I've been caled a lot of things, but nothing I would call a name.
October 1, 2011 7:22 PM   Subscribe

My younger brother is doing a Peace Corp stint in Senegal. His host family (with whom he's staying while he learns the language) has taken to calling him by the name of their son of the same age. While I'm sure this is a gesture of welcoming, I find it very odd. Is this customary? What's the convention and where does it come from.

Maybe I'm used to nick-names being used to distinguish rather than assimilate. I'm really just intrigued. Anyone have experience with this?
posted by es_de_bah to Society & Culture (8 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Are you sure it's the other son's birth name and not a term of endearment?
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 7:39 PM on October 1, 2011

A friend of mine did a stint in the Peace Corps in Senegal. If I recall correctly, her host family called her by the name of one of their daughters. (And I just checked her Peace Corp blog archives, and I was right!) So think this is probably customary.
posted by devinemissk at 7:40 PM on October 1, 2011

I have a friend who just spent a semester in Senegal with a host family. They nicknamed her with the same name as two of the other girls in her household. She says it's an act of welcoming someone into the family, and to take it as a compliment. She says it would be a bad sign if they didn't give him a nickname.
posted by rabbitbookworm at 7:47 PM on October 1, 2011

Yeah, that's not uncommon. I wasn't with a host family, but I got a Senegalese name too. And I had friends who were given the same names as someone else in the family / household.
posted by Nothing at 7:52 PM on October 1, 2011

Response by poster: While I understand that this is the custom, I was wondering if there is a larger significance to the tradition. Is it done elsewhere? It seems like a very different treatment of names than what I'm used to. I'd like to know more about the origins here.
posted by es_de_bah at 8:10 PM on October 1, 2011

Establishing fictive kinship through re-naming makes sense of a stranger's social status in places where kinship orders the world, and it is pretty common in ethnographic literature worldwide. Here's another interesting example from a completely unrelated society that happens also to be African. Note that in the example, we're not talking about family names, exactly, because there are just ~35 names total per gender, but sharing a name is sufficient reason to treat someone as you would a family member with that name. Anyway, what you're seeing is that, as Meyer Fortes said, kinship is the "axiom of amity": i.e. it classifies persons and prescribes altruism in a way that's foundational for the practice and experience of sharing with non-kin. In societies that place greater emphasis on dyadic contract relationships, that's typically still true in a much abridged form, but it's not uncommon to get pretty far away from it too.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 9:46 PM on October 1, 2011 [6 favorites]

I don't know about Senegal (or the tribes in Senegal), but where i used to live in Uganda, there was a custom of naming kids according to some very specific and sort of complicated rules around birth order and familial relations. (Like, if you were the second child and you were a boy and had an older sister and your mother was the second wife, you were named "Dave", if you were the second child and a boy but you had an older brother and your mother was the third wife, your name would be "steve". ) Obviously that example i just gave is nonsense, but that's the gist of how that worked.

Maybe there's a similar custom amongst the tribe your brother's staying with? And that giving your brother the name of the similar-aged child is a way of saying that your brother is a truly welcomed part of the family?
posted by Kololo at 11:33 PM on October 1, 2011

This is a very common practice among the Wolof and the other major ethnic groups in Senegal. I lived in Senegal three years, most of it with a family. Like most visitors, I was given a Senegalese name, and that became the name by which everyone in the community knew me. I was named after my father, a fairly important person in the village. Doing this is a sign of inclusion, an extremely important value for the Senegalese, whose traditional culture is more community-focused than that of most Western nations. Sharing a name honors the person whose name is used, and denotes a certain bond between that person and their namesake. In my family's eyes, giving me this name made me more a part of the family and village, and it also reflected well on my father.

Less commonly, my family also had a nickname they called me at home, which was based on my given first name. Before I left the country, they gave a child born in that family that name, a gracious act that amazed and humbled me.
posted by itstheclamsname at 11:01 AM on October 2, 2011 [4 favorites]

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