ngentey: the traditional Islamic-Senegalese baptism
There are three big events in Senegalese life: baptisms, weddings, and funerals. On April 4th, the day of Senegal’s national holiday, I am lucky enough to go to a baptism—my first—with my yaay, Nene, Rama, and Ndèye Awa. It is for the newborn son of my yaay’s niece.
It is really more of a naming ceremony than a baptism, because it is the day that the baby will be given his name. The baptism must take place exactly a week after the baby is born, and up until the baptism he is just called “Baby.” Let me point out just how crazy this is—that only seven days after you give birth, you are basically obligated to throw a huge party at your own house for all your family and friends, a hundred people at least, slaughter a sheep, and feed everyone from morning until night.
Not only that, but baptisms are a big deal, an important chance to show yourself off in all your finery. My sisters inform me that it is necessary to have two outfits, one for the day and one for the night. And no, not casual outfits—fully decked out, glittery traditional dresses, heavy makeup, and tons of jewelry. To underscore the magnitude of this event, Nene has a new dress made by the tailor and gets her hair redone.
We arrive at the house earlier than the guests because we are bringing sixty bowls—that’s right, sixty—for the family to use for the party. In a side room, I meet the mother. She is wearing a long loose dress that doesn’t hide her still very pregnant belly. She looks exhausted, and she is nursing a scrawny ugly baby. She has only just finished her first week of being a mother, and she looks like she has barely slept. I am astounded that she is going to go through with this whole baptism ordeal.
Because it is an ordeal. A sheep must be killed at the house, the halal way (the Islam version of kosher butchering). It is killed early in the morning, and I don’t see it happen, but the rest of the morning is spent butchering the sheep, because it will soon be cooked to feed everyone, the hundreds, who passes through. All the men are busy tearing this sheep apart with sharp knives. Meanwhile, all the women of the family have been slaving over the cooking since the early morning and probably the day before, huge pots big enough for me to crawl inside.
In the mid-morning, everyone is fed laar, the porridge. That is why we brought the bowls. There are dozens of people already here, dressed in their finery. When lunch rolls around, we finally get to taste the sheep—meat and rice and vegetables. Dozens and dozens of people, huge platters, every room and every seat filled.
At some point the mother shows up. I don’t know what has happened to the baby because I never see him again. But the mother is back and wearing a richly embroidered and bedazzled gown, rainbow eyeshadow and the thickest layer of makeup, her hair curled and perfect and sparkling with jewelry. She looks nothing like the painfully exhausted woman from the morning, and she will change outfits and makeup all over again before the night is over. I am totally blown away!
By late afternoon, hundreds of people are filing into the house, filling up every crack and every corner with their big dresses and purses and hair. It is overwhelming, to say the least. Musicians play the kora, a traditional Senegalese instrument, and sing. People sing and dance and yell. The house feels as if it will tip over from overcrowding.
And finally, late in the evening, the dinner. More of the lamb but with potatoes and sauce. And hundreds of people eating, plates handed out in a chaotic manner, people pulling up chairs anywhere and everywhere to dig in. All the leftovers—huge pots—will be taken home with guests and members of the family.
And there you have it, the baptism, a chaotic and crazy party, to say the least. I don’t think I want to go to another one, but it was quite an experience.