The Name Game

José Israel Cruz


March 19, 2015

Three things about names in Senegal: #1. Senegal has weird names. The most common name for women is Fatou, which is also the Wolof word for “death”. I haven‰Ûªt deciphered the meaning. Some men are called Magget, the Wolof word for ‰ÛÏold person‰Û. Why someone would call a baby ‰ÛÏOld Person‰Û is beyond me, but that‰Ûªs what it is. #2. Senegal has few names. Imagine teaching in a class with five John Smiths. That‰Ûªs what I do sometimes. Honoring an ancestor is a common way of choosing a name for a child, so an unintended consequence is that everyone has the same flipping names. The same recurrence applies to family names. #3. I have several Senegalese names. Senegalese hospitality goes so far to make guests feel at home, that visitors from other countries will usually even get their own Senegalese name, so that they‰Ûªll really feel like part of the family. Having been to many places here, I have many names in many different places. I don‰Ûªt remember most of them. And point number three is what I want to talk about today: Senegal‰Ûªs sometimes odd, yet pleasing, particularities with names have made me think a lot about the Name Game since arriving here, mainly because of my own struggles with it. The rules of the Name Game still confuse me to this day. All I know is that they mainly consist of three elements (for me, at least):

  1. Meaning
  2. Capacity to Change
  3. Ownership

Having been raised on Bible bedtime stories and Sunday school lessons, I loved how everyone‰Ûªs names meant Something. Someone‰Ûªs name either identified a quality of theirs, summarized their entire life purpose, or acted‰ÛÓfrighteningly so‰ÛÓas a self-fulfilling prophecy. If Jehovah decided, he‰Ûªd change someone‰Ûªs name to ensure the name agreed with the story or the purpose. Adam, the Hebrew word for man, means to come from the Earth. Jacob became Israel after fighting a divine being (He fought with God). Simon became Peter (The Rock) because Jesus said he‰Ûªd be the foundation of the Church. Saul became Paul (humbled) when God called him to spread the Gospel instead of chasing it. The name was like the title to a book, and therefore had to be adjusted to the plot. Artists and celebrities still continue this practice. For simplicity and appeal, they create a new persona under which they create all their work. Stephanie is Lady Gaga Dana Owens is Queen Latifah Donald Glover is Chilidish Gambino Calvin Broadus Jr. is Snoop Dogg (or Snoop Lion or whatever he‰Ûªs going by these days) BeyoncÌ© is BeyoncÌ© because she was born perfect. The name fits the purpose. åÊAnd with this name, artists ensure to place a seal of ownership into their creations. Sometimes, names are changed to commemorate others. When Roman emperors would rise to power, they‰Ûªd change their name, usually in memory of a past emperor. A new Pope changes his name once he is selected, and although he technically has the liberty to choose any name he wishes, it‰Ûªs customary to choose the name of a past pope. In an extreme example, we have basketball star Ron Artest, AKA Metta World Peace. Now I don‰Ûªt know what this bro was thinking, but whatever it was that he was thinking, I like it. He owns the name, changes it to his liking, and makes sure it has meaning. So the greats do it, the artists do it, the ‰ÛÏChosen Ones‰Û do it‰Û_ so when did the tradition stop? Why don‰Ûªt we change our names? In high school, my friends would constantly tell me how dumb it was of me that I wanted to legally change my name. I hated my name in high school. No offense, dad. I love you tons, but‰Û_ there are just so many JosÌ©s. I felt no uniqueness in my name, no deep meaning, no prophecy, no story, no special pizzazz. I might as well had been called John Doe‰ÛÓserved just as well, I thought, because with ‰ÛÏJosÌ©‰Û, I felt as though I still remained unidentified. My despise of my own name was slightly aggravated by my nickname. Being short and usually among the younger ones in a group, I took the nickname JoseÌ_to for most of my life, basically Spanish for Lil‰Ûª JosÌ©. Despite my family and friends‰Ûª claims that this was a form of demonstrating cari̱o, I wasn‰Ûªt buying it. To me, the nickname felt like lighter fluid that could spark an inferiority complex out of me in any given social situation. That‰Ûªs lil‰Ûª JosÌ©. I tried‰ÛÓto no avail‰ÛÓmaking other nicknames catch on. I tried going by my middle name, Israel, which is just such a badass middle name, but nothing. I started introducing myself to new people as JosÌ© Israel, trying to show that I wished to be called ‰ÛÏJosÌ© Israel‰Û fully. I came close sometimes, but alas, no cigar. JoseÌ_to reigned. I thought a lot about who owned the rights to naming. My parents? I mean well, I owe my life to them. Do I owe my identity to them? Partly, I suppose. But society chooses my nickname, I guess, because none of my efforts to give myself one ever worked. Maybe I should become Pope, or a rockstar. The point was that I came to believe that I owned my own Naming Rights. And then came Global Citizen Year. In Baggage Claim at the SFO airport, where I first started meeting Fellows, I introduced myself to different people with different names. Joe, Joseph, Israel‰Û_ I didn‰Ûªt know which to choose, so I didn‰Ûªt. Newcomers would be confused. During an icebreaking game, someone made mention of the confusion. I nervously remarked ‰ÛÏI just have a tiny identity crisis, haha.‰Û Gee, what a way to introduce oneself, huh. To my remark, one girl responded ‰ÛÏWe can call you JI.‰Û Holy mother of‰ÛÓJI, that‰Ûªs perfect! ‰ÛÏYeah, call me JI!‰Û I said in a heartbeat. As I kept meeting more Fellows, JI was the name I‰Ûªd introduce myself with. I scratched ‰ÛÏJose‰Û off my ID badge, and wrote JI. Staff members would soon catch on as well. Some people even thought my name was officially ‰ÛÏJayeye‰Û or something. Pre-Departure Training me was JI. And I was happy. I felt identified with JI. I had forgotten that I hadn‰Ûªt really chosen it. Fast forward to Senegal. Mohammed TraorÌ© became the name in Dakar. I wasn‰Ûªt too thrilled about abandoning the most common Hispanic name in exchange for the most common Islamic one, but alas, that‰Ûªs what I got. I became part of the TraorÌ© family and, despite the fact that I was there for only a month, it was like I had always been a TraorÌ©. One Sunday afternoon, I went to visit ‰ÛÏmy uncle‰Û. And he gladly accepted me as a TraorÌ©. I felt like a real TraorÌ©, and now I have friends in Dakar that know me as him, Mohammed TraorÌ©. I had no voice in choosing this name. Now, here in Thiadiaye, I am PathÌ© (PA-teh) Faye. Now, phonetically, I‰Ûªm not that thrilled with PathÌ© either, but the shoe fit. I‰Ûªm PathÌ©. Most people have no idea what my real name is, and if I tell them, they forget anyways. My real name doesn‰Ûªt matter here. As far as Thiadiaye is concerned, PathÌ© is my real name. My family and friends here will never call me JosÌ©, JI, Israel, or John Doe, even if I return outside of Global Citizen Year. When I leave, the memory of me, what I did, who I was in essence, will be entitled PathÌ© in the heads of everyone here. And if I come back, PathÌ© will be what they remember. For these past seven months, in essence, I have become him. And if I come back, I will be him again. Now, as I approach my final month, I recognize that I will soon be JoseÌ_to again. This time, though, I‰Ûªm glad about it. My name and my overall identity, as I said, belong to me, but it is not only for me. My identity and the memory of me live and spread throughout the minds of those I interact with. That memory they have of me is their own little peace of me; they have the right to name it as they wish.åÊ Therefore, others will unintentionally have a say in my name. I have no control of this, and I don‰Ûªt mind anymore. My identity is one, the memories I leave behind are plenty. May my names be plenty as well.

José Israel Cruz