My new name

Sweat leaked down my cheeks and off my nose although I stood in nothing but my underwear. It was eight days after arriving in country — only the fourth with this family — and my Gambian sisters were stripping me bare below the corrugate iron roof that absorbs the African heat.

After wrapping me in our mother’s best dress, a bright pink outfit with gold embroidery, they ordered our small brothers into the bedroom to fan me while they slung necklace after necklace around my neck before settling on the right match.

“You have to look perfect,” my 18-year-old sister Abie said. “This is your day. You’re going to be one of us, Gambian!”

They shuttled me to an adjoining bedroom so our mother could do some ooh-ing and ahh-ing of her own. “The head scarf!” she cried.

Another sister went to work, her thin fingers twisting the stiff material this way and that, to pin a monstrous masterpiece atop my head.

“Iyooo!” our mother shouted in her boisterous tone. “Alright!”

“After today, you are not Jess,” my 22-year-old sister Maimuna squealed. “We will give you a Gambian name.”

Muslims in The Gambia typically name their babies on the eighth day in a big ceremony in front of the whole village. Babies are often named after a family member or important religious figure. The imam takes a piece of the babies hair to make a juju, or good luck charm.

My mother locked her arm in mine and ushered me outside to the mango tree’s shade. The other Jola Peace Corps trainees, also dressed in their families’ borrowed wares, sat with me on the prayer mat laid out in the dust.

Then we waited. And waited. And waited some more.

The sun beat down as our sisters insisted we cover up more, pulling veils across our backs and over our heads.

Our mothers prepared bowls of water with coos, rice and cotton to symbolize good juju, or luck, and fertility.

The sun continued blazing overhead as villagers and family members flocked to the porch, wearing their best attire.

In a theatrical tongue, the village griot, or historian, spoke of our family history, special naming day and told the villagers why we are here. She asked that they spread the word that we are Gambians with Gambian names, and that the people should no longer point and call us “toubab” (whitey) in the streets.

She acted as if she forgot what our names would be, calling on our families to pay her so she could remember. My mothers passed me the only crisp dalasis I’ve seen in this country. My father’s second wife, Fatou, gave me dalasi after dalasi quicker than I could pay the griot.

“Fatoumata Colley!” the griot finally cried, a proclamation that sent my mother, into a quick burst of dance to celebrate her new “toma,” or namesake.

She settled down and the imam (religious leader) and village elders prayed for our safekeeping, vowing to protect us during our service while our sisters whispered the translations and guided our hands.

The real music and dancing would have to wait until after this holy month of Ramadan.

My mother, Fatou, for whom I was named, bounced over to me with glee, wrapping her arms around me as she planted kisses on my cheeks.

“Fatoumata is a special Gambian name, you know. She was the Prophet Muhammad’s daughter,” my beaming mother said, still clutching my hand. “And you, you are my ‘toma!’ And me, I am very happy!”

–JDF