacia tree (and is what Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree travel forum was named after), so we all pinned up our messages. I wrote mine to the Power Women, thanking them for their inspiring message and strength, while John thanked the staff of the restaurant for making this his first memorable birthday.

Our new friend who John shared his birthday cake with

We strolled out of the restaurant after the band finished, intending to head home. But we heard music coming from a nearby club and decided the night was still young. That club ended up being a dud, but after we found Klub Bettyz (Don’t judge- I, too, thought it was a strip club until we entered. Then I realized it was a classier club than any other I’ve been to in Nairobi). The club was packed and we had to weave our way upstairs to find a seat. We met a lot of fun people, including a couple who is from a neighboring village of John’s and currently studying in Germany. Jacquie and I watched John pull out some of his break dance moves, while we danced with some of the ladies at our table. I hope this is just the first of many more birthday celebrations to come.


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