Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Naming a baby in Africa is serious business in Africa

Every African has a meaning or a significance attached to his or her name. First names may be assigned based on family lineage, day of the week when baby is born, order of birth, religious reasons or circumstances of birth. This is not an exhaustive list as the meaning and significance of assigning a certain name to one's baby may be entirely based on parents' subjective circumstances.

In almost all African families, there will be children named after grandparents. Grandma and grandpa on both sides expect this gesture from their children to the point it sometimes becomes a source of contention between in-laws. It's also exerts unwanted pressure on a young couple who had other name choices in mind for their future baby.

Some babies are name after their day of birth. For instance, a female baby born on Friday could be named Djouma by a Bambara family. The Bambaras may also call the first baby Somah if it's a boy. In the Akan tribe in Ivory Coast, Amah is the name for a baby girl born on Saturday, Ndah is for the male twin and Ndablah for the female twin.

Circumstances of birth give ample room for creativity in name assignment but even then, no name is assigned frivolously. My own father was name Banta for his resilience. My grandmother carried his pregnancy under both physical and emotional difficulties. My paternal grandfather was called Houne - twin in Soninke language. Saney is for a female born on a starry night.

Some names are meant to be premonitory. Woody is a baby boy of the Bete ethnic group of Ivory Coast that one wishes to be manly, virile, as he grows, Sanou (gold) for a girl one wishes to glow in life, Fanga (power) for a Bambara boy one would like to become a leader some day.

Most African do not have middle names but when assigned, middle names have for purpose to indicate one's religious affiliation or beliefs. A Christian or muslim name will denote the parents adherence to Islam or Christianity. Similarly, animist parents may assign names to reflect their beliefs in the supernatural and animist deities.

There is always a story behind an african's name. The next time you meet one, ask him or her about the meaning or significance of their name. It more than likely won't be that their parents just loved that name.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Tying the knots

In most African customs, "tying the knots" is business between the family as opposed to a contractual ceremony between the two individuals concerned in western culture. It is preceded months earlier with the cola nut ceremony. The envoys of the groom's family meet the bride's family and in a small meeting, they obtain the promise that the girl they're seeking will be reserved for them. During this meeting, the bride's family receives a number of cola nuts and cash to seal the deal. 

In most west African societies, the actual tying of the knots or "tying of the marriage" as we say, is often performed in the absence of the groom and his new bride. Marriage is not considered a simple union between two people. It is a solemn engagement between family units, of which the groom and bride are just representatives. The male members of the families usually meet in a big gathering.  The setting is usually circular with the bride's family on one side and the groom's on the other, surrounded by their friends and other well wishers. The eldest member of each family speaking through a griot negotiates and irons out the specific terms of the marriage contract.

The dowry is set. Traditionally it used to be in a requested number of grams of rough gold and livestock. Nowadays, the cash is set in CFA Francs. The average cash dowry is no more than CFA 100,000 -approximately $225- a symbolic amount paid to the bride on behalf of the groom. The bride will also receive lose fabric, usually yards of wax print material. Her family may also request a cow for her fathers -the bride's father and her paternal uncles- which, after tough bargaining may be paid in nature or the equivalent value given in cash.

The bride's family will request a boubou -big traditional outfit- for her father or a respected uncle. Similarly, the mother(s) of the bride -her mother, mother sister wife and her aunts- will be given lose fabric or cash as a marriage gift. 

Once an agreement has been reach in the negotiations, then the bride's hand is officially given in marriage. 

This marriage contract does not get into the determination of what is expected of the partners as husband and wife. Instead, the rights and duties are presumed understood and may be reiterated in the family's advices to their son or daughter and during the blessing portion of the ceremony.

The "tying of the knots" usually precedes other ceremonies such as the "head washing" we cover in a previous post.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Head Washing Ceremony (End)

As you would sit a child down, the matron gently lowered her in a sitting position. Half way through the motion, she raised her back in the standing position. She lowered her again and just like the first time, she raised her again. The third time around, Mariama was fully sitted on the stool. This ritual symbolises preparation to sit firmly in one's marital home.
The drums stopped for a moment. One of the women stroke up a new song and the other joined in. The drummers beat their instruments again. Dipping her two hands in the bucket, the matron said an expression, which is translates as "In the name of God", then she washed the bride's hands, then her face. Three successive times, she dipped her hands in the bucket and passed her wet hands on Mariama's hair front to back, front to back. She took the right foot out of the new sandal, washed it, repositioned it in the shoe. She took the left foot and did the same.

This ceremony is calling head washing but is not limited to the head. The washing of these parts of the body is for purification. It symbolizes the bride coming pure to the marriage.

A woman then handed her the towel, she patted all the washed areas dry. Sitting in the circle with her head covered back with the topa scarf, Mariama could hear the women clapping and singing a several songs over her. She barely heard what they were saying. She felt in a sort of out of body experience. All she felt for sure was the excitement that she would be soon with her new husband.

The women slowly walked her back to her mother's room. From there, after dinner, she'll be taken to a house a couple of streets away. A room has been prepared for her and her new husband for the next seven nights and six days so they may spend time together. They'll be catered to, visited by family and friend's and the celebration will continue around town until then. They will get to know each other personally, physically and emotionally. It's her family's wish that the early morning hours of that first night, the matron comes out with a blood stained white sheet to announce that she had saved herself for marriage.

In the next post, we'll address the tying of the knots.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Head Washing Ceremony

The taxi pulled up in front of Mariama's house. One of the older ladies gathered the scarf a little closer around Mariama's face and cautiously led her out of the vehicle. Mariama guessed that she was the matron. A female griot coming in their direction, started singing the eulogies of the bride's family, the family she was marrying into, the past glorious moments of the ancestors. The crowd grew progressively bigger as Mariama was led into her mother's room. Through the narrow slit left where the matron's hand was holding the scarf under her chin, she could see that a crowd of men was already under the big acacia tree. She knew they were ready to tie the knots or as they say around here "tie the marriage".

Blogger's note: The "tieing of the marriage" is one of the most important rituals, if not the most important ritual during this African wedding. I'll elaborate on it in a distinct format in a future post.

The matron sat her on the edge of the bed and with the help of an aunt and another woman she didn't know, they changed her clothes to an indigo Topa long boubou (west african caftan) and wrap set. A matching topa scarf was put over her head. Her aunt brought a brand new pair of plastic sandals. The matron physically put each foot one after the other in the new shoes.
"The sun is going down. We need to go." She said.

Mariama had a vague idea of what would happen for the next seven days but she knew she'd be learning many unspoken things about her culture along the way.

A small crowd of women waiting in the living room, joined and formed a circle around her. There was now two griots singing. She could hear the drums beating louder. Some women were clapping to the rhythm of the drums. In the middle of a big circle, two young ladies were trying to outdo each other with various energetic dance moves. The matron was holding her scarf and a corner of her boubou to prevent her from falling. She slowly led her to a 12 inch high stool in the middle of the women. A new shower bucket containing water was waiting; beside it, a new towel neatly folded in a wicker basket. The only men present at this stage of the ceremony were the two drummers and some boys, curious about what all of this ruckus.

The matron stood her with the stool a couple of inches behind her feet and facing her, she held her by the shoulders.

To be continued...

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Kidnapping the bride ( End )

Ami knew she and her friends were somewhat in control. The sun was rolling West and time was getting shorter. The ceremonial head washing of the bride had to be performed before dusk. She knew the search party was, by then,  relentless.
One after the other, the groom's best friend, aunt and Ami's mother called. All but her mother, were asking the same questions, irrated at times and seeming concialatory right after. She was a though negotiator. She remained calm at all times, getting on their nerves even more. Her mother was silently proud but she called to ask her to be reasonable in her demands and cut a deal. The aunt called immediately after having been reassured by Ami's mom that they will surrender the bride.

"Ami. Where is the bride?"
"Not so fast auntie. You need to pay up first. 7,000CFA francs" said Ami very assertively. Why 7,000? She didn't know but does that's what she wanted. Her friends were in awe.
Ami's mother wished she were as just like her daughter in many ways. She would always regret that her own upbringing made her too submissive and too respectful of anyone older, especially the ones who took that as an opportunity to hurt her. Now as an adult, she was also too guarded to the point of being what she herself characterised as emotionless most of the time and she was proud of her daughter for not being her in that sense. She admired that she was nice but very confident and spoke her mind when she needed too.

"You lost your mind, daughter. No one has ever paid this kind of money for ransom."
"I think you'll be the first, auntie. Can you call us when you have the full amount?'' she calmly asked the voice at the end of the line.
"Eh, eh, eh!" She heard the older lady exclaim. "Today's kids have no respect for neither their elders nor traditions. Look at this one, holding up a wedding for money!" she seemed address someone around her.
"Auntie, with all due respect, this is also part of our traditions. I respect you but we are the brides friends and we are entitled to compensation for loosing her. So our money..."
The groom's aunt realized that threats will not work in this case. She tried manipulation.
"2,500CFA when you bring the bride back or tell us where to find her. When I have her picked up and you girls get your money."
"Auntie, I respect you. 6,000CFA, nothing less."
The old lady was given 5,000CFA by the grooms family earlier that morning to face any demand for ransom. She was hoping to bargain down so she could pocket some of that money. Unfortunately it looked like she got the wrong adversary this time.
"3,000 is all you'll get."
"Then Auntie," Ami said calmly, "call me when you have all the money and I'll send someone to get it." She hung up and all the girls were still "high-fiving" and chatting when the cell phone rang again. This time it was one of the groom's friends. The aunt had asked for more money and they have it. The old lady badly beaten and bruised by Ami's negotiating skills decided to remain out of the rest. The girls made arrangements to have one of them walk fifteen minutes away to receive the money. Once she did, she'd let the search party know where to find Mariama and alert her friends.

Half an our later, the bride was rushed back in a dusty taxi to her house, sandwiched between two older ladies in the back sit and one of the groom's friends in the front beside the driver.

 Look for the Head Washing Ceremony in the next posting....

Monday, August 30, 2010

Kidnapping the bride (Cont.)

"No...I don't." Ami stuttered. She was shaken by the stern voice a few seconds. Suddenly, gaining her usual zing, she shot back.
"What if I did?"
"If you do, you need to bring her back immediately!'
She looked at her friends gathered around her and listening in. Rolling her eyes, she replied to the voice she now recognized as the no nonsense aunt of the groom. Ami is never intimidated though.
"Auntie, I don't have her. I'll let you know If I find out anything about this." She added:"Allo, allo...allo." Then she clicked off.

The girls burst out laughing at this mischievous trick. All knew that this was not the end of it. Amy wasn't phase by the threats. Everyone knew that the bride is never returned without a ransom. They were still talking and laughing away when the cell rang again. It was the aunt, less threatening this time because she too was caught off guard by Amy's boldness. She knew full well the communication did not end earlier because of poor reception.
"Ami, my daughter. I have serious reasons to believe that your friends and you have the bride. We need to have her back. The sun is going down and I don't think you want to bring shame on your family for the being the reason why this wedding didn't happen today. Daughter, do the right thing, bring her back."
Ami wasn't going to give into the guilt trip and also she was a little ticked by this lady's patronizing speech. She wasn't a little girl and intented to go into serious negotiations with the search party but not until they stopped treating them like a bunch of gullible teenagers.
"Auntie, I don't have her. I don't know what you're talking about. I'm getting upset because you're accusing me of derailing a wedding. I'll hang up now." She closed her pink flip phone and laughed, twirling in her cute wax print maxi skirt set.

To be continued...

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Kidnapping the bride (Cont.)

The kidnapping of the bride is part the local custom. It is the way the bride's childhood friends express their feeling about this friend who is getting ready to leave their circle and step into adulthood. They are happy for their friend so it's not a sign of any ill feelings; rather, it's a way of temporarily jerking the groom and his family around and laughing at their expenses. It's a sort of power trip because they remain in control until the ransom is paid and the bride is returned to her in-laws to proceed with the rest of the wedding ceremony.

Ami's aunt welcomed them with open arms and a good breakfast. They gobbled down the "cafe au lait" and buttered bread plus a delicious creamy wheat porridge in the living room unbeknownst to the morning crowd headed to the market. For the rest of the day, they would have to be careful not to be seen from the road outside the gate. Once their hiding place was discovered, they would have very little leverage and might have to surrender the bride without getting paid the ransom.

Ami's uncle made them promise they would by his silence. A third of the ransom was what he wanted. He was just teasing. He left for work sometime around eight. Soon after, Ami's aunt followed, leaving her maid to care for the girls in her absence.

Ami's aunt was a rarity in the community. She had been to school up to tenth grade and successfully passed the end of grade test. Her parents were reluctant in sending her to high school because the facility was in the nearest city. Girls were usually allowed to go away from their parents sight so she had stop her education and get married. She was almost 18 and at her that age she was considered an old maid around there but a very envied one, she was. With her middle school education and her husband's connections, she was hired as a secretary. As a beautiful, educated woman working in an office, she was the canvass for Ami's life. Ami wanted to be at least like her. 

Once her uncle and aunt left, Ami started gathered her friends. The plan was to have some fun until around 1 or 2 o'clock if no one found them until then, she, Ami and another girl would go out and let themselves be found. If they couldn't be found, they couldn't negotiate, neither collect any the ransom.

"Ready for fun," Ami harangued.

She turned the radio and began dancing. A couple of the girls followed. Soon Mariama shed her shyness and joined in. They danced and laughed for a while then started a conversation about man, marriage and dating. In a society where girls are required to remain virgins until marriage, each girl sounded as ignorant and down right childish as the next girl. They were aware of their naivete and poked fun at each other for trying to sound expert on a matter they knew they only had wild guesses. The sole TV channel in the country transmitted from 12 noon to 2 and from 6:30 to 11:00 pm. They watched the midday news and musical show that followed. It was right at the end of programming that Ami's cell phone rang. They later found out that in exchange for a few coins, a neighbor's little boy had told the search party he'd seen Ami with a girl that resembled the bride-to-be.

"Ami, you Mariama, don't you?" An angry voice asked.

To be continued...

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Kidnapping the bride

At dawn, Thursday morning four of Mariama's mates enter her family home. It's still early and everyone is whispering so not the awaken the rest of the household. Furthermore, this was a secret mission and it was important for all involved to take the utmost care not to be discovered, at least until close to the of the day.

Mariama was already dressed and waiting in her mother's room. She wore a beautiful new wax print skirt set sewn by the tailor around the corner and a pair of plastic sandals. Her mother ushered her to the steps and with tears in her eyes she watched as the group of young ladies walked away shrouded in the early morning fog. One of the girls handed Mariama a red flower-patterned scarf to cover her head and shoulders and shield her identity. With felted but determined steps, they walked back to the street towards a destination up to that moment, unknown to Mariama. They were headed to a house owned by one of her companions' aunts. The companion's name was Ami. Brandishing a cellular phone, she explained that she'd called her aunt on her cell phone the night before and obtained the green light to hide the bride at her house.

Ami was a leader and that was always obvious to anyone who met her in a group of her peers. Like Mariama, she was 16 but shrewd beyond her years. She had never set foot in a classroom, didn't A from B that didn't seem to be an obstacle for her. She had her feet planted in traditions but her head swarmed with sounds and colors similar to the ones poking every western teenager's brain. In addition to a cell phone, she carried a "made in China" iPod full of western music and stars. One would expect her to be a trouble maker but she wasn't. She had about her something foreign to this place.
"I know what I want in life, you don't. I do things on my own terms," she'd often say, laughing at her friends.

The girls walked twenty five minutes and finally sneaked into a small beautiful villa on the outskirts of town. Ami's aunt was waiting for them.

To be continued...

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Henna Night

Mariama couldn't believe this. All her unmarried childhood friends were gathered in her "little mom's" room. Little mom is the nickname given to the second or any subsequent wives or one's father. In a corner, half a dozen teenage girls were making music with an overturned calabash filled with old clothes. They were pounding on it with their closed fists and singing songs for the occasion. The best voice led the songs and the rest accompanied her with very rhythmic claps and a joyful chorus. One young lady held another calabash in both hands. The item was decorated with multiple cowry shells attached to three to five inches strings. She'd throw the calabash in the air twirling it three to four times clockwise and one time the opposite way. Her very coordinated hand tricks added a distinguished beat to the musical performance taking place.

Although some of the songs were about how the young bride would miss her teenage life and her family, Mariama was happy. She had butterflies in her stomach thinking about her new husband. Her hand was given in marriage a year before. Now 16, she couldn't wait to start her new life. The marriage was prearranged as was the case most of the time in her culture, but unlike most brides she knew her future husband. She had at least since him physically around town before she was informed she'd be marrying him. Also, in accordance with the rituals, in the past three months he visited her every fourth Saturday. They always met with a circle of his and her friends around tea and delectable braised meat prepared for the occasion. Any one on one exchange was under the watchful eyes of others.

She liked him. He was 23, unmarried and handsome. She couldn't believe how lucky she was. Most girls she knew went into marriage with their heart bleeding in silence, forced to live with someone they did not choose and whom they did not like when they finally got to see physically.

Sitting on a grass rug right on the floor of the now packed and noisy room, Mariam extended her hands and feet one after the other to a young lady who was creating intricate patterns on them with thinly cut adhesive strips. Once both palms and feet were covered with this artistic tapestry, three other young women joined the first one. Each one took a member and started applying thin layers of the henna paste prepared with henna powder, water and a little bit of sugar -someone suggested the sugar to add intensity to the color. When the application process was done, the ladies covered her hands and feet in plastic wraps, loosely tied strings at each wrist and ankle to secure the wrap, then slid oversize socks over them. She was then helped to the bed were she'd spend the night trying not to smudge the henna work by keeping her palms open and not moving too much during her sleep.

Outside, the street was blocked off. Dozens of mostly women family members, friends or simple acquaintances formed a big circle, some sitting on benches rented for the occasion, some standing. Two drummers energetically beat their djembe (pronounced jay'm'bay). Beside them a wood fire was burning. This was used every half hour or so to warm up the leather part of drum and sharpen the sound of the instrument. A professional singer was hard at work singing family praises and historic feats while women spontaneously entered the circle and danced. The singer was rewarded with a deluge of banknotes for the public. All the while, young girls walked around and served sweetened ginger juice refreshments and cookies made by Mariam's family.

The celebration went on until midnight. It was around 1:00 am when the last of the spectators dispersed. The same thing will go on again on Wednesday night before the big day on Thursday.

To be continued...