Americans always ask me about my name and I'm always interested in their reaction to it. When my HDS apartment-mates-to-be read my name on their copy of our lease, one assumed that I'd be African American, and the other assumed I'd be from a hoity-toity family. Both were wrong; I'm so pale I carry SPF45 sunscreen in my bag (well, in African sunshine anyway) and don't even know how to spell hoity-toity.
Lots of people ask whether Phynessa is a family name. It's not, but I am named after someone. My parents went to the same elementary school (isn't that cute!), and my dad was a rebellious little pupil (not surprising, given what a troublemaker he is to this day). His partner-in-crime was a girl named Phynessa Layne. Unfortunately, Phynessa's family moved away from the thriving metropolis of Crossroads, Tennessee after 2nd grade, so young Jerry had to find someone else to play jacks with while the teacher was at the blackboard. He always liked her name, as did my mom. Despite the fact that Mom couldn't remeber whether she, as a kindergardener, had actually met Phynessa, they decided to name me after her. They were wise enough to follow it with a short middle name, Lynn, just in case I never learned to spell Phynessa.
So, I got to tell that story over and over until my third year of college, when I accompanied my dad to his 25th high school reunion. One of Dad's classmates had run into Phynessa Layne Woody in Knoxville. He sent me her address and phone number later that year. I was excited to give her a call, and she was shocked to see Phynessa pop on her Caller ID; she had no idea I existed and thought she was still the only Phynessa in the world.
Since we both lived in the Knoxville area, we decided to meet for lunch. I was nervous about the encounter for a whole week. I mean, if you're named after a Mary or Elizabeth and it turns out that you don't like her, you can always choose a different Mary or Elizabeth to call the inspiration for your name. As a Phynessa, I was pretty much stuck with one, the Original. I wondered how I'd redeem the name for myself if Phynessa Layne had turned into a mysanthrope in the 35 years since Dad had seen her.
All was fine, however. She turned out to be wonderfully sweet, and Mom, who drove up for the occasion, and I much enjoyed lunch with Phynessa and her husband Charles. Ever-working Dad couldn't make the trip and therefore didn't get to hear the response to a question I'd always wanted to ask Original Phynessa: How did she get her name?
Her dad had just made it up. That was it. It wasn't a family name. He'd had no twin sisters Phyllis and Vanessa that he'd wanted to honor simultaneously by naming his daughter after them. There had been no long-forgotten Greek Goddess of Brownie Baking named Phynessa. With no other reason besides liking the way it sounded, he just made it up. Plain and simple.
In the years since I'd come to realize my name was unusual and that I didn't have a completed story to accompany it, I'd accumulated several nicknames. There were Phy pronounced like fun without the n and Phy pronounced like why, but I was never really fond of them. What I liked was Phyn pronounced like Lynn, which was christened by my friend Kate. (Kate later corrected me on this point by reminding me that our beloved ninth-grade English teacher actually began the trend.) I also liked the way the French said Pheeenessa when I lived in France. It was close enough to still be me, but different enough to add a little distance. Pheeenessa didn't have to take herself so seriously, which was convenient given how many times she made an idiot of herself while speaking French.
Since Togo's official language is French, I told everyone here that my name was Pheeenessa right off the batt, but Togo had a few different names for me and my fellow PCVs, and Pheeenessa died out pretty early. First of all, all of us Americans got labeled yovo, the Ewé word for white. As if it's not frustrating enough that they think your actual name is Whitey, the little kids have a song that goes along with it:
Yovo, Yovo, Bonsoir! (Whitey, Whitey, good evening!
Ça va bien, Merci ! Its going fine, thanks!)
It's impossible to escape that song, along with the only other three French words that every Togolese person knows: "Donne-moi (un) cadeau!" ("Give me a gift!") But I shouldn't complain so much. The song and term aren't nearly as offensive to me as it is to the few African American volunteers we have here. Many of them request West Africa in hopes of working for the people with whom they share a common ancestry. It is frustrating, then, for them to hear, "no, you are not black; you're yovo." Most Togolese can't fathom why that would be an insult. In their minds, black people are poor and powerless; while white people are rich and powerful. Since the only white people they are used to seeing are ones with enough money to vacation in the tropics and give away pencils so as to feel famous and rich for a week or so, it is nearly impossible to explain to them that there are poor white people in the United States, that we PCVs have very little political power, and that many Togolese are paid more than we are.
Likewise, Togolese can't comprehend how it would be offensive to call a person "Fat One." PCVs who are larger than their colleagues are often hailed, "La Grosse!" by people who want to chat with them. The Togolese can't understand why that's offensive because fat requires food and food requires money; if you're fat, you must be rich. Similarly, sick people lose weight, so they think large people are devoid of the most troubling common diseases, mainly AIDS. To be fat means that you are healthy--like women who have healthy babies--and wealthy.
Although Yovo and Le/a Gros/se mystefy our Host Country Nationals when we call them offensive, they have a few words they know are insulting. One example is matisse, which African American volunteers often hear because their skin is lighter than that of most Togolese. Typically only children would call a PCV matisse to his or her face--any adult would recognize the underlying affront against the virtue of that person's mother. I spent a long while explaining to a village friend that a classmate in one of my photos was not fair-skinned because her mother had slept with a white man one night for money, but rather both her parents (who are still happily married) have generally the same skintone as hers. It was confusing to him, but I think he believed me in the end.
In my particular region of Togo, it is less common to hear Ewé yovo. The Kotokoli call whites Anissara and the Kabyé call them Anissari. The kids usually mix the two language group in yet another infurating chant: "Anissara, Yovo, Yovo! Anissara, Yovo, Yovo!" They, like the adults, believe the terms are synonymous, but there is a nuance between them. Yovo just means "white;" Anissara is more like "foreigner," or more accurately "Christian" since the word for foreigners in the Qur'an comes from the word "Nazarene." The first Christians my Muslim neighbors' ancestors encountered were white foreigners, specifically German and French missionaries, so all foreigners, especially whites, inherited the name. That might not be the most etymologically sound theory. At least, we have to take the word "ancestors" very loosely, because it wasn't just the Togolese who called foreigners "Anissaras," but rather Muslims in general.
The Kabyé are particularly interesting to me because they are nearly all Catholic. One day after Mass, I tried to explain to a young Kabyé girl that she was every bit as Anissara as I am because the word just means "Christian." She looked confused, ran away, and still continues to call me Anissara. Sigh. I know most of you must be wondering how it could possibly be annoying to the point of infuriation to be called Anissara constantly. On one hand, I agree. When I arrived in Togo, I thought older PCVs had lost their minds. I mean, kids are cute, and they want to get your attention by yelling at you. Physical descriptors are not taboo in their culture, so "Whitey" or "Fatty" or "Cripple" are acceptable ways for people to distinguish you from others. I know all that, but, lemme tell ya, it's still difficult to have your differences constantly pointed out to you. I'm tempted to tell them that we eat children who say Anissara, but the name itself keeps me from it. I tell myself, "they are calling me Christian, so I should act like one." I can't soil the name of all those sweet old ladies at my church by threatening to eat children! I would like to explain, though, "No, kid, I'm not a foreigner. I'm not a tourist. I live here and I know what's going on. I came here to live like you so that I can understand you better and therefore help you better. Carrying loads of water on my head is not fun for me, but I think I can help you better if I make that effort. And you're making that effort very hard for me to sustain by constantly pointing out how I don't belong here!" But I can't explain that because they won't understand. The next best thing is to give them something to shout that is more tolerable than Anissara/Yovo. Something like a name.
When I arrived in the village, I started telling everyone my name was Pheeenessa (the French pronunciation), but my efforts were in vain. Hardly any adults in village speak French, so the sounds French speakers combine to form my name were foreign to them. Peace Corps had suggested to our counterparts that they give us a village name that the locals could identify with. On my first full day of post visitation, the Chief assembled the Mosque Council responsible for naming infants. After expressing some concern as to why my predecessor Josh had not yet arrived (not surprising given that it was 6:30 AM and he had to bike to my village), the council started batting around some suggestions. They settled on Rahamatou, which my counterpart translated as "la Paix de Dieu"--the Peace of God. I bit my lip to keep from laughing at the irony. I thought, "you guys obviously haven't seen me after 400 kids have called me Yovo and three taxidrivers have tried to rip me off, all before breakfast. Actually, I think 'Turbulence of Satan' would be a more fitting name. Or maybe you've seen the Tazmanian Devil. How 'bout we just call me 'Taz' for short?" But I kept all that quiet as the Imam explained that everyone is happy in the presence of Rahamatou and distressed when Rahamatou departs.
I didn't like the way Rahamatou sounds--for some reason I have a bias against names that end in "ou." (My apologies to all the Lou's out there.) I accepted it anyway, like Anissara, as a challenge to conduct myself along the lines of the Peace of God after which they'd named me. That challenge became a bit greater when I read from the first Surah of my Qur'an that Rahamatou might be better translated as the mercy of God. Great! So now, in addition to restraining myself from flying off my bike to wallop a group of kids shouting yovo (which would undoubtedly disturb peace), I have to be merciful towards them, perhaps ceasing to get angry for the namecalling. Urgh! Some tasks are indeed daunting. I recently found Ruhama in the Bible, too: "Let...your sisters be called Ruhama," which one of my Bibles translates "Shown Mercy," and another translates "Pitied by God." I hope these translations are better, so that my name is more like "Mercy-Receiver" than "Peace-Exuder" just in case those urges to wallop kids overtakes me at some point.
As for the sound of Rahamatou, I do like the way most people shorten it to Rahama or Rama. It makes me sound like the Hindu deity Rama and ends in "a," which sounds more like a female name in English.
Before my naming ceremony, I was hoping they would give me the name Mariama. It's the Kotokolized version of Mary, which I like for several reasons: One of my favorite aunts and my maternal grandmother are named Mary, and a story (that she always denied) holds that my paternal grandmother's name was Mary before she changed it. It's just as well that they didn't choose Mariama for me. On one hand, it would have confused my villagers when my closest neighbor Becky comes to visit me, since her village name is Mariama. On the other hand, I get to answer to Mariama anyway when I am in Bafilo. Most Togolese have a very hard time telling white people apart, so even though Becky has short dark hair and I have long light hair, Becky's villagers mistake me for her. I answer back, and even tell Bafilo kids to call me Mariama instead of Anissara. Becky shudders to think that all the Bafilo residents who witnessed one of my explosions (such as the one where I demanded the name of the taxi apprentice) probably thought I was her. Heeheehee! Don't tell her, but it's kind of fun to play the evil twin!
Besides Mariama, I also get called "Fati" in Bafilo. Most of the time I answer to it, but now that I've learned how, I've started telling people that Fati (Lorrie) went back to the US and Mariama is in Bafilo to replace her. Actually, that gives undue credit to my Kotokoli skills. What I actually know how to say is: "Fati is gone." Then I point to the West and continue, "America. Mariama (pause to point toward Becky's neighborhood) Kpartau. My name is Rahamatou." I point to myself and then east toward my village and say "Tchalimdé." It's a caveman style butchery of their language, complete with a grunt after they say "Ahhh!" but they understand. Someday I'll have to learn the verb "to live" and some Kotokoli prepositions so I can actually make full sentences!
Sometimes Becky and I even get called Malik, the name of Brad, a male volunteer who preceded Lorrie. We don't answer to that one--I mean, surely they can tell we're not men!
If I am just passing through a place, I don't try to teach the kids my name because they think then that every white person is called Phynessa or Rahamatou instead of Yovo. My goal is to get them to shout "Madame, bonsoir!" rather than "Anissara, bonsoir!" Most PCVs tell taxidrivers and village men they are married anyway, so no one will mind being called Madame. Kids rarely catch on, though; and have much more often called me "Monsieur." At first I thought they were saying "Ma soeur," sister, because I wear a cross necklace. They called me that even when the cross wasn't visible, so I chocked the title up to the fact that most of the white women in the area over the past 100 years have been nuns. A third explanation is that the term could be an attempt to build solidarity with me the way merchants call a customer "brother" in hopes of getting him to buy something. Becky has an interesting theory that kids aren't taught that the terms Madamoiselle, Madame, and Monsieur differ according to marital status and gender, but rather that they are terms denoting degrees of importance. White women get called Monsieur because that is the term of most distinction. Although I think some kids just find it easier to memorize one French word than three, her theory gains creedence by the way we are treated as honorary males in other respects (we get to ride in the front seat of taxis and sit in the VIP seats at festivals) and by the way some people who speak decent French call us Monsieur.
It's clear that kids don't think I'm male when they address me in one of my favorite forms. They do a cute little curtsy and say, "Bonjour, Maman!" I was freaked out to have kids as old as 12 call me "Mom," but in this culture, it's not unprecedented for their mothers to be 24 like me. Plus, if they have misjudged me as older than I am, I am supposed to take that as a complement. I found that out this past September when I explained that my father had just turned 47 and that he is therefore very young. My counterpart stopped me short and argued that my father was "old, very old!" Age is well respected here, and he didn't even like the sound of my suggestion that Dad didn't deserve one of this culture's signs of status.
I have spewed on and on about the names for Americans here, and in many ways, that is because names may be more important to Americans than they are to the Togolese. For example, Togolese friends can greet each other every day and never be bothered by the fact that they don't know each others' name. I was in line at the vet behind a boy of 14 or 15 who didn't know his own mother's name! That must have been rare, though, because the vet mocked him for it. My language teacher even told me that if you want to yell to someone from afar, it's better to yell "my brother" or "my sister" than to use the person's name. Her rationale was that people worry that a malevolent neighbor will overhear their name and have a sorcerer cast evil spells on them.
Some ethnic groups have particular naming practices. The Ewé name children according to the day of the week on which they were born. They are horrified to find out that many Americans don't know the day of their birth just as we are horrified to discover that they often don't know their precise birthdate or age! It doesn't bother them that there can be one kid in the family with the same name. Since my sister and I were both born on Friday, the Ewé would call us both Affi. The Tamburma, on the other hand, wouldn't name us according to a day, but would just name us "First Daughter" and "Second Daughter." And, if my sister had been born seven months earlier (and thus less than two years after me), the Kabyé would call us "First Twin" and "Second Twin" because they say that siblings born within two years of each other are actually twins, but the first one advises the second to stay in the womb because the world he or she has been born into is not good.
The Kotokoli do not choose the names of their own children. The Mosque council names babies in a baptismal ceremony. Most of their names seem to be Qur'anic names or Qur'anic words. Unfortunately, most of the villagers do not know the meaning of their name. I seem to be the only person in the village bothered about that, though. Like I said, names are not quite so important to them. Most of the time, people are called by their occupation instead of their name anyway. I have no idea what my carpenter's name is because everyone calls him Le Menusier or Karpentah. Taxidrivers are Chauffeurs, the village shopowner is Boutiquier,and the chief is Le Chef. Something about calling people by their profession bugs me--I want to say, "I am more than what I do--maybe I don't like what my profession turned out to be!" but I realize we didn't get to choose our own names, so my point is absurd. They don't mind it, so I just have to chalk it up to a cultural difference and accept that they refer to me as the "village Peace Corps."
Obviously, even if my villagers rarely use each others' names, they do have them. I honestly haven't figured out how last names work, though. I will have to ask again, but I think the pattern goes something like this: your last name is your paternal grandfather's first name. I thought it was your father's first name and thus called my hostdad's father "Memem" for months until someone explained to me that Memem was his father's name. Aliou's brother Moussa's last name doesn't fit that pattern, though, so I am very confused. I am pretty sure that the Kotokoli women don't change last names when they marry, but I will have to ask again. I'll fill you in if I ever figure it out. At any rate, I am the only person in the village who even cares whether there is a pattern or not--aaaaahhh, the difficulties of being a Type A American in a culture that doesn't pay much attention to names!