In The Gambia, an individual’s passage through life is marked by series of cornerstone rituals that bestow blessings and confirm the individual’s position and role in their family, their clan or extended family, and in society at large. These rites of passage, and the social structures that underpin them, are mutating as Gambian society becomes more outward-looking, but Gambians are generally extremlx proud of their cultural heritage and are reluctant to give up the ways of the past.
Whereas in the Western World, pregnancy is usually a time of great excitement, anticipation, and exhaustive discussion with friends and relatives, Gambians treat the matter with shyness and discrection and do not talk about the baby before the birth, from a deep-seated superstition that to do so could endanger the baby’s life.
Once the baby has been born, invariably at home, the mother remains indoors for a week, throughout which a fire is kept burning in her compound. When the baby is exactly a week old, a naming ceremony is held (kulliyo in Mandinka, ngente in Wolof). In preparation for this, the mother dresses in new clothes, has her hair elaborately plaited, is showered with gifts and is generally treated like a princess. The women of the compound spend the whole day, from the early hours, preparing food for guests. The ritual part of the naming ceremony takes place in the morning, when an elder cuts a lock of the baby’s hair, says a silent prayer and whispers into the baby’s ear the name that has been chosen by the parents, while a chicken, goat or sheep is slaughtered. A jali or griot then proclaims the name to everyone in the compound. The Mandinka nearly always name their first-born sons Lamin; otherwise names tend to honour relatives and friends on the father’s side of the family. Kola nuts and specially prepared food are distributed among the guests, and the lock of hair is buried while everyone present wishes the child health and long life.
At the end of the day the celebration turns into a major party. All Gambian family celebrations of this type involve music, dancing and plenty to eat and drink (though rarely any alcohol unless the family are non-muslim). This sometimes lasts for several days, particularly if the guests have travelled some distance for the occasion. The type of music played depends on the tastes of the family but traditional bands of singers accompanied by balafon and drums, paid for by the family and their guests, are very popular.
Births are such regular occurrences in The Gambia that anyone staying in The Gambia, especially in a village for a few weeks will almost certainly experience at least one naming ceremony, and whenever you hear drumming in the distance in the crowded urban areas, there’s a good chance that the neighbourhood is welcoming another baby into the world.
Attending a naming ceremony is a wonderful way to know and experience culture, religion and tradition of the country and its people.
Photo: Milan Njenjić
Source: The Rough guide to The Gambia
— at My Gambia for visitors.