Baptism in Senegal

Last week I went to a baptism with the four Fellows in Leona.  Well, word on the sandy-streets it was a baptism, but as there was no pudgy little newborn anywhere in sight, I decided it must have been just a good old village block party.

Before this alleged baptism party began, Johannes, Naomi, Madeleine, Amanda, and I lounged under a mango tree in the village school yard catching up after their first two nights in the village (which turned out to be more rural than even I expected).  We spoke of bucket showers and constantly dusty feet, sharing food and sharing bedrooms, learning Wolof and learning how to survive without toilet paper…  I listened and offered advice, sharing both embarrassing and uplifting stories from my first time living in rural Senegal four years ago.

Before we knew it, our gabfest was adjourned by the sound of mbalax music blasting from a nearby speaker system.  The three girls and I were suddenly swept away by a large friendly woman in a neon yellow boubou that exaggerated her size.  We were led over to the women’s side of the baptism, and Johannes was shuttled to the men’s courtyard where he enjoyed the same meal as we did: white rice, onion sauce, and yapp, or meat.

Upon entering the women’s courtyard we were immediately bombarded with questions about our names, where we lived, and where our mothers were—testing our still-developing Wolof skills.  Curious children looked at us like they’d never seen four stranger beings in their lives (one girl began to cry every time I leaned in her general direction), and a sea of women decked out in boubous of every color, design and texture, with effortlessly folded foulards propped elegantly on their heads, continuously encouraged us to “Eat!  Eat!  Eat!”

After lunch, the only men in the courtyard—hired musicians—started playing their tiny drums called tam-tams.  Women shot up one by one pounding the sand with their bare feet and moving arms, legs, knees and rumps in all sorts of contradictory directions that somehow came together into a rhythmic dance.  Women would dance face-to-face, as though in some sort of battle, and then with a pop of the tam-tam, would jerk their hips one last time and break out in contagious laughter.  Just when the dance-battle was really heating up, with women singing and hooting and flailing every which way, my ride home tapped me on the shoulder and pointed at his watch.

Squashed into the backseat, I stared out the window at the people harvesting bissap, thinking about how impressively the Fellows were handling the transition.  Their perspective, maturity, and compassion are developed far beyond their 18 years.  While pondering “kids these days,” I got a text from Naomi that said, “You missed it!  We all got to dance in the middle.  Crazy times!”

Anyone who has ever lived as an outsider in a small community could tell you, taking a plunge like this (and surviving the reaction from the audience) is a true right of passage, an unofficial initiation into the group….a sort of baptism, if you will.