A few days ago something odd happened. I was told by our nanny, who had heard from the cook, that our lovely driver, Balde, had just welcomed a new baby (please forgive how this opening statement might sound… and read on).
Why is this strange, you might wonder?
Well, for the last 8 months I have spent a lot of time in the car with Balde. We’ve covered a wide number of topics during our chats; his family, his son, cooking, Senegalese fashion, religion, some of the world’s woes, and his hopes for the future. And throughout those 8 months he never once mentioned that his wife was pregnant.
Completely thrown by this unexpected news, I got in touch with two experienced expats for advice. I wanted to appropriately congratulate Balde without making a hideous cultural faux pas. We have a tendency to accidentally put our foot in it in my family; my mother once said ‘Cheers big ears’ to a man with lugs larger than Prince Charles.
And I’m glad I did because what I learned was truly fascinating.
My first question was why the secrecy?
Historically, maternal mortality and infant death rates have been high in Africa and they continue to remain higher than those in our developed bubble. Which perhaps explains why congratulations are shelved until both mother and child are considered out of the woods. Add to that, babies can die within the first week of life, and the name is not announced until exactly seven days after its first breath.
Senegalese etiquette demands that a woman’s pregnancy is altogether ignored – absolutely no bump rubbing over here. And as for Baby Showers? No way, Jose! An expectant mother may even try to hide her news for as long as she can. Why? In part for the reasons above. But perhaps even more interestingly, any unwanted attention could attract ‘the evil eye’ and curse her and her unborn baby.
My second question, was what should I do, give, offer?
Too much could be inappropriate and too little could cause offence.
At home we rush out and buy the cutest outfit we can find. And while that is also the case here, the advice is also a little more practical. The family will greatly appreciate a giant bag of nappies, baby safe detergents and nappy creams, all of which can be costly in Senegal.
In addition you’re advised to give an employee money; a friend tells me anything up to 20% of a month’s salary is acceptable. I didn’t think too much more about this until I was speaking to Balde in person.
Tomorrow, he and his family will host a naming ceremony, or ‘ngente’ in Wolof. The family’s Imam will arrive to discuss and confirm the baby’s name, in a private ceremony. Swiftly followed by everyone that Balde knows arriving to ‘whet the baby’s head’; a very Senegalese tradition. And when Balde says everyone, he means everyone! Friends, colleagues and every member of a sprawling family tree from this country and neighbouring Guinée-Bissau. Close to 300 people, all dressed in their finery, will descend on his house for a feast. To put this in perspective, back home the average number of wedding guests, arguably the biggest party a British couple will ever host, stands at just 75.
Not only is this new little life a drain on the pocket, but hosting an enormous knees up is sure to dent even the healthiest of finances. Balde will slaughter two rams for the occasion and put on a wonderful spread for his guests. A special sweet porridge made from millet will also hit the table for all to enjoy, a pot of which he has assured me will make its way to my door.
And can we just take a moment to appreciate how amazing Senegalese mothers are. What absolute Super Women. Imagine having to play hostess to hundreds and hundreds of people, just a few days after pushing a baby out. If I think back to ‘day seven’, post twin delivery, I was an absolute wreck; spraying tears, milk and new mum insecurities around the room in equal measure. Anyone knocking on our door would have gladly bolted as fast as their feet could carry them. I take my hat off to each and every one of them.
This week I’ve been reminded of the cultural precipice between our countries – something as simple as the arrival of a new baby and once again I’m clueless foreigner, learning as I go. But what a wonderful privilege that is.