The world jumped into focus and everything looked suddenly bright and fresh and clean, as it does on an early morning with the sun on the trees, and there was newness everywhere, a feeling that I had been away a long time in a dark place and was now returning home to sunlight.
-Chaim Potok from The Chosen
This past week there was a new baby born in my compound. Last Friday was her naming ceremony, in which a large gathering of family friends, neighbors, and well wishers come to the house to hear the baby’s name be given by a village religious leader. Everyone then enjoys the day together chatting, eating, and enjoying.
For the first five days of my life I had no name. For children in other countries, I have heard, it is quite different. Those children might know months in advance of their birth what their name is going to be. Their parents might have built up expectations around that name, hopes and dreams of what kind of person the baby will become based on other people with that same name. They live with that burden, the burden of comparison before birth.
In my small country in West Africa I, like many others, did not carry the same burden as our Western friends. Like I said, for the first five days of my life, I didn’t even have a name. I cried, sucked, smiled, and gaa-gaaed through life purely as “child” or “baby.” My burden was patiently waiting to know who I was to be. I waited for a name to be bestowed upon me, completing my humanity and essence. I waited for my naming ceremony, our little country’s ceremonious way of naming a child that, in my opinion, gives the ritual due significance.
I awoke on that fifth day crying to the pounding sounds that shattered my peaceful slumber. Ever since entering the world my body has had to adjust to a sonic Gatling gun of noise that was once muffled in my mother’s protection. On that day the pounding of rice drove into my tiny skull thump, thump, thumping away in rhythm. I was tired from my busy fourth day of life, which mainly consisted of eating rice porridge, crying, and watching a carousel of people come in and out of my home. They would all follow the same pattern: Hold the baby (that’s me!), blurt out some random gooey words that belittled any intelligence, make some funny faces, smile at my mother, and then walk out with a content grin on their face.
So I was crying. But it was not the day to cry, although apparently someone had failed to give me the memo which would have read “It’s the day of your naming ceremony, NO CRYING ALLOWED”. I had to figure that out on my own when I was brought out into the bright morning sunlight and placed in my fathers arms. We sat on a large mat patterned in blue, yellow, and white boxes and lines, and together we sat surrounded by a large group of elderly looking men. For the next 30 minutes, I saw a steady stream people coming into our compound. Some younger and fit, all smiles for the ceremony. Others older, withered, slow in their step, and with an obvious weakness would wave their hands at the entire group and shake hands with my father. They then would walk to the nearest chair and in exhaustion collapse in slow motion into the chair’s soft cushions.
By this point I knew it was an important day. The crying had stopped. The pounding was finished. My father and I were surrounded by smiling faces, men clothed in long gowns of bright orange, green, and yellow, the women elegant in their patterned flowers and tones of purple, red, and green. The women were preparing food for the big lunch that was to come. Tomatoes, cassava, lettuce, fish, and a whole host of herbs and spices were being washed, cut open, dried, or roasted. The men were now gathered around me and praying together, slightly off beat with one another sounding like many more than were there. All with their palms towards the sky, they looked deep in concentration as if appealing to something that was beyond their capacity; was this religion I thought?
After the prayers were completed one of the elders grabbed a large white blob of dough, which had been resting on a large sheet of thick brown paper. They broke the dough off into smaller pieces giving each of the men a piece, but I noticed only giving to a few of the women. I watched the men carefully as they ate their dough. At first I didn’t think it was food, for the way they seemed to be playing with it in their hands. In their right hand palm they would hold the dough, slowing rolling it with their fingers, mashing and reshaping it over and over again. Whenever I did that sort of thing with food my mother would put on her angry face and start yelling incoherently at me. Placing the dough in their mouths they would slowly chew it, but so slowly that it rather seemed like they were letting it dissolve. The other children were jumping at their parents, begging them to spare a small morsel of the dough. That is how I knew the dough must be loaded with sugar.
After the dough was passed out I finally had my opportunity to become a full member of the world. A man wearing slightly better clothes than the rest approached me slowly and reverentially. He stood towering above my small frame and covered in his shadow he stared down at me and began to pray. He seemed to be following a pattern whereby he would say a few lines, pause for a breath, then continue on enchanted by a connection with peace. Words came out as pulses of life, followed by pauses of composure, all spoken with firmness of purpose; this was the man who was giving birth to my name. Then almost out of thin air he said two short words, which I assume must have been my name, for the whole of the compound erupted in cheer and elation. So loud was the good will that I wasn’t able to make out his final words, but apparently everyone else did because together they final prayer after the man was finished.
So there it was, my naming ceremony. Five days into life on this great Earth and I was given completeness in the world. My nature was always there, and now people had a way to reference it. The rest of the day must have been rather spectacular, for later that night I found many people still sitting around the compound smiling, eating, and chatting the night away. Of course, I missed all of this for something much more pleasing to my infant five day old body: Sleep.