Sunday, February 7, 2016

Descriptions Of Senegalese Baby Naming Ceremonies/Parties (Ngentes)

Edited by Azizi Powell

This is Part I of a three part series about Senegalese baby naming ceremonies/parties (ngentes; also found as nguentes and nguenté.)

Part I presents excerpts from one book and excerpts from two blog posts about Senegalese baby naming ceremonies/parties.

Click for Part II of this series. Part II provides information about gewel (griots), Mbalax, and Senegalese Hip Hop.

Click for Part III of this series. Part III showcases a Senegalese video of "Nguenté" by Fata (also known as "El Presidente") featuring Mbaye Dieye & Waly Seck

Selected comments from that YouTube video's discussion thread are also included in that post.

The content of this post is presented for anthropological and cultural purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post.
Update: February 8, 2016- I just found this article on 2013 informative and well written blog post about Senegalese "ngentes":

This excerpt is from pages 137-138 of the Google books portion of the 2007 book Masters of the Sabar: Wolof Griot Percussionists of Senegal By Patricia Tang (Temple University Press). Here's some information about this book from
"Masters of the Sabar" is the first book to examine the music and culture of Wolof griot percussionists, masters of the vibrant sabar drumming tradition. Based on extensive field research in Senegal, this book is a biographical study of several generations of percussionists in a Wolof griot (gewel) family, exploring and documenting their learning processes, repertories, and performance contexts-from life-cycle ceremonies to sporting events and political meetings. Patricia Tang examines the rich history and changing repertories of sabar drumming, including dance rhythms and bakks, musical phrases derived from spoken words. She notes the recent shift towards creating new bakks which are rhythmically more complex and highlight the virtuosity and musical skill of the percussionist. She also considers the burgeoning popular music genre called mbalax. The compact disc that accompanies the book includes examples of the standard sabar repertory, as well as bakks composed and performed by Lamine Toure and his family drum troupe."
Excerpts of pages 137-138.

Note that the words given in italic were given as they appeared in this book excerpt for accent marks in the spelling of many of those words.
Masters of the Sabar: Wolof Griot Percussionists of Senegal By Patricia Tang
"At both weddings and naming ceremonies, sabars take place in the afternoon, after the rituals and ceremonies are completed and the celebrations is to begin.

At a ngente or marriage a large tarp or open-sided tent with chairs under it is usually set up in the street outside the house. The tent symbolizes a sort of extension of the household, keeping the event an essentially private affair, despite it being in the “public” street. This distinguishes it from a tannibeer, which never takes place under a tent, and is always an open, public event.

A ngente is usually an all-day affair. In the morning the men (male relatives and other distinguished friends of the head of the household), come to pay their respects and praise the baby. It is in the morning that the baby is named as well. Laax which is served at Korite (A Muslim holiday to be discussed later), is traditionally served on the morning of a ngente. Lunch will be ceebu yapp, a rice and meat dish, cooked with the sacrificial sheep. The men slaughter the sheep in the morning, after which the women griots busily prepare cooking it.

Although all sorts of friends and family visit the household throughout the day, the men primarily come in the morning, whereas the afternoon is the time for women (and, not so coincidentally, is also when the sabar takes place.). All guests bring a small monetary gift (ndawtal) to the mother to congratulate her and to help with the cost of the ngente (which can be a very expensive affair, between renting chairs, the sabar group, and providing food and drink for everyone).

In contrast to its role at a tannibeer, which is a dance event which is also an occasion for drummers to show off their virtuosity and showcase bakks, the sabar’s role at an ngente (and marriage) is purely functional: to accompany dance. The drummers play dance rhymes*... Normally they play a set for an hour or so, break for a big late lunch, then resume playing later in the later afternoon. Naturally, the drummers engage in woyang, praising the mother or whatever other prominent people are around, thus eliciting money for them”...

*The word "rhythms" here probably means "rhythms". The names of various rhythms are given in this passage.

[page 138]
"A Special Ngente Ceremony: “Bekete”
In addition to the naming, dancing, and other festivities common to all Senegalese baptisms, people of the Lebou origin, descendant from Diagne Ndoye and Diagne Mbaye, celebrate a special ngente ritual called bekete. Since Mbayes are of gewel** origin, the Mbaye family considers bekete to be an important gewel tradition and performs it every time a new baby is born into the family.

Bekete is a ritual of protection. As Macheikh Mbaye explains
'Bekete is a means of protecting the child. When the child is eight days old, we will celebrate bekete in order to protect him. We will protect him from the evil spirits, from any type of accident, from evil tongue (caat)- because some tongues will destroy anything when they talk about it. We will protect him/her also from the evil eye; that’s what bekete is all about- to protect the survival of the child, that’s all.' (3/9/98)
Gewels = griots. Information about gewels (griots) is given in Part II of this series.

This 2005 blog post was written by a White woman from the United Sates. In her 2005 profile she described herself as a teacher living in Dakar, Senegal for nine years with her husband. The blog post describes the amended form of a ngente (Senegalese baby naming ceremony/party) that the couple held for their two month old daughter.

This excerpt focuses on the blogger's descriptions of the baby naming ceremony/party. I reformatted this excerpt for this post to enhance reading clarity.

From [written by] Lisa, Saturday, November 12, 2005
"What is an ngente?

Well, we are busy preparing for Mariama's ngente. What is an ngente you say? It is what the people here in Senegal call a naming ceremony. It is typically held on the eightth day after a child is born. Until that time, the child's name is not spoken by the parents to anyone.

Typically the ceremony takes place about ten in the morning which includes a prayer of sorts, shaving the head as part of their tradition, and the announcing of the name. At about this time is when the sheep is killed, out of sacrifice or celebration, it is unclear. Before the ceermony takes place though, they begin to serve the laax. Laax is a grain that is made into powder and then formed into the consistency of oatmeal and then served with a sweet milky yogurt over it. It is really delicious! After the sheep has been killed, cooking of lunch begins, which is always "ceebu yap" (rice and meat), which is a signature Senegalese dish. This is generally served about 2:00, since they will serve the laax to anyone who comes until about noon. The lunch is served on large platters around which about 6 people will eat, in Senegalese fashion...

After lunch, guests are served some drink, generally cokes, frozen juice from a store, or one of the homemade Senegalese jus, which are not like anything we drink in the states, but they are delicious. This is finished about three or four o'clock. Often for the Senegalese, the day does not end here. They may serve leftovers of lunch to those who come around 5:00, and then will serve a dinner around 8:00. But also around 6:00, there is the exchanging of gifts between the families. The family of the mother of the baby and the family of the father of the baby essentially compete to outgive gifts to the other side of the family. If good enough gifts are not given by one side, not only does it insult the other side of the family, but it also causes the side who gives inadequately to be looked down on by all the neighbors because everyone is watching this event. Yeah, no pressure here!!!...

The mother of the baby is called the "boroom ngente", meaning lord of the ngente. The boroom generally wears a different outfit for every meal, getting more expensive as the day goes on. I will wear a nice outfit I already have for the morning but am getting a new outfit for the afternoon lunch time. Her hair and makeup are very fixed and very heavy generally."...

This 2012 blog post was written by a White woman from the United States who identified herself as a Peace Corp volunteer. The nguenté that this blogger attended was held for the fifth born child of her (Senegalese) host mother.

This excerpt focuses on the blogger's descriptions of the baby naming ceremony/party.

From Posted on October 18, 2012 by juliaschroer
"Yesterday, I had the pleasure of experiencing my first Senegalese ‘ngente’ or naming ceremony. An ngente is a special day where family, friends, and neighbors gather to celebrate the birth of a new baby by enjoying yummy food, presenting gifts, and attending the Islamic naming ceremony. The affair seems to be a cross between a Christian baptism and an American baby shower. The ngente happens exactly a week after the baby is born. The baby girl was born on October 10th, so the party was yesterday, October 17th. During those first seven days, my host mom didn’t leave the house and tended the new baby 24/7. I am really impressed by how self-reliant my host-mom is and how she handled the pregnancy (I moved into when she was in her 7th month) and delivery with such a cool head and calm disposition!

Yesterday, everyone gathered at our house early in the morning and the women started to prepare breakfast – lahk (millet and yogurt deliciousness). At some point in the morning, the father of the child and his posse of friends meet with the Imam (religious leader) to discuss the child’s name for the naming ceremony. The mom gets to put in her request for the name, but ultimately the dad decides the official name (though the mom might still call the baby what she wants).

After surviving a morning full of anticipation, the Imam and father announce the name of the child, Miriam! The name is very important. Every child is named after someone, called a homonym or namesake. The person who the baby is named after becomes like the Christian idea of a godparent. It is a huge honor for a child to be named after you and you play a special role in the child’s life, like taking a particular interest in their well-being and giving gifts and helping out if ever something happens to the parents...

At one point in the day, I realized the baby’s hair was all gone. She was born with a lovely amount of fuzz giving pretty full head coverage. Then I remembered reading in our cross cultural manuals that there is a Senegalese tradition of shaving the baby’s head on the day of the ngente. My cross cultural notes explain “the ceremony is composed of shaving the hair of the baby, then the Imam or a learned man rubs his hand over the child’s head, prays and spits in its ears the name by starting from the right. Finally, a sheep is killed in its honor.” Another Senegalese tradition I’ve observed involving a new baby, or small children in general, is to make sure they are always wearing “binbins”. A binbin is a string with special beads worn around the stomach, arm, or throat, to ward off evil spirits and protect health of the child.

After the announcement, it is time to kill the sheep! Everyone gravitated towards the backyard at this point where the sheep was killed – the men did the dirty work and the women generally don’t watch, but may take a fleeting glance to see the progress. As soon as the deed is done, breakfast is distributed and the women get down to business and start preparing lunch (this happened around 10:30/11 am)...
This blog post continues with a description of the lunch and evening meal, as well as some other comments. The blogger indicates that she was concerned about having to give a monetary gift for the ngente, but no collection was taken. She speculates that maybe this was because her host mother was well off and this was her fifth child. The blogger also indicates that there was no band for this ngente.

This concludes Part I of this post.

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  1. This isn't strictly relevant to Senegal, but the Dutch writer Bosman included some information about African naming practices in his 1704 book on the Guinea coast. I've left in all the rather annoying use of an 'f' to represent the old-fashioned long 's', so I hope it isn't hard to read. And Bosman isn't talking about an Islamic culture obviously, and probably Ghanaian custom not Senegalese. But it's interesting both cultures lay stress on giving the child the name of someone else in its kin:
    "As foon as the Child is born and the Prieft has confecrated it, if above the common Rank, it hath three Names beftowed on it (though always called by one ;) the firft is that of the Day of the Week on which it is born ; the next, if a Son, is his Grand-fathers, if a Girl, her Grandmothers Name ; though this is not ftrictly obferved by the Negroes, fome of them giving their own or the Names of fome of their Relations to their Children : After which their Names increafe with their Years ; has any Perfon behav'd himfelf valiantly in the War, he obtains a Name derived from thence, as he doth by killing a Chieftain of the Enemies : Does he kill a wild Ravenous Beaft, he gets a new Name by it. But 'twould be a Days work to recite all their Names and the Occafions of them ; 'tis fufficient to tell you, that the number given to fome Men amounts to twenty : The chief of which, and by which he is moft honoured, is that given him when they are drinking Palm-Wine together in the Market-place. The common Name by which they are called, is one of thofe given them at their Birth. Some are called after the number of Children that their Mother has born, as the eighth, the ninth or tenth Child, but this is only when the Mother has born above fix or feven Children."
    He also begins to describe a pre-birth purification ceremony perhaps meant to protect the mother, but he breaks off short. (I get the impression he's less interested in women's lives, I could be wrong.) It involves a procession to the sea-shore where the mother-to-be washes herself in the sea, but on the way children follow her throwing dirt at her until she reaches the waves and cleanses herself. I don't know what the meaning of that custom may be, or whether any part of it survives.

    1. Thanks for sharing that quote, slam2011.

      The dirt thrown at the mother might symbolize the fact that the earth is our mother.

      And I think that you're probably right that men writing in the 18th century were more interested in men's lives then the lives of women.

      Would you please share the book that this quote comes from? Thanks again!

  2. It was from Willem Bosman's 'A new and accurate description of the coast of Guinea, divided into the Gold, the Slave, and the Ivory coasts', published in Dutch in 1704 and translated into English in 1705.

    Bosman was a Dutchman in the slave trade. He went to Africa at sixteen and lived on the West African coast for fourteen years. The book is based on long, descriptive letters he sent to an uncle back home. It's one I find hard to read but I have dipped into. I don't think Bosman spoke the local language - he says at one point he understands what's said to him mostly, but can't always express himself. Also he seems to have lived in a European compound, not among the people. And of course's not an ethnographer, he's basically telling traveller's tales. Still, to be fair I don't think he makes stuff up, but he doesn't always understand what he's seeing.

    His Christian prejudice against African religion is very strong, partly because he's a Protestant who's quite anti-Catholic. What I mean is, he already has a fixed idea that any religious ceremony is 'superstition' or 'priestcraft', done by an elite to rip off gullible worshippers. On the other hand, unlike a lot of Europeans of the time he knows Africans are not by any means 'devil-worshippers'.

    He describes a ceremony which is a regular annual celebration, maybe a bit like our Christmas, where villagers throw dung and dirt to drive the devil out of their village, and then have a holiday. It made me think, maybe the children who pelt the mother-to-be are doing the same for her? Any evil spirits hanging round her are driven to the sea, where she gets rid of them by washing herself, and so no bad spirits can affect the birth?...Yeah, that's me trying to be an ethnographer:)

    His book's online at:

    1. slam2011, I LOVE the information you find in your research. Thanks!!

      Here's the hyperlink to that book

      Regarding your theory about the reason why people might have pelted a mother-to-be with dirt as she walks to and then goes to the river- the reason why she enters the water might also be because the water has strengthening and protective powers because of the deity/deities associated with water and/or that particular body of water.

      Here's a website that provides a list of traditional African deities (with a blurb about each deity)

  3. Azizi, you haven't come across a word like 'gomba' in anything to do with West Africa have you? It must mean some small object no bigger than a footstool. I should explain I've been reading the novel 'Hamel, the Obeah Man' (1827). It was written by an Englishman who'd lived in Jamaica, and he occasionally uses words not in the Oxford English Dictionary. For example, he mentions an abeng, and also a 'musical instrument, the bonjaw' - I guessed he meant banjo - but he also describes a man wrapping himself in a 'contoo' before sleeping. I failed to find that in the OED, but felt pretty smart to find it in a Twi online dictionary as 'kuntu, a coverlet'.

    But 'gombah' has me stumped. First the man sits on it to eat a meal, and then uses it as a pillow... so it must be fairly small. But what is it???

    1. slam2011, you probably know that "abeng" is also a musical instrument. Here's a long quote about Jamaica's Maroons' abeng:
      "The abeng, the side-blown horn, is a Maroon War Horn. It has been in use in Jamaica for over three centuries – originally was used to communicate messages between Maroon communities. It calls Maroons to assembly and to contribute to Maroon funerals. It played and still plays a major role in many other Maroon celebrations.

      The abeng is made from cow horn and at full blast can be heard clearly over a distance of approximately 15 kilometers. The top of the cow horn is cut off, leaving a small opening about 1½ inches from the top end. There is also another opening over which the blower placed his mouth. The sounds are controlled with the thumb, opening and closing the small hole at the top end of the horn.

      The organization Macpri describes the abeng as follows: “The abeng is believed to be an Akan word meaning “horn”. The abeng is the horn of an animal or a wind musical instrument, which is blown to produce a variety of sounds. The cow horn or the Abeng as it is called by the Maroons of Jamaica is a powerful symbol of African culture and tradition. The abeng and its blower are still very important in many communities across the African world. Before major events could begin in a community, the abeng would be blown to alert the villagers or town’s people. Depending on the sounds that came out of the instrument, the listener would be able to tell if a wedding, a birth, a death was being announced or a call to arm for an impending war. Today, ‘New World’ Africans see the symbolism of the abeng as a call to arm themselves – their minds – for them to stand up and defend their culture and traditions against extinction.”

    2. Well, this explains a lot! I've also been reading a book called 'Untrodden Jamaica' in which a white Jamaican went into an unmapped part of the John Crow Mountains in 1890, guided by some locals who included Maroons. They used an abeng to signal and keep in touch with each other, and he said they had a code but wouldn't share it with him. At one high place overlooking a village he asked Peter Nelson (a Maroon) to sound a celebratory blast on the horn, but Nelson was very reluctant. He did, finally, but he got a drop of rum off another man first and poured it into the horn and onto the ground. (This is a libation, which Bosman also mentions being done in late 17th c. West Africa.)The white Jamaican guessed this was something to do with preventing bad luck, but as he could see Nelson didn't want to be asked about it he left it alone.

      And in 'Hamel, the Obeah Man' (1827) Hamel makes a libation too. So that's c.1690s in Africa; early 19th c. Jamaica; and even as late as 1890, all for the same African tradition surviving.

    3. Hey slam2011.

      I'm so very glad you found this blog. You add such richness to these posts.

      I've decided to publish a post on abeng which will include the comments found in this comment thread- so that they don't get lost in discussions about Senegalese or African naming customs.

      I'll add that link in this comment thread when I've published it.

  4. Don't spend time on it. I've decided he must have misheard 'akonnua', a stool. (It may not be right but it stops me going crazy looking!)