Family relationships are very important in the Gambia and by European standards these relationships can be quite complicated leading to a wide range of words in Wolof for different family members. When the relationships are explained, the logic behind much of the naming seems clear but in these extended families it is a little difficult at times to remember who is who, so I hope I’ve understood the basics enough for a brief explanation.
Traditionally a Gambian man (assuming he is a Muslim) may take up to four wives at a time if he can support them, and it is not unusual for Gambian women to have five or more children, so he may quite easily father an extended family of 20 or 30 children by different wives, all of whom live together in the same compound, and thus the relationship between members of the family becomes quite complex. It is common for a man to have a wife (or perhaps more than one) who is considerably younger than he is, and so it is quite possible he will die first. Traditionally it would be quite usual for one of his brothers to then take the young widow for a wife, and continue to support the family. Perhaps this is why the terms “uncle” and “aunt” do not have quite the same meaning in Gambia as in the UK. Here the term “uncle” refers to your mother’s brother(s), and the term “aunt” to your father’s sister(s). Any brothers that your father might have are also regarded as being your father too, and the Wolof term for them (“baay bu ndaw”) means literally “little father”, – so if your biological father dies leaving a young widow and family one of the other little fathers may take his place. Similarly your mother’s sisters are called literally your “little mother”. A similar system of naming continues with those that we at home would call your “cousins,” who are called such only if they are children of your mother’s brother, or your father’s sister, as any children belonging to your father’s brothers or your mother’s sisters are regarded as being your brothers and sisters too. Are you still with me? Perhaps you will understand then that your only nephews and nieces are your sister’s children if you are a man, and your brother’s children if you are a woman. All others are regarded as your own children too!
The term “goro” for your parents in law can also refer to the older brother of the husband, or the older sister of the wife, while the term “peecargo” for brothers or sisters in law is restricted to someone who is married to your sister or brother, not someone who is married to your wife/husband’s sister or brother.
Then of course there are also different terms for first wife, last wife, and other co-wives – but perhaps I’ll leave them for another day.
[ As an aside, if a large number of men do in fact still take multiple wives, and as the overall ratio of males to females is roughly equal in the Gambia, – and this ratio is similar across each age group, I wonder what happens to all those spare men?]
Family ceremonies are also important and last week there was some kind of wedding celebration in the compound next door but one to where I am living. It sounded a great party and kept the street entertained for hours. There was a lot of loud music with the obligatory drumming and singing during the afternoon, and when I joined one of the little girls next door and stuck my head over the wall to have a peek it looked like a hen party with only a few men in evidence. There were two very smart cars parked on the street outside our gateway, decorated with balloons and what looked to be blobs of shaving foam in the shape of hearts, and about seven o’clock the girls moved out into the street as if preparing to leave. I think the bride is the girl in the red dress, but there’s no sign of a groom, so I still don’t know if this was the hen party, or just a bit of a warm up to get the sisters in the mood before going to the ceremony.