Ghana is a land of many traditions and has ceremonies for special occasions. What occasion is more special than giving birth to a child? Ghanians celebrate each healthy birth with something called a Naming Ceremony. It usually takes place eight days after the baby is born. The idea is that both the mother and the baby need a week to rest and to recover from the labor. Also, the days of the week are very important to Ghanians, and they often name their babies after the day on which they were born. There are seven popular names for boys and seven for girls. You can tell which day of the week a person was born on by his or her name.
For example, Sister Juliana didn’t know the name of her own cousin. He told me his name was Fred, but she always called him Kwame. He explained it to me one day when we were driving in his car.
“Do you know the day of the week you were born on?” he asked me out of the blue.
“Yes. I was born on a Thursday,” I said.
“Thursday. Your Ghanian name is Yaa. Mine is Kwame, because I was born on a Saturday,” he said, and taught me about the fourteen different Ghanian names. The parents usually give the child another name, too, like Amma Birago or Kwabena Adom. Actually, most parents just name their kids a name like Fred or Juliana and use the day-of-the-week name only among family.
On the way to Homasi (that is Sister Juliana’s village’s name, Homasi), we passed a town named after Asantwa, who was a female warrior. “That will be your African name,” Sister Julie said, “Yaa Santwa. It means brave woman.”
“Yaa Santwa,” I repeated, letting the words roll over my tongue like a pink gum-ball. Santwa is pronounced the same as sans toi in French. Sans toi. Without you. My name is Yaa without you. Without you... sounds so independent and feminist, like, I can do this by myself, thank you, without you. Brave woman.
When I first arrived in the village, Sister Juliana’s sisters and mother were quite pleased that I greeted them in Twi, “Etty sang!” and thanked them, also. “Madasay!” When the had sat me down, they introduced themselves... “I’m Esther.” “I’m Selina,” “She’s Elizabeth.” Then they told me their Ghanian names, “I’m also called Akua...” I don’t remember their Ghanian names, but I remembered mine.
“I’m also called Yaa Santwa,” I said. When I said that, they all laughed that happy, joyous laugh I’ve come to associate with Ghanians being thrilled that I’m embracing their culture. “Yaa Santwa!” they repeated, and retold the story to Sister Juliana when she came back into the room.
From then on, Sister Juliana’s family called me by my Ghanian name, Yaa Santwa.
So, that’s another reason why they usually wait eight days for the naming ceremony... so that the ceremony takes place on the same day of the week that the baby was born.
Baby Juliana’s naming ceremony, however, took place over two weeks after her birth.
Sister Juliana’s youngest sister, Selina, gave birth to her first child a few weeks ago. I was there when SIster Juliana received the phone call. She was ecstatic, especially because she was to be the godmother, they were naming the baby after her, and the baby was born on the same day of the week that she was. They waited to have the ceremony until Sister Juliana could make it, during the midterm break. Of course, Sister Juliana didn’t tell me this until Friday night, the night before the ceremony.
Baby Juliana is so, so precious! When Selina dropped her into my arms the first day I was there, I couldn’t stop staring at her. She’s so tiny, and so beautiful. Each miniature feature is perfectly formed as though lovingly molded by a perfect doll-maker. I was so amazed by the little life in my arms I almost cried. I didn’t know how Selina let me hold her... if I had a baby that precious, I don’t think I’d ever want her to leave my sight. It’s a good thing I’m not a mother yet, because I think all I’d want to do would be to hold my baby all day long. The baby yawned, and then her lips drew apart into the most precious little smile, and when she smiled it was like I was holding a baby ray of sunshine in my arms.
When I went into the living room this morning, I found that the table and couches had been pushed against the walls, and a couple dozen plastic chairs were set up in the room. I went to the backyard to brush my teeth, and found some of the sisters fussing over a huge pot of rice for the guests. I went to the front porch, and found dozens of relatives had congregated there to wait for the ceremony to start. It was scheduled to start at 8AM, but we’re on Africa time, so we didn’t actually start until 9.
I had read about naming ceremonies before this, about the symbolic rituals they do such as dropping a little wine into the baby’s mouth and setting the baby on the dirt. I was excited about experiencing this bit of uniquely Ghanian culture. A Catholic priest showed up, and the ceremony began. They spoke Twi the entire time. Although I couldn’t understand what they were saying, I watched carefully, not wanting to miss anything. I was disappointed when I realized that it was actually just a typical, Christian/Catholic infant baptism, something I’d attended numerous times in America. I then remembered reading that sometimes Christians substitute baptism for traditional naming ceremonies. Lame!
The after-party was quite fun. They passed out Guinness and blasted the music. Ghanian popular music, called highlife or hiplife, is so upbeat and fun to dance to! Every person who has ever seen me dance in Ghana is SO surprised and amused, as though they expect my white skin somehow inhibits my dancing and are quite astonished when they see me dance. Oh, but the music is just so danceable! How could I not dance? Especially when it makes the Ghanians so happy that they laugh their joyous, thrilled-that-the-obruni-is-trying-out-our-culture laugh?
They laughed happily and clapped for me, forming dance circles around me, wanting to hold my hands. “Ay! Yaa Santwa!” they called. “Etty sang!”
I guess you could say that this week there have been two naming ceremonies: one for baby Juliana, and the other for Yaa Santwa. And even though my skin is as white as snow, I’m more experienced in Ghanian culture than little Juliana. She’s only been in Ghana for two weeks. I’ve been here for a month. The thought makes me feel so... Ghanian!