I love my name. But it took a long way to get here. Years of people singing “Eleanor Rigby” and telling me their grandma’s name was “Eleanor” fueled a hatred in me for my name so strong, I forced my friends and family to call me Ellie. Well, at least for a while. But over time, I learned to love my name and was a tad upset when I learned that I would be given a new name in my host family in Senegal. I was determined to keep my American name somehow in Senegal– that is until I got to Senegal. Then all I could think was “God. Bless.” Because Eleanor is so not a Senegalese name.
Which is mostly because my name is impossible to say due to the Senegalese accent. It comes out “All-ugh-noel,’’ as opposed to Eleanor. And no matter how hard anyone tries to say my name in a way that sounds like “El-ah-nore, the Senegalese pronunciation would make my mom ask, “Ki kan la?” or, in English, “Who is that?”
Luckily, the moment I got into my house, sama yaay (my mom) renamed me Adja. Adja Adama Lô. It’s after her 103-year-old mom who lives just down the road and still takes care to dress-up as if she is leading a Senegalese fashion show every day. So, knowing that she was in my family, and knowing who my host mom was, I went out to try to figure out who else I’m related to here. But that was no easy task. The term “family” in Senegalese culture is very loose– looser than I can put into words. I’ve been here for three weeks, I still don’t know who I’m related to, and I’ve just figured out who lives in the house. And to be honest, I’m not even sure if I’m right about who sleeps where. In or outside my house, everyone new I meet is somehow connected to my family, and they will make sure you know their name. Even if you have only met once and forget it the next time you see them, they’ll look at you with a face so sad that I now keep a journal with me at all times so I can write any new names I learn down.
Because everyone here is just so kind. Because no matter how many times I forget their name, they always seem to know mine. They always know to call me “Adja,” even if we met on the street two weeks ago as I was going to drop off dinner at someone’s house. And having everyone know my name, in general, is great. But, as this is a truth-telling space, let me acknowledge the two slight issues I have with my name and lack of one.
First of all, when I walk down the street I don’t get called, “All-ugh-noel,” or “El-ah-nore,” or “Adja.” Instead, I get called “Toubab,” or foreigner, every time I see kids or someone new. But having kids running after you chanting “Toubab,” isn’t an insult in Senegalese culture– no matter how frustrating it can be. Instead, kids screaming “Toubab” aren’t trying to insult you, they are just stating a fact. It’s like pointing at a female (who identifies as a female) and saying “female.” There’s no harm done there because it’s a fact. And I can’t even get that annoyed, because when they call me “Toubab,” it’s only because they don’t know my name. Once I tell them my name is Adja, a new issue arises: everyone loves to scream my name, all the time.
Walking down the street or sitting in my room, there is one thing that I always hear: “Adja!” It is a constant chant throughout my house, throughout the streets, and, as it seems to be a popular name on billboards, throughout all of Senegal. I swear even the goats behind my house chant “Adja!” as I’m trying to sleep. And I have no right to get annoyed. But emotions don’t have rules; something I’m trying to teach myself slowly this year. I mean I’m smack-dab in the middle of an entirely different culture, and it’s completely okay to get frustrated. But then you need to learn why others don’t. So after many days of politely smiling while internally screaming when I heard the familiar “Adja “ or “Toubab” call, I realized these words were Senegalese proof that the people of Tabia Ndiaye cared, cared about me.
So, I guess these issues aren’t actually problems. More like situations I need to work out with myself. I mean, I’m from the South! I thought I would be used to the “teranga” (openness) of people, but culture shock is real, and it’s taking me some time to adjust. Now, when I hear “Adja” called by a stranger, I no longer feel creeped out or grip my water bottle as I get ready to strike if they come close. Instead, I swallow my hesitations, and I walk over there. I allow myself to realize that it’s just the culture. It’s just the people caring, them wanting to get to know me. Instead of turning into survival mode as if I’m alone in an alley, I trust my gut. And when I don’t know what to do I ask one of the many, many people in my extended family here.
And while hearing “Toubab” or “Adja” screamed from all directions still may get on my nerves some days, more often than not, it’s started to make me smile.