Since July of 2008 I have been living and working in The Gambia. I have learned a lot about Gambian culture. Over my next few blog entries I aim to explore my knowledge by answering a few questions. However, I want to stress that I am not an expert in any of these topics. I also have no desire to offend anyone or belittle their beliefs or culture. These are simply my crazy thoughts and opinions.
There are many traditional ceremonies that Gambians still practice; most notably wedding ceremonies, funerals, and naming ceremonies. Each tribe within The Gambia conducts these ceremonies and celebrations in their own way. Let’s look at wedding ceremonies first. Most marriages are still arranged, though the bride and groom might have a little say in the matter. In all cases, the groom’s family must pay a bride-price to the bride’s family, which is negotiated over a long period of meetings. The groom must build a new hut or room for his new wife so that she can move into his compound. At Fula weddings, the wife is dressed up in a blue, tie-dyed fabric that she wears over her head for several days. At the wedding she sits and is joined by her husband for the ceremony. There is then a lot of drumming and singing as a whole parade escorts the new wife to her husband’s compound, where lots of food is eaten. Though it is a happy event, the wife is usually crying throughout the ceremony, most likely because she is leaving her former home and family. However, after all these dramatics, the wife typically returns to her host family’s compound and will sometimes take up to a year or more to complete the move into her husband’s compound.
Funerals are grand events where the mourning family must host and feed the many friends and relatives that travel down to pay their respects to the deceased. Though these travellers often make a monetary contribution to the mourning family, funerals invariably end up costing the bereaved family a great deal of money. Upon discovering that someone has died, the women all gather and wail and tear at their clothes dramatically. They continue to do this at the funeral, while the men bath and prepare the body for burial. The body must be buried within 24 hours of death, which means that things happen very quickly. On several occasions, I have seen a departed car ferry turn around in order to pick up a car transporting a body being transported for burial. The body is typically buried facing East and many prayers are said for the soul of the departed. The family will convene to mourn and pray for the deceased on the first day, third day, seventh day, and fortieth day after burial.
Naming ceremonies are also grand and rather expensive events. When a new Gambian child is born, it is not given a name straight away. Mandinka’s typically wait up to a week before naming a newborn. All of the extended family and village acquaintances are invited to a compound for the naming ceremony, where prayers are said and snacks are given out. A little money is usually collected from the guests and everyone visits the mother to see the newborn child. The mother is then called out and made to kneel on a mat. A man pretends to shave her head using a razor while he prays. The same man then uses a razor to really shave any hair off the baby’s head. The name of the child is then announced, and a sheep or a goat is slaughtered. The village women then frantically begin preparing the food, while simultaneously dancing, singing, and arguing. The men sit and talk while brewing attaya tea.
Naming ceremonies are even conducted for new Peace Corps volunteers in the training villages, minus the goat slaughtering. The name I was given was Ousman, whom I’m told was a sort of King Arthur character; a great warrior and king who pulled a sword out of a stone. Most volunteers then take on the family name of their host-families. During training I was Ousman Jawo. At my original site, I went by Ousman Cham or Mr. Cham for two years. At my ten month extension site I was known as Ousman Jammeh or Mr. Jammeh.
There is a lot of information in a Gambian family name. Most Gambians can tell what tribe you are from, what language you speak, and even what region you are from simply from your name. Jawo, Baldeh, Sissoko, and Bah are typically Fula names. Fofana, Darboe, and Drammeh are typically Mandinka names. Touray, Dumbuya, and Cham are typically Wollof names. Jammeh, Jabang, and Gibba are typically Jola names. Wollofs are usually from the western coast regions, Fulas live in the upper river regions, and mandinkas dominate the central river regions. However, being a small country, you can find Fulas, Mandinkas, Wollofs, and Jolas almost anywhere in The Gambia.
Every name and culture has a joke mate. Fulas and Jolas often joke that they do not get along. Chams and Sowes, Baldehs and Jallows, and many others are known to be joke mates. If a person with the name Jallow meets a person with the name Bah or Baldeh, even if they are complete strangers, they will begin joking with each other. They will make comments like “Oh, Baldehs are very bad,” “Baldehs like eating too much,” “Baldehs are always lazy.” I firmly believe that it is these kinds of joking relationships that have reduced tensions and tribal conflicts in The Gambia.
Circumcision ceremonies, both for boys and girls, are still practiced in traditional ways. In Mandinka villages, the young boys are grouped together and taken to a secluded shelter in the bush where they are circumcised. They are then given about a week to recover, during which time they do not leave the secluded shelter. They are fed and cared for while they heal. Meanwhile, spirits called Kankorans descend upon the village. These are usually young men decked out in leaves, bark, fabric or rags that dance around emitting high-pitched screams and wielding two machetes. During the day they are harmless, though children often run away from them and even adults will go indoors when they pass by. Day time Kankorans are usually escorted by boys with drums who collect money from passersby. It is at night that the dangerous Kankorans come out. On these nights a man walks through the village, warning everyone to stay inside during the night. The Kankoran can be heard dancing, screaming, and banging his machetes together all night. Gambians believe that if you are out at night and a Kankoran finds you, it will kill you. They also believe that some Kankorans can fly and will make a woman infertile if she ever looks upon them. The purpose of these Kankorans is to protect the circumcised boys while they heal. It is believed that the boys are vulnerable and may be possessed by evil witches or wizards. Therefore, the Kankorans prowl around at night in order to scare off any witches or wizards that may have bad intentions.