Some folks bring home T-shirts from their travels. I came home from West Africa with a new identity and two new names.
Of all the unexpected things that happened to me on my West Africa trip, this was perhaps the most remarkable.
I was part of a group from the United States attending the International Roots Festival in the Gambia. We expected to see and experience a lot, and we did:
- A symposium on pan-Africanism, which is actually more of the driving force behind the Roots festival than the legacy of African slavery.
- A parade — literally a parade — of West African cultures, which marked the festival’s opening.
- A reception where we were treated to traditional Gambian dishes.
- A bangin’ nightspot in the beachside tourist zone known as Senegambia.
- The Tanjie Village Museum, a re-creation of traditional Gambian life and culture — and the only museum I’ve ever seen that included its own hostel.
- A commercial fishing village, where men in long wooden boats called pirogues go out into the Atlantic to harvest multiple species of fish.
What we didn’t know was that our Gambian hosts had committed us to the futampaf, a rite of passage in the village of Kanilai, some 80 miles from the capital city of Banjul, which would culminate with each of us being adopted by a Gambian family.
You can read all about that experience in a three-part series entitled WEST AFRICA JOURNAL, My name is Yaya Colley. You’ll find it listed under “Africa” on the DESTINATIONS page of this blog.
That was a long, hard, bittersweet day for me in Kanilai. I wish I could’ve spent more time with my adoptive family, gotten to know them all a little better. We’d only just met, and yet it was truly hard for me to leave them.
It’s not just about what they gave me, but also what they took from me.
All the pessimism, all the self-doubt, all the second-guessing and negativity that goes with living all your life as a black man in America, never knowing or truly believing that it was possible to feel, to live, any other way. Gone.
I don’t know when or even if I’ll ever see them again, but I know I’ll be grateful to them for the rest of my life.
I did manage at least to shake the hand of the family patriarch whose name I was given, to let him know how proud I was to carry it.
I’d arrived in Kanilai as Greg Gross. I returned to Banjul two days later as Yaya Colley.
And it seemed as if all of the Gambia knew it.
The futampaf — indeed, all of the formal events of the Roots festival — had been shown across the country on the nation’s only television channel. The futampaf, presided over by President Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh himself, had been broadcast live across the Gambia.
Now that we were back in Banjul, we could hardly go anywhere on the street without people waving to us and calling to us by our new Gambian names. Especially mine. Shouts of “Yaya Colley!” dogged us almost wherever we went.
This whole celebrity thing was going to take some getting used to, but I was already comfortable enough with my new identity to introduce myself to the folks in our hotel as “Yaya Colley.”
Not that it was really necessary. They already seemed to know.
So I was getting comfortable in my new African skin when I went to the Africell office to get a cell phone. At the urging of the festival aide who’d brought me there, I gave the young clerk my new Gambian name.
The clerk looked as if me might barely have been out of high school. Tall and lean, flawless skin the color of one of those very expensive dark chocolate bars they sell in those expensive specialty grocery stores (chocolate which most likely comes from another West African country, the Ivory Coast).
He hears the name. He doesn’t look as if he approves. Have i just unknowingly stepped on my first cultural landmine in Africa?
“I’m going to give you a name,” he says. “When someone in the Gambia asks you your name, you give them this name.”
The name he gives me is Bubacarr Jallow. His name.
The name Bubacarr, I learn later, is an Africanized spelling of the Arabic name Abu Bakr, the first caliph of Islam and the prophet Mohammad’s closest friend. He knows I’m not a Muslim. It doesn’t matter.
I am flattered beyond belief.
Then, my companion from the festival throws in the kicker: His name is Bubacarr, too.
“So instead of the Three Musketeers,” I tell them, “we’re now the Three Bubacarrs!”
Whenever you go in the world, there are people who want to sell you something. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, someone wants to give you something.
But when was the last time you met folks who wanted to give you their names?
I leave feeling extremely grateful and humble, but also a little nervous. I mean, what do I say if someone else here wants to give me their name?
“Thanks, but I already have three and I’m trying to cut down?”
“Sorry, but my doctor has me on a low-identity diet?”
Eventually, we left the Gambia and caught our return flight from Dakar in Senegal to Washington DC. According to my passport, I am still the man who had left from Washington Dulles International eight days earlier.
But my soul knows better. Way down in there, I am now equal parts of Greg Gross, Yaya Colley and Bubacarr jallow.
How do you explain to Customs and Immigration that you left home as one person, and returned as three? And filling out job applications could be a lot more time-consuming in the future.
But that’s what happened.
These are the kinds of souvenirs that never end up collecting dust on a shelf or disappearing in a drawer. These, to the last day of your life, never leave you.