A Naming Ceremony and What Happened There

In every culture there are life change points. The most important of these are birth, marriage, and death. The rituals surrounding these life change points tend to reflect the prevailing beliefs and mores of the people, and many people follow closely the pattern laid down for the rituals, preferring not to offend the prevailing deity and the society at large. This is especially true in traditional societies.

One of the most important rituals associated with birth in the culture and country where we live is the naming ceremony, called a cebe (pronounced "chay-bay") in Songhai. On the eighth day after the birth of a child, the family and friends gather together early in the morning not long after sunrise to name the baby and celebrate the birth. The men sit on mats or chairs outside the house or even in the street while the women gather together in the house or on the porch and sit on mats. Guests bring small monetary gifts to share with the family. Friends of the father pass out kola nuts or dates to all the guests as a symbol of friendship and hospitality. The baby's head is shaved. Then someone slaughters a ram which will be put in the pot for the stew to be made for all the guests at midday. Meanwhile, the name is announced by the religious teacher and everyone begins to pray in Arabic. The prayers go on for about five minutes, and then everyone leaves to go about their busines until noon, when they all come back for the feast.

With the new believers in Tera, we have developed some of our own rituals which complement the culture but also incorporate some elements of baby dedications in western-style churches. I believe these are more true to the Bible and to the spirit of what we find in Biblical times. After all, the Jews had a ritual similar to the naming ceremony when they brought the child to the Temple on the eighth to be circumcised (if it was male) and to offer sacrifices.

When I go to naming ceremonies amongst the believers, some of the same things happen that happen in the culture. The men sit outside the house while the women sit in the house or on the "porch." I as the religious teacher announce the name of the baby. Often I am given the privilege of choosing the name, especially amongst people who are less literate and live in rural areas. A meal of rice and sauce with goat or sheep meat will be prepared for the guests, but the animal won't be slaughtered right at the moment of the naming as in the prevailing culture around us. Usually, a small gift of kola nuts or dates will be given to each guest. Guests will in turn bring some money to give to the family. We will have a time of prayer for the family and the baby, but in Songhai, not in Arabic.

However, I add some elements that I think make it more meaningful and Biblical. First, I talk about the fact that God loves children and holds them in His hand. I read such passages as Prov 22:6; Psalm 127; or Mark 10:13-16. I then give a short gospel presentation and afterwards I read a charge to the father as the representative of the family to exhort him to a godly example and training of the child. Then I announce the name. If I've been given the privilege of naming the child, I choose a Bible name and first talk about that character in the Bible. After a prayer, I go to the house where the mother is and pray for the mother and the child. I usually take the child in my arms and hold him/her while I am praying. I always pray the prayer of blessing from Numbers 6.24-26. Then if Nancy has not gone to the cebe I give the mother the gift of an outfit for the baby which my wife has chosen ahead of time.

This is the time of year when there are a lot of cebes. We have attended many in town among non-believers and also some for believers. I have been given the privilege of praying for the family in a village outside of Niamey. In another village, I have assisted at two Christian naming ceremonies, one in September, and one on October 1. At both of the latter, I was given the privilege of naming the baby. I named the first Yakuba (Jacob) and the second Ayuba (Job). Yakuba was quiet and slept through my prayer of bessing for him. Ayuba was a rascal. Not only did he scream and yell when they passed him to me for the prayer, but as I was praying, Ayuba decided to let loose from another end. No sooner had I begun to pray than Ayuba peed in his pants. Actually, to be more accurate, since babies in Africa don't wear diapers, he peed on my pants. He was covered in a cloth, but it was very thin, and the liquid quickly soaked through and onto my pants. Then I heard a soft gurgling sound, and the liquid on my pants started turning yellowish-brown. At this point, the mother noticed my predicament and her friend sitting there snatched the baby away and started pouring water all over my pants with a plastic tea kettle so common out here that people use to wash. Meanwhile, I continued my prayer of blessing as though nothing had happened. All was proceeding as normal. This is not an uncommon occurrence for me, but it doesn't happen all the time. Anyway, we finished the ceremony without any further ceremony or interruptions, and the baby was properly named and dedicated.

Now that is a story to write home about.


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Dusty Penguin said...

It really is an uncommon privilege to be allowed to choose the name and bless the baby, and to give the teaching and prayer. It says a great deal about your place there in the community and culture and your acceptance. Your faithfulness is being blessed by God even when you don't see it.

Mike said...

Hey John, what a great description of anaming ceremony. Can I copy it and use it at my church? It brought back memories of the cebe we were at in Domba--remember the boule?? Yum! Pray the prayer of health my friend. You are in my prayers and thoughts constantly.