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First published in the Lafayette Journal & Courier, Lafayette, Indiana, June 26, 1977

POSTMARK: The Gambia

By COLLEEN McGUIRE

I lived with the Camara family in Serrekunda, the Gambia, for two months. During that time I had the marvelous opportunity to take part in two important African ceremonies. The first was the christening (called “kulio” in their Mandinka language) of a newborn child. The second and far more elaborate ceremony was Abdoulie Camara’s wedding.

Actually the occasion was not really a wedding. Abdoulie and his wife had already been married for five months, but traditionally the wife continues to live with her parents while the husband resides with his family for several months. The big occasion arrives when the wife’s family officially brings her to live with her husband’s family. This ceremony is called “manyo bito” in Mandinka; the literal translation being “cover the bride.”

Preparations for the huge party began several days earlier when about 20 neighbor women came to the Camara compound to start cooking all the food that at least 100 people would be eating for several days.

The first day was devoted to pounding an unfamiliar grain that would comprise the dish called “jeri.” It made quite a commotion in the Camara compound, what with all the huge wooden pestles hitting the wooden mortars, plus the chatting of a flock of women.

The second day was far from quiet, too. The Camara’s rural Mandinka relatives arrived from the countryside. The compound was overflowing with babies, children, teenagers, adults and old folks. It seemed like every one of them wanted to talk with me, the only toubob (white person) present. I was exhausted from so much socializing. But most of them, after a day that began before dawn, still were talking strong at midnight when I dropped off to sleep.

The ceremonies began on the third day. The guests started coming to the compound about noon and stayed at least until 2 a.m. Naturally all had to be fed lunch and dinner. Meanwhile, over at the bride’s family’s compound, similar celebrations were taking place on an equally large scale. Abdoulie had wanted a small, quiet manyo bito, but his wife is of the Wolof tribe and the Wolof are famous for their extravagant manyo bitos.

At about 4 p.m., the bride’s female family members paraded into the Camara compound, balancing on their heads large woven straw baskets containing everything necessary to prepare the bride’s bedroom. They also brought a huge bowl of food, enough to feed all the Camara’s guests. Likewise, the Camaras gave the bride’s family enough food to feed their guests.

The Wolof women took over Abdoulie’s bedroom, decorating it with new curtains, a bedspread and floor mats. They lighted incense which smelled much like that used in special Catholic masses. Then they welcomed all the groom’s relatives into the bedroom.

I also marched in to view the bed, smiling brightly at the Wolof women to compensate for my total lack of Wolof vocabulary. But behind my smile, I was puzzled as to how the custom of inspecting the married couple’s bed evolved, when in our society the bedroom is so utterly private.

At dusk, the griots (musicians) arrived with their long drums. African drummings are spectacular. Only men are drummers and they perform standing, holding the instrument between their legs. Only the women dance. They form a circle and one, two, or three women jump into the circle, shake wildly for only a minute, then jump back into the crowd and let other women have their go.

The drumming was still going on when I collapsed into bed at midnight. Later I was furious for falling asleep, because the highlight of the ceremony came at about 2 a.m. when the bride’s family officially brought her to Abdoulie. I was informed that she was dressed all in white with a black sort of turban around her head. She sat with the village elders, who chanted Muslim verses for her while everyone else gazed on happily.

The fourth day of the ceremony was wildest. A huge black bull was slaughtered in the yard. All the meat from the bull was used to make “benechin” that was cooked in a gigantic black pot big enough for several people to stand in.

On this day the women wore their “asobi” dresses. Fatou Camara had an asobi made for me, so that on the special day I was recognized by the distinctive material of my asobi as belonging to the Camara clan.  I was touched. She’s my age, 23, and when she had her fourth child last month, she named the baby Colleen.

The drummings on this day took place in the afternoon. As I joined the clapping spectators, the ladies urged me to get in the circle and dance.

I really wanted to dance because I felt energetic in response to the pounding of the drums. But I was shy because so many people I knew were watching. Fatou told the griots my name and they started singing about me. Then a neighbor woman forcefully took my hand and led me into the vacant circle. With my back bent forward, arms outstretched, I imitated their beautiful dancing style as best I could. Although I felt self-conscious, I enjoyed my outburst immensely. Some of the ladies ran up to me and put money in my hand as is the custom when someone performs well.

While we were all having such a fantastic time, the bride was in her bedroom where she had been since the night before and where she was to remain for three more days. People could come visit her, which I did. I promptly asked why she wasn’t outside where all the action was. I doubt if she had been asked that question by anyone else. She hesitated, then simply replied, “tradition.”

On her third day of confinement “tradition” has her come out of her room specifically to shed her clothes. On that day more drummings take place and thereafter she mingles normally with the folks in the compound.

I left Gambia the day before she was “released,” so I didn’t partake in the final ceremonies. Everything else I witnessed at the manyo bito made a great impression on me. In fact my entire two months at the Camara’s was an invaluable experience. It will forever remain my most intriguing insight into a culture so radically foreign to my own.

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