I joined the others up on the roof just in time to catch the slaughtering of the first sheep.
This was last Friday, when my household held a small ngente, the naming ceremony for newborn babies practiced by Muslims here. I had learned about this custom in Wolof class, and now I was attending one!
According to the tradition, babies aren’t named until they reach 8 days old. On that day, the family hosts a party and invites everyone to join them in celebrating. A sheep, or another expensive animal, is killed – both to welcome the new baby and to pay homage to the mother’s pain in delivery (quite literally, as the sheep’s blood is spilled to commemorate the mother’s blood). The sheep’s meat is used to serve the many guests for the midday meal.
But first, guests partake in the traditional lax – millet that has been ground and formed into small balls then cooked with spices and sugar. It’s accompanied by sweetened soow, a liquidy yogurt. This is a treat reserved for special occasions. The lax is distributed to the guests, then it’s portioned out to all the households in the neighborhood.
At some point during the ngente festivities, the imam (local Islamic leader) comes and the family tells him what the baby will be called. The imam holds the baby and speaks the name twice, once into each ear of the baby. Traditionally, once it is thus announced, the family’s griots (praise singers) go up to the roof to sing and shout the name so all the guests can hear.
After this, one of the most beautiful parts of the ngente occurs: the new baby appears to the guests, and the mother is cheered like the heroine that she is! I witnessed this at the ngente of a neighboring household, and it was moving. The mother was greeted with music and singing and clapping and dancing! I thought, ‘Now that’s how a woman who’s just given birth ought to be received!’ She herself even danced a bit with her age-mate friends.
It was helpful to have learned some about the ngente custom before attending one. Even so, I don’t think I was quite prepared to witness the slaughtering of two sheep right on the roof, a central gathering place of the household and where the main kitchen is located.
Nor was I ready to watch the animals in various stages of dismemberment as we guests ate our lax nearby (photo above). The lax was too delicious to pass up, though.
“It was a cultural experience.” That’s been the theme this month. Sometimes it’s the only way to summarize how interesting/ strange/ helpful/ confusing/ boring / stimulating my days have been.
I’ve been living with a local family this month. I moved out of my apartment without another plan for long-term housing. Technically maybe that makes me homeless – except that I’m living in a country where hospitality is a way of life, so I’m not really worried. And I moved out in order to do what I’ve wanted to do since my arrival, something that has nevertheless been daunting: make direct contact with local culture by living with a family.
I needed help arranging such a thing. Thankfully there’s an organization here in the capital city that sets up short-term home stays with local families. So I haven’t changed cities, but I’m now in a different neighborhood. I’m now the only foreigner in the large household that has taken me in. I’m making the most of this opportunity to experience a piece of local life and immerse myself in Wolof. I’m keeping my eyes and ears wide open.
MamAwa, the matriarch of the household whose smiling eyes I liked right away, introduces me to others as her daughter. By the second day, my new family insisted that I take their last name. That’s just normal here. Call me Yacine Soumare. And I’ve only received three offers to find me a husband!
I eat when they eat, and my diet is the same as theirs, for the most part (i.e. never lacking starch). I follow their cues for knowing when, how, whom to greet; how to eat; how to come and go from the home. I join them in sitting together, often in close proximity and sometimes for hours, even though I can’t participate in conversation and have nothing “to do.” That’s what families here do – they spend as much time as possible together. I’m being stretched in my need for privacy and alone time. Thankfully I have my own room (I think I’m the only one in the household who does!).
I’ve given myself permission to not follow their sleeping hours; my fatigue level can’t handle staying up until 3am, as they often do. What’s the balance between integrating into a new culture and maintaining personal wellness? Part of what motivated my doing a home stay was to gain insight into that question. I’ve been praying that God would lead me to a family in the place where I’ll eventually settle. I don’t know where or when that will be; in the meantime, this is a trial run of sorts.
I’m so grateful for the Soumare family and for this ideal learning opportunity. In many ways, this is what I’ve been waiting for. I’ll be honest, though; it’s not always enjoyable. It’s not easy to feel like a misfit whether I’m sitting around with my family or whether I decide to stay in my room for a bit of space – either way, I’m only reminded of my other-ness. It’s exhausting to only have enough Wolof to constantly be trying to figure out what’s being said, yet rarely understand even the general topic of overheard conversation. It’s frustrating to never really know what’s going on – new people constantly coming and going; various outings, on some of which I’m invited to go along; never understanding which husband goes with which wife, which child goes with which parent. I’d been told that this is a high-context culture – meaning it’s unnatural to give explanations and foreigners are often left to infer from the context – and now I’m experiencing that more than ever. So again, I keep my eyes and ears wide open, and I trust that someone will tell me if and when I need to know or do something. Most of the family members speak French, so when I really want to understand something more complex than my Wolof can handle, I can. But I use that as a last resort. “Bul ma wax ci francais,” (don’t speak to me in French) has been my mantra, which I tell my new family nicely, explaining to them that I’m here to learn Wolof.
Despite the challenges, though, I can say without a doubt that it’s worth it.
The ngente is just one example of the experiences I’ve had. I find parts of this name-giving ceremony beautifully symbolic, and it raises the question: how would a Christian in this culture host and celebrate an ngente? What aspects of the tradition would need to change, and which could be kept and even enhanced for followers of Jesus? This question is vital anytime Scripture and culture intersects (i.e. everyday, in every culture!). The question is foundational for Scripture Engagement, the area of SIL’s work that involves applying and putting into use mother-tongue Scriptures among minority language groups.
And as I gave MamAwa my ndawtal (the monetary contribution expected of family members at the ngente), I received many thanks, a Wolof blessing, and the offer to hold an ngente here in their home when I have my first child! How often does one get an offer like that??