What’s in a name? For me, at first, nothing. My Senegalese name was bestowed upon me by a random man who happened to be in the offices of my apprenticeship supervisor on my first day in Sebikotane. “What’s your name? Emily? Here you will be Aminata – Ami, for short. Ami, Emily…you see? They sound the same.” Thus unceremoniously christened, I began my village life as Ami Toure.
Fast forward nearly seven months to today; I’m mere days away from moving back to the United States, leaving my host family, my community, and my newly-constructed Senegalese identity behind me. I’ll go back to my old life, my old home, my own country, and become Emily Hanna, nondescript suburban teenager once more. But not without some reluctance – I’ve loved being Aminata.
Perhaps it was inevitable, considering the circumstances (living in West Africa, speaking two new languages, living with relative independance for the first time,) but Ami has had some pretty extraordinary experiences.
Some were unpleasant; she’s been caught in post-soccer-match stone-throwing riots and nearly jolted off a moving car-rapide. She’s had to defend herself from legions of incresingly creepy – and some downright disgusting – men, quickly learning how to say “I don’t want a husband, leave me in peace” in Wolof (for the record: man bugguma jekker, baay sama jamm.) She’s weathered three bouts of ringworm, countless scrapes and bruises, and an illness identified by the local health post only as La Grippe.
But even more memorable are the good times. Ami took charge of a class of 50 preschoolers who greeted her exuberantly each morning with “Bonjour Tata Ami!” and began a family planning/reproductive health class for local teens. She and her host sister stayed up late discussing everything from ex-boyfriends to cross-cultural gender roles. She’s had her shells cast by a local medicine woman (outlook: good.) She’s climbed mountains and plunged into freezing waterfall pools, bodysurfed Atlantic breakers, and scurried up baobab trees. She’s ridden a camel. She’s cooked a little, cleaned a LOT, won arguments in Wolof, and danced in the center of a neighborhood sabar. She’s made lifelong friends. She’s fallen in love with Senegal.
It’s difficult to accept that Ami and I are the same person. Sometimes as I walk home in the evening, the low-hanging sun bronzing the baobab trees and spreading my shadow long on the sand, I marvel at how the last seven months seem to belong to someone else’s life – someone cool. But, somehow, it’s been me every step of the way. Walking through my neighborhood, I hear cries of “Aminata!” from every doorway. When I arrive home, my baby sister Nancy throws her chubby arms around my knees, begging to be picked up, and my host mother kisses the top of my head. And I’m reminded that, somewhat serendipidously, “ami” also means “friend” in French.
I will miss Ami – I’m afraid the whirlwind excitement of her life will end as soon as that plane leaves Senegalese soil – but I’m not foresaking her completely. I’ll put away my printed pagne skirts, fold up my mosquito net, and trade Wolof and French for plain old English. I’ll go by Emily once more. But even with the trappings of her life stripped away, the important part of Ami’s existence will remain within me. The lessons she learned, the discoveries she made, and the relationships she formed will linger and merge with my preexisting identity. I may be resuming the same life I left behind – but I’ll pick up the pieces a changed human being. A little wilder, and little wiser, a little bolder, a little better. A little bit more like Ami.