Of the many things I am not, one is being “good at names.” I cannot even follow up with that automatic first-line of defense: “Oh, but I am good at faces—I will never forget a face!” I have been known to embarrassingly forget many a face. It is a part of myself I have tried to improve, and I think here in Senegal, where remembering people’s names (and faces) is especially culturally important, is as good a place as any to hone that skill.
Senegalese names, much more so that we are used to in the States, tend to occur repeatedly among many different people, last names included. It seems that every day I am meeting yet another Mamadou, or another Aminata, and I can guess with surprising accuracy which one of the five or so common last names will get tacked on at the end. I personally know a handful of Mamadou Barrys, several Aïssatou Baldés, and so on. Folks here, though, do not find a redundancy in names confusing; to specify a particular “Moussa Mballo,” for example, one simply further identifies Mr. Mballo by mentioning his village, his father’s name, his occupation, or any other combination of markers, making it sufficiently clear who one is talking about. Because of such overlap in names, there is a cultural practice here of having “tokoras,” meaning “namesakes.” People with the same first name as one another often refer to each other affectionately as “my namesake,” creating an automatic bond, even if having just met.
When I meet someone new, I later write their name in a little black Moleskine notebook I carry with me everywhere. In it is my entire life in Senegal: recipes, phone numbers, Pulaar words, meeting notes, wish lists, sketches, early drafts of blog posts. Also in it are scribblings of names, like “Adama Barry – young bean seller chill personality,” and “Abdul Karim – boutique owner more attractive.”
But sometimes to cement a name in my memory without the aid of notes, I register it in my mind as two connected pieces of a jigsaw puzzle cut out of a larger image of the first people I knew with those names. For example, a boutique owner is named Samba Traore, so I memorized his name by linking Samba Kandé, my Pulaar teacher, and Awa Traore, the Peace Corps cross-cultural coordinator. A Fatoumata Mballo will be Fatoumata like my sitemate Nathalie’s name in Mbour, snapped together with Mballo like the last name of my friend Jason’s host family. Thus, new people in my life form a composite picture of countless other people I’ve met while in Senegal. Their names overlap one another so much that I think, in my individualistic American way, it’s unfair to their personalities that a hardworking women’s group leader who I like should share the same first and last name—and my mental image—with a bratty little child I happen to dislike.
In light of the name game, I’ve started to experiment with changing mine. Or maybe I should say, with rediscovering it. From the very beginning, during my first homestay during pre-service training, I was given the name Mariama Baldé. I smoothly transitioned into my permanent homestay with the same name, since Baldé is also my Kolda family’s last name, and my host mother here is named Mariama. They agreed there was no need to “bequeath” a new name unto me. From being in Kolda, I slowly learned that my real name, Maya, is also used as a Pulaar name, originating as a diminutive for Mariama. Just as with the American names Jack or Liza, originating from John and Elizabeth, one can be primarily named Maya without people constantly defaulting to Mariama. Over time, I have met several Mayas (also spelled like mine): Maya Diamanka, my Pulaar teacher’s mother; Maya Koité, my eight-year-old neighbor, and others.
I have started to tell people that my name is Maya Baldé. Not everyone catches on: some people still remember me as Mariama, or some people simply hear “Mariama” even when I say “Maya” several times, maybe because they expect only a few options when it comes to names beginning with “M.” But there are just as many people who understand “Maya” and know me as such. There is something nice about having people relate to me using my actual name; they seem relieved to know that it’s the “real” me. In addition, since Maya is somewhat less common than Mariama, I know that when someone calls out “Maya” there’s a greater likelihood that they are indeed addressing me.
Some volunteers like having an alternate identity, a sort of mask to separate their local personalities from their American ones. True, can be helpful to dip into your Senegalese alter-ego as Koumba or Aminata or Maïmouna, and thus throw yourself into your work, and perhaps even be a more bubbly, humorous (and thus more Senegalese) version of yourself. Then, when you need a break, you can slink back into your old American self and have a beer with volunteer friends, leaving your village persona behind. Some volunteers don’t even like the idea of local people knowing their real name, it’s private.
However, I have a versatile name. I am getting to know Senegalese people and their real names, so why not tell them mine? After all, it’s not as though my name is Penelope or Kimberly or Margaret—something hard for Senegalese people to pronounce and remember. My name is already one of theirs, so I might as well use it. Furthermore, my family in Kolda did not actually give me Mariama—I came in with the name and it tacitly stuck—so I am not negating a special identity they chose for me. And since Maya is a diminutive for Mariama anyway, it all sort of works out.
When I volunteered in New York as an English conversation partner, I met regularly with a Taiwanese woman named Mei Hsing, but she went by Kristie. Sure, it was easier for both of us for me to not repeatedly butcher her real name in a sad effort to “bring us closer.” But part of me wanted for her to give me the chance to get better at the pronunciation over time, to relate to her as she knew herself. “Kristie” (which she had chosen) was so arbitrary, so meaningless, it seemed. I respected her choice—she’s still Kristie to me—but if her name had been pronounce-able in English I may have encouraged her more to use it.
I’ll see how this name-changing experiment goes. At home, I am mostly still Mariama, and I am O.K. with that. My host mother likes having her “tokora.” But increasingly, (and professionally, as I like to think), I am re-emerging as Maya. We’ll see if it sticks.