Tanzania. Maasai. A child’s name-giving

Maasai life is full of feasts, festivities and occasions to celebrate. Looking at a Maasai man’s or woman’s life cycle gives a fair overview of the rich and full life they celebrate. This will become clear with the description of a particular ceremony: a child’s name-giving.

During the first four to six months of life, a baby does not have an official name. Until the ceremony of receiving a proper name, it will have a nickname or its mother will call it with many of the terms of endearment that the Maasai have for their little ones: enkutuk ai my mouth, enkoshoke ai my womb, or paranai born when I was visiting. Sometimes the nickname survives after the official name-giving ceremony.

At the enkidungoto e nkaina ceremony, the decision of a proper name and the embamoto e nkerai, both the child and the mother get shaved. For this celebration, honey-beer is brewed in a bag or in a large gourd and plenty of food is cooked. An atmosphere of festive expectation is noticeable in the enkang, the homestead.

Late in the afternoon, everyone goes to a tree outside the settlement to pray to God, men and women together. The mother of the child to be shaved stands in the middle of the gathering. People pray to God for both of them. When prayers end, they all go back into the enkang.

A little later, the woman who is to shave both the mother and child arrives. Everything is now ready for the ceremony to begin. A healthy cow’s hide is laid out and an elder’s stool is placed near it. Milk mixed with water is provided on the top of a gourd together with a new razor blade.

The stool is placed in the middle of the area on top of the skin and the young mother holding her child sits down on the skin near the stool together with the woman who will do the shaving. Milk is poured onto the slightly concave seat of the stool and blended with enkare pus, the milk and water mix, from the lid of the calabash.

The leftover enkare pus is poured over the mother’s head and she is shaved – starting from the right side of her head. The shaved hair cannot fall onto the cowhide. The shaver catches it and places it on the stool in a ring around the small pool of enkare pus. An opening like the village gate is left in the hair circle and a small stick like the oltim- bush at all village gates – is symbolically placed in the opening. The child is shaved with the enkare pus which is on the stool and its hair is placed in a circle on top of its mother’s hair. When the child is shaved the stool covered with hair is lifted very gently, whilst the child’s mother picks up the hide to place it, folded, on her bed.

The child’s mother then sits in the middle of the bed and the woman who did the shaving brings the stool with the hair making sure that the enkare pus is not spilt. In her left hand, she carries leaves of fresh lipia bush and the child’s mother unfolds the hide. The leaves are put on top of dried branches, and then she pours the hair onto those leaves, covering them with the remaining wet leaves. The hide is brought back to the bed and stretched out as usual.

The woman who did the shaving picks up a stick to clean the calabash and dips it into the gourd with the residual fresh milk. She lets the milk drip onto her hands twice while the mother holds fat or butter on a spoon. She then hands these to the woman who did the shaving, who mixes the milk and the fat and smears it on the mother, beginning with the shoulders from right to left. She then moves to her waist always applying the milk and fat. When anointing the shoulders, she says: I give you the beaded necklace of both boys and girls, and arriving at her waist she says: I give you the waist belt of offspring. When this is done she puts the stool away so that no one will use it until the child’s father sits on it to give the child a name. The woman who did the shaving is given food. She will go her own way while the young mother stays inside the house.

Meanwhile, two men and two women have been chosen – together they will debate a name for the child until they all agree. The elder who was chosen first repeats the new child’s name to the father four times, and the father responds by saying oee in blessing. The same elder repeats the announcement to the mother in blessing. Then the second elder does the same. This is repeated with the chosen women. In the next stage, the two elders bless the name of the child, while seated, saying: “May this name settle with you, May it go with you in honour, May it be called out by you, May this name follow other children”. This ends the ceremony in the early evening. The elders then receive honey-beer.

The next day at dawn, the mother awakes and makes a bull get up to catch its first dung before it drops to the ground. She uses it to anoint the child’s head. Then she goes to milk the cow. When she returns to the house she first removes the stool, anoints it with fat, and then gives it to her husband so that he may sit on it. This concludes the entire ceremony. The woman will not wash herself in the open or in the river until her head is shaved once again with enkare pus. She will then be free to get washed however she wishes. (Frans Mol) – File Swm

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