On the most recent of my now-masked visits with my grandma, she showed me a small book written by a former classmate of hers. They’d both gone to the same teacher training college in the late 40s/early 50s, and had become friends in a time when young Nigerians still introduced themselves as "Miss X" or "Mr Y" at social events.

The book was an autobiography of sorts, providing a very broad overview of the author’s life as a young child, schoolgirl, teacher, wife and mother. The details were few and far between, but quite illuminating all the same. I gleaned some insight into how education worked in colonial Nigeria, how marriages were facilitated in a time when people didn’t date, and even how my home city of Lagos expanded into the metropolis it is today.

My favourite little nugget from the book, however, was a throwaway comment about how the author’s primary school teacher had introduced her to the concept of birthdays. It was a short sentence thanking the teacher for teaching her how to do math and also how to celebrate the day you were born as a special event.

... what?

Now, I myself am not much of a birthday-celebrator; I don’t recall ever having had a birthday party (nor do I feel any regret or sadness whatsoever about that). I also like to think of myself as being quite aware that no truth or experience is universal, and social norms are always changing etc. Yet, I was genuinely surprised (and subsequently very tickled) by this little reminder that even something that feels as "natural" as knowing and celebrating your birthday is really just a made-up thing.

When you stop and think about it, like this birthday thing made me do, you realise that our lives are made up of lots and lots of made-up things. Some of these made-up things are fun, like birthday celebrations. Many of them are not, like prisons, police, racism, or a fixed gender binary.

Our lives are full of made-up things because the fact that something is made up doesn’t mean it isn’t real. In fact, made-up things can feel like the realest things of all.

For instance, love isn’t a made-up thing, but it’s almost no longer enough to just want to share your life with someone you love; you are expected to also buy them a diamond ring (specifically a diamond) and then sign a certificate. This made-up process is the one many of us consider as the thing that makes love ‘real’. In the same way, it’s not enough to exist as a person who was once born; now you must know exactly when and where, not only to celebrate this occasion that you had absolutely nothing to do with, but also to validate your existence as a "documented" human being.

Nowadays, it’s not just people who have birthdays; it’s pets and relationships and countries and projects such as the one that enables me to write to you every week.

The Correspondent turned one on 30 September. Thanks to the ‘Rona, our party was a bit strange; lots of excited faces on a screen, a nice speech from our founding editor, and a round of embarrassing work-related stories from anyone shameless enough to volunteer. It was nice to be reminded that we have grown as a team, made mistakes, learned from them, and grown some more. It was nice to be reminded that even though my job is a made-up thing, it’s a pretty amazing one. After all, aren’t the best made-up things the ones that allow us to tell meaningful stories about who we are and can be?

In the wake of all the upheaval of the last several months, that moment – The Correspondent’s transnational, virtual, alcohol-free birthday party on Wednesday – gave me a chance to be thankful, to be joyous, to feel inspired and hopeful. It was a wonderful reminder of what has been made possible, with imagination and solidarity and a shamelessly idealistic belief that progress is always within reach.

This is all thanks to the vision and networks of a couple of Dutch dreamers, yes, but ultimately thanks to the faith of tens of thousands of people all over the world; people like you, reading this, who believe in made-up things that move us all forward.

Happy birthday to us. But ultimately, what that "happy birthday" means is thank you. Thank you for reading, sharing, contributing, renewing. Thank you for sticking around, for putting your money where your mouth is, and for making it possible for all of us over here to tell stories about the world that make it easier for us to find meaning in our shared existence. Thanks for making the story of The Correspondent possible. Thank you, and cheers to Year Two.

PS: it’s my birthday tomorrow. If you can, give someone a hug like you really mean it, then send me an email about why you hugged that person and how it made you feel. I would also very much enjoy emails in which you say nice things about me to me, but no pressure! :) :)

Till next time,


Greyscale cartoon image of OluTimehin Adegbeye, Othering correspondent, on an orange background with a white envelope in the foreground.
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