Saturday, October 9, 2010

Name Games

Written today! 09 October 2010

I'm sitting in the APROFES auberge, my temporary home and sanctuary in Kaolack, drinking sugary tea, writing blog posts and journal entries, reading an illuminating-yet-depressing book about international development, mentally preparing myself for an uber-religious Senegalese baptism, and plotting my return to Gambia...

Someone pointed out that I haven't explained what "toubab" means. This word is so ingrained in my daily experiences that I absent-mindedly assume that everyone knows what it means. Of course not. Many of the small details about Africa are so pervasive that I neglect to share them in my stories and descriptions. That's too bad, since many of the most striking things about Africa are the small ones.

So, toubab. Here's what Wikipedia has to say about it:

"Toubab" is a Central and West African name for a person of European descent ("whites"). Used most frequently in the Gambia, Senegal, and Mali, the term does not have derogatory connotations by itself, though it is also frequently associated with "wealthy traveller" (if one can afford to travel, then he/she must be rich). The word can also be applied to any perceived traveller - even those of black African descent with an identifiably different phenotype such as (whiter) Cape Verdeans and (blacker) Nigerians, up to foreign-raised locals (thus with a different accent) or a visiting expatriate...The most likely earliest derivation is from the Wolof word for Europe (Tougal). As Wolof means the people of Jollof, Toubab means the people of Tougal.

As wikipedia states, the term itself is not derogatory. "C'est n'est pas mechant," explained one of my Senegalese co-workers, though it can definitely be annoying. Children constantly yell "Toubab! Toubab!" wherever I go. Seriously, everywhere -- in bustley city streets, along quiet village paths, and even from the side of the road as I pass by in a vehicle. I'm totally fine with the label when it comes from children, but have little patience when it comes from adults. But, I packed my sense of humour and ability to light-heartedly laugh at myself (as recommended by Lonely Planet) so I'm usually able to hide my frustration. I do, however, humoursly lay down the law with anyone that actually wants to talk to me or be my friend.

"Toubab? Tuduma toubab. Haddy laa tudda." (Toubab? My name isn't toubab. My name is Haddy.)

Yup, my name is now Haddy. Haddy Kah. (Or, Haddy Ceesay if I'm in Tchisse Masse). In Gambian and Senegalese culture, namesakes (tomas) are very important. Names are never(?) chosen willy-nilly and newborns are always named after someone that may end up playing a large role in their life. It's not uncommon, I believe, for a child to be sent to live with their toma for a significant length of time.

Here, most toubabs get Wolof names both because of the importance of tomas (and everyone wants to have a toubab names after them!) and, more practically, because no one can pronounce or remember our Western names! Some toubabs resist their Wolof name, but I think that being Haddy is a small but symbolic way to better integrate into the culture and express mutual respect. People are thrilled when they ask my name and, expecting something Western, I respond with "Haddy." Having a Wolof name also identifies me as not-a-tourist, which is pretty important for my sanity and helps me to build relationships.

My toma is a woman named Haddy Kah (obviously). She is from El Hadje Mayebe and is the president of the farmer group that we work with there. During my village stay, I stayed with her family.

Unfortunately, Leanne's toma is also named Haddy. She got the name first, so my Wolof name is a bit sub-optimal, but it took me a long time to get a toma and I've embraced my name. I'm Haddy Kah and she's Haddy Fal Nying, so hopefully there won't be too much confusion when we're in the same village.

Learning and remembering names has been pretty challenging. I carry a little book for Wolof grammar and phrases and have taken to writing names in there, if I know that I'm going to see someone again. But this only works when I meet one or two people at a time, and I can actually remember their name (and face) after the conversation. Names are especially challenging when we arrive in a new place (like a new village) and meet 70 people in the span of 20 minutes. It's even harder when we meet many of them in the dark!

People are pretty forgiving though, and I think (hope) that they understand how difficult it can be for us when they are always mixing up the names of the three toubabs that have visited the village. (In Tchisse Masse, I stayed with the same family as Margaret, and was constantly being called Alimatu. I'm pretty sure that there are some children there that never did understand that Margaret and I are not the same person.) Exclaiming "suma xarit!" ("my friend!") seems to be a pretty good alternative to actually remembering someone's name.

Jamma rek,
Haddy Kah Toubab

No comments:

Post a Comment