Gambians celebrate almost every important milestone in life with music and dance. When a baby is usually about a week old the family will name their new child. The reason they wait a week is for the baby to be strong and fully in this world, safe from spirits and devils. Amongst Gambian Muslims the Imam is the representative of the local religious community. The Imam or his deputy will be at the naming ceremony. The father’s sister will sit with three of her friends or relatives and she holds the baby. The baby’s head will be washed by the Imam or his deputy, and when ready the father first tells the name to them. Then the Imam will whisper the name into the child’s ear, and now the name can be announced to all who are gathered there. Sometimes a griot or jali will go on with this, in word and maybe even in song, perhaps telling stories about the good deeds of the family over the generations. Griots and Jalis are traditional musicians, historians, genealogists, mediators and advisers who hold the sagas of many centuries in their memories. In the case of a Christian family the baby will be christened in the church, then taken home for the usual Gambian celebrations.
In Gambia almost everyone will get married. The wedding party can go over a few days, with certain traditions that must be honoured, ordering the movement of the bride to and from her father’s and new husband’s homes. There used to be one week of going back and forth from the father’s compound and a party every day with eating and dancing, but these days people usually get married at the mosque or church. Then they gather at the bride’s mother’s side, where bride would have organized all the refreshments and food. There will be entertainment and merriment, the couple would greet everyone and be presented with their gifts. Then the bride will leave and go to the old women who will wash her and put her in her gown. The elders advise her on how to behave in her new life living with a husband, and how to treat him and her new mother in law. That night the bride goes to her husband’s home and is accepted into the compound traditionally after some negotiation. The next day another party will take place at the home of the husband, catered for by his mother, and so it goes on until the finish of the celebrations, perhaps that day will be the last party, or maybe the party will continue!
In the past and sometimes even now, the brides would dress in special clothes, in the colors traditional to their tribe. Red for Fulas, Black for Mandinkas and White for Wolof. Some of the activities surrounding the marriage will also vary according to the tribe. For example, Fula husbands will carry their bride on their shoulders up to the bride’s mother’s compound through the neighborhood. The Fulas will play their traditional instruments with some drumming. The Mandinkas will present the bride on a mat, cover her with special cloth, dress her with beads and give her a calabash decorated with beads to hold, then she is lead around, greets everyone and is finally presented to her husband and seated on the chair next to him. There will be Mandinka musicians, perhaps djembe drumming or musical entertainment with balafon, kora and singing. For a Wolof marriage the couple would dress up in beautiful matching clothes and go to the party where they are already playing sabar, the Wolof drum, with guests dancing energetically. In modern times the traditional entertainment is often replaced by a DJ.
The party guests sit around, normally in some kind of a circle. They will be dressed up. Some guests will come in a group with clothes they have had made especially for the party, all in the same matching patterned cloth. The women will take it in turns to get up and enter the circle, either dancing to the music or shuffling together back and forth, showing off their finery, and handing money to the musicians or to those collecting for the party.
Dancing is not obligatory, but many will join in, from the children to the elderly. Even if not dancing, many guests will be participating by clapping and keeping the time with the music. Each culture has its style of music and therefore its style of dance. There is a lot of humour in the physical expression to the music and it is a delightful thing to witness such an occasion. As a visitor to the festivities you will be welcomed and included, always encouraged to join in as much as you feel comfortable to and enjoy yourself. You do not have to be a good dancer, just being willing to join in will make everyone happy! It is not compulsory but good if you can take a small gift of cash or baby necessities to a naming ceremony, and some cash to give the musicians who mostly rely on tips from the audience. When someone is married it is customary to give a donation for the couple to the wedding mother. Again, this is not an obligation and does not need to be a large amount at all. It is a token gesture of goodwill for their future, if you feel like it.
Food is a big part of wedding and naming ceremony celebrations. Women will cook sweet porridge and rice, and usually benechin (a rice dish with vegetables and fish or meat) for lunch. Nearly everyone wants a big party! Naming ceremonies take place over one day, but weddings can go for a few days. The size and duration of parties, and whether a chicken, sheep, goat or cow is cooked for lunch, depends on the finances of the family. For dinner there will be some food like a simple chicken dish and cake, sometimes this is to take home. To drink there will be wonjo (cold hibiscus tea), ginger or canned drinks handed around. The father or new husband will bring cola nuts to share amongst the men who are gathered.
Another milestone celebrated by Gambians is the time of boys’ circumcision. In the old days the ceremony took up to several months, the medical procedure only being one part of the whole tradition. The initiates were told stories, taught instructional proverbs, songs and given advice on how to live correctly as responsible adults. They were disciplined and admonished for any behaviour not befitting their new upcoming role in the society. Special “masks” often took this role of discipline and control. This part could take up to 3 months, though in modern times this is now reduced to 2 weeks or is not happening at all.
At the end of the children’s time away from their families there is a big celebration, attended by all the mothers, with occasionally a few men present. These women will sing and dance and beat rhythms on drums and kitchen implements, giant gourds and plastic oil drums. All the while some elder women, who have their own society, will be blowing whistles and conducting the whole affair, while dressed in colourful beads and sometimes bizarre outfits and hats. This can go on for about 2 hours.
One other party that might sometimes be accessible for female tourists to join in is one of the regular dances organised by the local Kaffo, or women’s association. These can occur weekly, and are a great excuse for the hardworking women to let their hair down! Everyone in the Kaffo contributes some money and each time the money goes to one of the groups, members take it in turns to be the recipient.
If you are coming to Gambia and would like to observe or participate in a local ceremony it is possible! Through the invitation of a friend of the family, or one of the artists performing who can take you along for the whole or just a part of the ceremony. You can register your interest with Molly at Nyeli Cultural Centre on WhatsApp +2207552966 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and she can make arrangements with you to connect with your host.
Photo credit: Milan Njenjić