Katherine Meek Kaingbanja


After I returned from Kailahun, I’ll be honest with you, I was beat.  So tired that I made a promise to myself and (I think) out loud to my driver that I was not going to be leaving Freetown for a SOLID month after that.

But then I showed up at school on Tuesday and a student of mine, after greeting me, said, “Good news.  I’m going to name my girl child after you.”  (Girl child is how it’s said in Krio: “Gyal Pikin”.)  I didn’t even know he and his wife were expecting.  But they were and the little girl had arrived the week before.  

What I knew about baby naming in Sierra Leone up to this point was that there was an event called a pulnado which is a baby-naming ceremony.  It happens a week or two (or longer) after the child is born.  And the name isn’t shared until it is called out at the ceremony.

I had attended a pulnado back in February for a few friends who are adopting a child here.  It was a multi-cultural pulnado, as the couple is from western countries, so there were international friends present along with their Sierra Leonean community.  So it wasn’t quite a traditional Sierra Leone naming ceremony.  But what drew me in was the playfulness of the actual naming.

The person doing the naming would stand and do a big lead up to naming the child but then they wouldn’t actually name them.  It’s subtle.  I’m trying to remember how they did it.  There is a ritual around giving financial gifts to the family at the pulnado, but they do it around the naming time.  The person announcing the name won’t make the announcement until they feel that the family has received enough donations.  So people will come and give their gift as a way of spurring on the naming.  They would psych you out and pretend like they were about to announce the name but then call for more donations instead.  It goes on like this for several rounds.  And people will come forward and give their 5,000 or 10,000 leone donation.  

Then finally when the baby is named, there is so much rejoicing.  Cheers and cries ring out as the person who calls the name speaks it several times in a row.  It’s awesome.

So I knew about that ceremony itself but I knew literally nothing about what it meant culturally to have a child named for you.  So when my student Tamba told me that he was naming his daughter after me, I felt both immediately honored and immediately uncertain.  

I told him how honored I felt and how much it meant to me.  And I thanked him.  But then I kind of awkwardly went to my office.

A few minutes later, Tamba knocked on the door and said he was serious about the naming.  He asked me what name I’d like him to use.  That immediately felt too much my own decision.  Instead we talked about what my name is and what it means.  He landed on Katherine (which means “pure one”).  I asked him directly what it meant to be the child’s namesake in terms of my involvement moving forward.  Sierra Leoneans don’t speak quite so directly and so he told me that however I wanted to be involved would be great.

Tamba told me that the pulnado was going to be the following weekend in his village in Kono District…a 6 hour drive from home.  I had told my friend I would support him at a local church that Sunday in Freetown as he was running for his church’s person of the year (which is a whole ‘nother blog post).  That commitment combined with a tight budget and my travel exhaustion, and I felt sure it wasn’t going to be possible to make it.  So I told Tamba as he left the room to make sure he took lots of photos because I wasn’t going to be able to come.  He paused at that and looked somewhat confused.  But he said that he would and left my office.

I, feeling very much unsure of how I was handling the whole thing, went next door to my colleague, Professor Moiba’s office.  I asked him what all of this meant in terms of what I ought to be doing.  He said, “Well the most important thing is your presence at the ceremony.” 


(On a side note, one thing I didn’t anticipate about being a missionary is how the longer you’re here the more you notice that everything you do is just one tick off.  You would think that after some time those things would slow down.  But actually I find that they seem to increase in frequency the longer I’m here.  I showed up to an important worship service one time with everything right, and very proud of myself for all the effort I put in to being prepared, only to find that everyone was wearing their green stole except me.  I was wearing red.  I confirmed the color of that stole no less than four times with different people.  There had been a last minute change and I didn’t get the memo.  

I got all the way to Kailahun with enough money—always in cash—extra water, snacks, traditional African wear, my clerical collar, all the things. And then I realized I should have brought my robe.  “You didn’t bring your robe?!” they all said.  Isn’t it obvious you should have brought your robe, Katie?  Well I thought since I didn’t have a job in the ceremony I would just be sitting in the congregation for worship.  I should have known better.  Of course all the clergy present at the church dedication would be sitting at the chancel…IN THEIR ROBES!  When that happened in Kailahun, my clergy colleague said, “Well, it’s ok.  You’re a missionary.”  I guess I get a pass.  We missionaries always get it wrong.

A Sierra Leonean friend of mine recently said, “It’s just a dance.  Easy.  It’s all just a dance.”  Then after a pause said, “Oh that’s right.  I guess you don’t know the steps.”

Exactly.  In so many ways it seems the longer I’m here the more it is very clear that I just don’t know the steps to the dance.

Ok. Side not over.)

After confirming with my driver that another weekend trip would be ok with him, I remedied my faux pas quickly and told Tamba that I would most certainly be at the ceremony.

I found my way to the mechanic in my fourth visit in 10 days to change the break pads and then downtown to buy some baby clothes.  On our way to the mechanic my driver Navo said, “You know, it’s a BIG DEAL to have someone name their child after you.  It means they want their child to be like you, to live up to your name.”  The more I have learned the more humble I feel.  So so so unworthy.  But also so so so grateful.

A few days later we hit the road once more, this time for Kono.  I made it there after a few bumps along the way to find that baby girl Katherine Meek Kaingbanja is just perfect.

You can follow the rest of the story through my photos below.

After I handed over my leones, this was the dance that followed. My heart bursts a little bit every time I watch this.

Turns out it wasn’t just water in the fuel. It was mixed fuel I’d picked up. And I think it must have been a full tank of it. So they removed the fuel tank, poured out a mix of diesel, petrol, AND water, replaced the fuel pump, fuel filter and another thing. And I really did swear off the provinces for a SOLID month after this.

Katie Meek