Africa Speaks: Customs 2

Kola nut merchant at Filingue market, Niger, 1992

Contents: Kola Nuts . . . Yennendi 1 . . .Id el Kebir. . . Yennendi 2 . . .
Twins . . . The Naming Ceremony . . . home page

Kola Nuts

Mahamane Hamadou

Last Saturday, I was conversing with one of my uncles about the importance of kola nuts in our traditional societies. Before this I hadn't given any social importance to the kola nut. For me kola had the same role as cigarettes, alcohol, beer, etc., that is to say, no major social role.

But my uncle explained to me that before a marriage is celebrated, a bundle of kola nuts is to be given by the bridegroom's family, otherwise the wedding ceremony will not take place. Kola nuts have also a very important role in the celebration of the birth of a baby or in the celebration of a person's funeral. At these two ceremonies kola nuts are to be distributed to all the attendants.

Kola nuts also symbolize hospitality in our traditional customs. When you entertain a stranger or any visitor, the first thing you have to give him is water, followed automatically by your best kola nuts to welcome him. When kola nuts are not given, then your visitor knows that he is not welcomed.

In the old days kola nuts had to be offered to the women who were dressing the hair of your wife or fiancee, but now it is more frequently money that is given to these women.

Despite the supremacy of money, kola continues to play an important social role in our society.

Copyright © 1998 Mahamane Hamadou


Yennendi 1

Issifi Boureima 5/11/92

Most people in our country declare they're Muslims; few will openly say they're of another religion. And yet ...

I remember when I was a child at primary school, there used to be a kind of ceremony called "Yennendi." It usually took place at the beginning (or sometimes in the middle) of the rainy season. It had nothing to do with Islam, and was even declared a pagan practice, forbidden by the Koran.

My parents used to tell me never to attend this ceremony. Many parents said the same to their children. But the remaining small group of the "Biri" (the practitioners) never got discouraged, although many marabouts said they would go to Hell after death.

In 1984 a hard drought occurred. There was no way to make the rain fall. Marabouts did all they could in prayers but in vain. No clouds appeared. Finally, the forbidden Yennendy ceremony took place. Unfortunately it took place on a Friday, a holy day for Muslims.

Curiously, almost the whole village attended the ceremony. Everyone was dressed in a curious and strange way. Old men and old women, all respected for their Muslim beliefs and practices, were there. I never thought I would see these old people dance, and yet they followed the procession all around the village two or three times.

At the end, the rain came and everything went back in its normal Muslim order. We all became Muslims once again.

I still can remember how the whole village became active and as if they had been preparing the ceremony for a long time, they instinctively forgot Islam for a while and returned to their traditional practices. Masks appeared. People went into trances. Nobody even listened to the call of the mosque. And the rain came.

It was a small piece of time devoted to other, smaller gods, and of course the almighty God would not blame them for that.

Only one day after the ceremony, people went back to telling the same Muslim tales and stories about the prophet and the angels.

But my father never took part in any of these "ceremonies of the devil." He said that his late sister tried in her youth to have a "Bori." She paid the fee and on the day she was possessed my grandfather used a whip on her and the Bori went away and never came again. People said my grandfather would die, but nothing happened ...
Copyright © 1998 Issifi Boureima

Petit Marche, Niamey, Niger, 1992

Id el Kibir

Abou Allassane 4/5/92

The Id El Kebir is a Muslim festival that takes place in my town once every year. I was one of the many people who celebrat- ed last year's Id El Kebir.

My father is a Muslim, thus all his wives and children are also Muslims. Every year my father slaughters two rams, one for his friends, and the other for our family.

On the Id El Kebir day, all Muslims go to "Idi," a wide place on the west side of town, to pray. "Idi" is also the name given to the prayers that are said that day.

The Imam, the spiritual leader, leads the prayers. At the end of the prayers, the Imam slaughters a ram at the Idi. He is the first to slaughter his ram; then all those present go home quickly to slaughter their animals.

On the day of slaughtering, at each corner, you can find many rams standing round a huge stack of firewood. If you have not already purchased your ram, you can buy it here.

In the afternoon, the people eat the entrails [organs] of the animal. The next day they eat the real flesh and distribute part of it to their friends and neighbors.

The Id El Kebir festival lasts two days; people do not work on these days.

On these festival days the little boys and girls wander throughout the town and visit the relatives, to get their "Barka da salla" which is a kind of congratulation Muslims say to each other that day. The little children who say "Barka da salla" are rewarded with coins.
Copyright © 1998 Abou Allassane


Camel with load of hay, Tillabery road, Niger, 1992

Yennendi 2

Idi Hassane 1/27/92

"Yennendy" is a ritual that is held every year a little before the rainy season. It is especially practiced during the years when the rainy season comes late.

One year, we were in late June and no drop of rain had fallen so far. The "Holay"--the people who believe in supernatural forces--gathered and decided to organize a "yennendy" session so that rain would fall in our country. I had never seen this ritual before, though people talk much about it, with great interest.

The previous evening, the village spokesman had invited everyone to the sacred place, which is located outside the village, under a huge gao tree. Early in the morning, the place was full of people: men, women, children, old and young, all were there under the big gao tree. All the Holay wore black clothes and tall hats.

They were barefoot. Each of them carried a long whip. Among them were two men who wore masks. In the middle there was a calabash full of cold water, and near this calabash was a hole that had been dug earlier in the morning by a young man, as required by the Holay. Because, as they said, the morning is the most appropriate time, when bad spirits were absent.

The two men who were wearing masks walked around the hole, reciting something in a strange and unusual way. At the same time, an old woman, who also wore black clothes, was beating on the calabash with two small sticks.

Suddenly one of the men in black clothes cried out strongly and trembled all over. Then two other men, also wearing dark clothes, sprang out of the crowd and began beating the man who had just cried out. He went into a trance, and he continued saying strange words and waving his hands.

The men beat him so fast and so hard that I was afraid, because I thought that the man would die. But as he was "possessed" by supernatural forces, he did not seem to notice the beating. I even heard him laughing. Then, in the moment following his beating, I saw a sort of a charm, an organic chain, came out of his mouth.

Then the Holay said that this meant that the villagers had to sacrifice two hens of different color to the "Sy," which is the god of rain in Zarma dialect. The two hens, a red one and a black one, were brought by an old woman. The villagers are always prepared for these circumstances.

Baino, the old Holay, killed the two hens near the sacred hole so that the fresh blood flowed into the hole. Before they set fire to the straw around the sacred hole, everyone took the flowing fresh blood with his right index finger and put it on his forehead.

The Holay said that it was a sign of "Good wishes." According to their belief, they grilled the two hens without plucking them.

After this began the dancing and singing session, executed by all the Holay. This dancing lasted until sunset. Two days after this Holay ceremony, the rain fell abundantly in our area.

Thus I myself began to trust these "Holay" and I began also to believe that in the African context, supernatural forces exist, and therefore have power and effects on our everyday life.
Copyright © 1998 Idi Hassane

Landscape at Niger river, near Rio Bravo, Niger, 1992


Saidou Aboubacar 6/28/91

In my country, each ethnic group has its own ways, beliefs, customs, and traditions. My village is known all over the country for its barbaric practice of rejecting and killing far away in the forest all new born twin babies. This practice is like a heavy load over the heads of the village inhabitants, yet the practice continues. So now, as a witness, I will tell how people carry on this kind of ceremony.

In the eyes of the elders, twin babies are ill fated and have no right to live among the people, lest the gods strike the village with starvation and misfortune.

In the past, before people knew that new born twin babies bring misfortune with them, my village, one day, was angrily struck by one of our several gods. To find out what was the matter, the elders consulted the oracle who told them the reason for the problem. The oracle said that twins are, spiritually speaking, the messengers of a god who is the dreadful enemy of the god who had struck the village with terror.

So from this time, every time twins are born in any family in the village, the elders gather together to decide their fate.

The procedure consists in dragging the twins out of the village to the big forest where they are sacrificed. To do this, the elders ask for a drummer who is supposed to beat his drum to inform all the villagers of the matter. When the people gather at big meeting place, one of the elders announces the information, although the drummer has already told it through the village. After this, the elder asks for twenty men to carry out this barbaric ceremony.

I have personally witnessed the ceremony. The men dance around the children for a while, making much noise. This is a way to awaken and warn the god who is concerned with this matter.

They pour a lot of wine on the faces of the newborn twins. This act symbolizes their benediction. How contradictory these men are! They reject the twins and then bless them.

The men go through some other trivial actions, and eventually the god asks them to kill the twins. This is done by putting each of the little babies in a basket and hanging it from the highest tree of the forest.

Then the god commands the men to go, leaving behind them the pitiful twins, helplessly and hopelessly crying.

When I witnessed this ceremonial event I was very shocked.

The bitterness grew deeper when it came the day my own twin brothers experienced the same situation. That day I was unable to control myself and spit many abuses at the elders and the gods and to the rest, mainly those who share this tradition.

Although the actual significance of this sacrifice is to avoid the collective suffering of the village, at the cost of only a few babies, I cannot agree with it. The elders are simply superstitious. They lack consideration for human beings, and defend the interest of selfish gods.

This experience has had a great impact on my life. Most of the time, when it comes time to kill twin babies, the elders prevent me from participating, for they already know my position.

I myself avoid taking part in this so-called ceremony because I can not bear the cry of little babies left alone in a wicked forest.

This ceremony, which I witnessed a number of times in my village, was wicked. Having a respect for mankind, I was greatly shocked by this barbaric practice. It has marked and shaped all my life. When it comes to this practice I am steadfast: I give no ears to the elders and the gods.
Copyright © 1998 Saidou Aboubacar

Market women at Niger river ferry (toward Tera), 1992

The Naming Ceremony

Maidoka Moussa Rahamatou 6/14/1991

Last year my uncle, living in Maradi, asked all the family to come to his son's naming ceremony.

My uncle has many wives because he wants to have many sons and daughters. For him, girl children are wealth, because of the many gifts prospective sons in law must make to the father of the bride. The son in law has to build houses for his father in law, and work in his fields. This is part of a man's wealth.

Boy children are a important source of labor. A lot of sons can make an imposing funeral for their father, and people will respect the father's manhood, wealth, and social position.

I went to Maradi, before the rest of the family, because I was on holiday. The journey was very long, because it was in a very old lorry which broke down many times and the driver had to repair it. I arrived a few days before the ceremony, which was to take place seven days after the baby's birth. I tried to help people to prepare to receive the many guests coming.

My uncle went to see the oldest and most respected man of the village, and asked him to came for the ceremony to choose a name. They usually take names from the calender, or from ancestors or living parents or relatives. My uncle gave the man kola nuts to thank him.

The mother gave kola nuts and chewing gum to some children to distribute to her friends. This is like an invitation. Many women won't come to the ceremony if they don't receive these things.

The day of the ceremony, people woke up early, at 5 AM. They wanted to pray first and arrange the house. We made a big circle with chairs in front of the house, and we put mats in the center for old men who did the reading of the Koran and gave the name of the baby.

After this, the women of the family began to prepare breakfast because many people came without having any time to take it at home.

First a lot of griots came and tried to help people to ar range the place. Men sat outside and women went inside with the happy mother. I saw people that I haven't seen for a long time. Men shook hands and greeted each other asking about family and jobs.

At 7 AM, griots announced that the ceremony would begin. Everybody sat and took part in the "fathia" [ceremony]: people were very quiet and joined hands. A man read the Koran. The name chosen was Ibrahim, and you could hear a lot of people saying "long days for Ibrahim." (I was very disappointed, because I did not like this name.)

After this, people shook hands again, and you could hear a lot of noise. It was the end of the sacred ceremony, and it seemed that during the sacred ceremony, when the man read the Koran, people were quiet in fear of God; and after, they still respected God but felt free to talk.

People gave presents to the family. Men gave money to the father to help him to feed people this day, women gave presents to the women.

It was very hot in the mother's room. Everybody wanted to give his presents and to see the baby; this in fact was to show that you came to the ceremony. The mother had to write down what each person gave her because she would have to give double when that person had a ceremony.

I saw beautiful women with beautiful clothes and gold bracelets and jewelry, because this is the moment for them to show that their husbands love them and buy them clothes, and to make other women jealous.

Some women went to the market to buy cooking things. There was a lot of meat because for the ceremony a sheep was slaughtered by the master of ceremonies, the old man I mentioned before.

They didn't come back soon, because many women in the market are hard to bargain with. One market woman will say "take this" and another will say "No, this is better." The women came back around 11:30 AM, and began cooking. They had to make a lot of different meals: rice, maize, yams. This variety was necessary because each guest had a different preference. Someone doesn't like yams, for example, and he wants something else to eat. In Africa, people say "your guest is your God." You have to satisfy him.

There were lot of hungry people to feed. The women finished cooking and we ate and drank. After, some of us danced. Night was coming and we were very tired.

The following day, a car came to take the old men back. My uncle went also and he asked me to go with him to the priest of the village to ask what would be the life of little Ibrahim.

We went to the priest's hut. He greeted us and took us inside. It was very dark inside his hut, crowded with many things: animals' heads, for example. Then he sat in front of us and my uncle gave him money. The priest spread some powder on the floor, threw the money on the floor also, and then made some marks with his fingers. He told us he was going to say the truth about the boy's life, and that we had to know that "the earth never lies." If everything he said did not happen, he swore that he would never be a priest again in his life.

He began by saying that my uncle had a baby, a son, in these past few days. This baby would grow and become very courageous, rich, generous--but--the father had to make sacrifices. My uncle was asked to provide a goat, a sheep, and chickens. Only a black and white chicken could be used because the priest had to calm black and white spirits first.

The priest prepared a meal for the mother because with her milk the baby could be protected. He gave my uncle a rare herb to put in water and sprinkle on the baby for the next seven days. It was a kind of purification and by doing it, all the spirits were driven out. If not, the baby could be sick and he might die.

When we went out I asked my uncle if he believed in all this. He said that this priest was one of the greatest of the country. He could cure illness as well as hospital doctors. He inherited his knowledge from his father, who inherited from his father. The priest used natural and magic power, and he knew good medicines and herbs to cure illness quickly.

Uncle said this priest had performed this service to all his children. I reminded my uncle that he had lost two children. He said that he believed in this priest but he lost his son because it was fate and God only can decide.

(The consequence is that my uncle, a good Muslim, still practices animism.)

Now, my cousin Ibrahim is one year old and he is an interesting, intelligent little boy.
Copyright © 1998 Maidoka Moussa Rahamatou

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