Kwita Izina

2 Oct

In Rwanda it is tradition to have a baby naming ceremony sometime after the baby is 2 or 3 months old. Up until that time the baby remains nameless and is called perhaps by its father’s name if it is a boy, but most often ‘akabebe’ (small baby) or just bebe. Similarly you can call the parents mama/papa akabebe because calling someone ‘parent of ____’ is a sign of respect in Rwanda.

My friends had their baby naming ceremony on Saturday September 22nd. Since this husband and wife are like brother and sister to me I was asked to come help prepare for the ceremony in addition to making the special dish of macaroni and cheese.

Friday afternoon I headed over to check up on preparations and to visit. They had just finished making banana juice, which would be served to the ‘party crashers’. The neighbors knew that there would be a ceremony the next day and banana juice would be served so quite a few of them stopped by to get some.

I headed over the next morning around 10 after I had done my own weekend chores, cooked the macaroni and cheese, and water for bathing later that afternoon. At first things didn’t look promising. In the village, all cutting of vegetables is done with a super dull knife and a plate on your lap. I should also mention that every girl is taught how this should be done, and there’s only one correct way! As Mama akabebe was running through the list of things that needed to be cut asking me if I ‘knew how’ to each one I had to reply no. The only thing my family let me cut during training was the cabbage. I was handed a thing of carrots and told to slice them, but things weren’t going so well. Then I had an idea so I ran home and grabbed my own fairly sharp knife, and cutting boards and headed back to the house, ready to get down to business. I chopped veggies for 3.5 hours in the sun while chatting with the other folks who had also come to help and explaining that no, the sun would not kill me if I drank plenty of water and wore ‘lotion to protect my skin from the sun’. I sliced carrots and leeks, cut several kilos worth of small eggplants in half, and then when I could no longer avoid the cabbage, I started in on that. It’s very important in Rwandan cuisine that the cabbage is sliced very finely, almost shredded which is a struggle for me. After toiling away at three cabbages and feeling nice and rosey from the sun, I decided to call it quits 30 minutes earlier that I had planned to go home and bathe with two cabbages left for someone else.

I can’t even begin to explain the amount of food that was prepared. They were expecting 100 people to show up, with maybe 30% of those people actual guests. You see party crashing is common practice in Rwanda because culture dictates that you must serve every guest something to eat and drink. With most ceremonies there are two strata of guests, those who get to serve themselves and drink a fanta/beer and those who are served a pre-determined portion and some kind of homebrew, in this case banana juice. The second group usually aren’t served a piece of meat either.

There ceremony was scheduled to start at 3 but didn’t start until 4 or 4:30 which makes sense since they were still cooking frantically when I left at 1:30.

The ceremony started with a procession of the godparents, parents and grandparents. The godmother led the way carrying the baby and all of the guests who were seated sang a song about naming the baby as the procession made their way to the seats up front. Like all Rwandan events there was an MC who started with a prayer. The godfather spoke, welcoming the visitors and offering them igikoma. There was a representative of the dad’s coworkers who made a speech, something about bringing Rwanda porridge as a gift, then a representative of the mother’s coworkers, again the same thing. Then the god father served each of the representatives igikoma aka a bottle of fanta. Oh yea and there was also a speech from the grandfather but what he said was lost on me.

Then it was time to eat. First the family went to the self-service table then the distinguished guests in groups (I was one of them). The bulk of people, villagers were served plates of food and a fanta bottle that had been filled with banana juice. The kids were all lumped together and served a giant platter of rice and fries. It was pretty quiet for awhile as 100 people mawed down on a ridiculous amount of food.

Then it was time for the naming ceremony. It’s tradition that first children come forward and offer names for the baby. I guess often they will say silly things but these kids all offered fairly decent names. There’s a recorder who writes them all down. Then all of the guests take turns offering their suggestions for names. It’s a tradition that if the parents select the name you offer that you’re given some kind of prize, maybe a bag of potatoes, a hoe, or some other valuable house hold thing. However, these days most parents have the name picked out beforehand (as in this case).

After everyone had offered their name ideas (one of my coworkers suggested naming the baby after a Rwandan rapper: J Polly), the dad stood up and gave a speech, thanking everyone and thanking God. Then announced the baby’s name: Gihozo Leo Axcel (not sure how to spell the last name). Which was none of the names suggested, nor did it include an English name like they asked me to help them pick, nor the name of the father as they told me they wanted to use.

After one last prayer most of the guests were off to their homes before night arrived. Remarkably it was only around 5:30 which means that the ceremony was less than two hours. It’s not common for anything, meetings, ceremonies, or church to be less than 2 hours in Rwanda. There was some group picture taking, I was mobbed by all the neighbors/kids to take pictures with my camera and slowly people left.

As the evening wound down, I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do. There were quite a lot of visitors who were staying the night, and the women were busy working away to cook the evening’s meal. I decided that I’d stay and visit with the family members from outside the area. I always like spending time with peoples’ families because I feel like it reveals so much about them. Plus, there was plenty of opportunity for baby holding. And I got to hang out with my friend’s niece who is one of the cutest, sweetest, intelligent six year olds. She came to stay with my friends for a week while her parents were at a training a couple months ago so I met her then and was happy to hear that she would be coming. She ended up falling asleep on my lap.

The Adventist friends arrive in the evening after the conclusion of their Sabbath. I was flattered when they (indirectly) paid me compliments, explaining to the visitors what a nice girl I was and how I knew ‘ALL Kinyarwanda’.

The young woman who lives in the other house in my compound also arrived in the evening to visit and we made plans to go home together since it was dark and not good to go home alone. I kept asking her if she wanted to go home and kept getting, ‘in a little bit’. I tried once unsuccessfully, and even got as far as saying some goodbyes, but then was told it was almost time to eat (again) and how could I possibly go home before eating? Never mind that I was still stuffed from the large meal I ate just a few hours before. In the end we stayed to eat and finally as it was 9:30 and I was leaving for a meeting at 5 the next morning, I apologized about leaving, but I was tired and had an early morning.

They had borrowed my table to use for the self-service and I discussed with my friend about bringing it on Monday since I was leaving early the next morning and it was late. However, as I was leaving my friend told me he had something to tell me and then along comes two boys carrying my table, which requires some maneuvering to get into my kitchen. All I could do was laugh. So we had two teenage boys escort us home with the table.


All in all it was a really good day, and I’m happy that I got to visit with so many people. Because I knew most of the people I was even able to understand what was happening during the ceremony for the first time ever.

As I write this I am acutely aware of how my grammar has deteriorated and how I’m constantly wondering if I explain things clearly enough since the things I talk about are all fairly commonplace to me now yet foreign concepts to most of the readers. Haha.


5 Responses to “Kwita Izina”

  1. Lily Warrior October 2, 2012 at 4:36 am #

    Wonderful sharing! Thanks for another amazing adventure, Heidi.

  2. Jamie Wulfekuhle October 3, 2012 at 7:18 am #

    Wow! That’s so neat! Thanks for sharing this story! I really like the idea of naming ceremonies. I like making the naming a community event. Names are a big deal! I wonder if I could get away with a lower scale version of a naming ceremony….

    • Sue TE Velde October 4, 2012 at 5:58 am #

      Thanks for sharing this special event with us! We are so proud of you and the work you are doing there! We pray for you every day,
      Love, Grandpa and Grandma te Velde

    • Margarette Grant - aka MAG November 2, 2012 at 7:09 pm #

      Your writing is still quite good, and I loved hearing about the naming ceremony. There must be a strong sense of community in Rawanda that folks share the special time of a new born with so many people. You are learning much that you can bring back when you return.

  3. George H. te Velde October 3, 2012 at 2:36 pm #

    George and Sue te Velde
    Oct 3, 2012
    What a great time you must of had and something you may not have had if you were home. We are very happy that you joined the peace cor. ;It is a time you will never forget. Makes us want to be there also.

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