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Names by which I am known

In Timbuktu with a piece of camel cheese in my mouth

“Home” is difficult for me to define. For the moment, I consider “home” to be places where people know my name. Thinking about that today, I realized that not only do I have more than one home, I have more than one name:


Near my apartment in the Badalabougou neighborhood of Bamako, there is a busy intersection that sits below Bamako’s 2nd bridge. One day, a phone credit vendor, who also works as a security guard while he studies architecture at the University of Bamako, called me “Mohamed.” I shrugged and went along with it. Before long, everyone at this intersection – taxi drivers, phone credit vendors, women selling brochettes – was calling me Mohamed. A few weeks ago, in a completely different part of Badalabougou, a different phone credit vendor walked up to me and said, “your name is Mohamed, right?”


I am a Friday born child. In Ghana, this gives me the first name of Kofi.


Pronounced philoooou, I was given this name by my friend Odile who goes by several different names herself (Dilo, Didy, Jacqueline). She is a nurse in training, but she is also an entrepreneur, having set up a small shwarma stand outside of her house. I stayed with her when CIE cut off the power to Faty’s house for over a week. She calls me philoou so she can say, in a sing-song voice, “Philooouu, le tonton de Louuulouuuuu” (Philu, the uncle of Loulou). Loulou is a civet cat that lived in Dilo’s house until it ran away.


Dilo’s brother Fabrice with Loulou and a large can of Efes Extra

Amadou Sagara

left to right: Bassekou Kouyate, Amy Sacko, me, Salif Keita (see Bassekou and his lovely wife in action here and Salif, in one of the best concerts I saw this year here).

Amadou Sagara is my Malian name. Sagara is Dogon. It is the last name of my girlfriend’s family. Family names are important as they are used as a means to hurl insults (read about cousinage here). I sometimes use this name when I introduce myself to Malians as it gets a laugh and it sets the stage for a joking cousins battle. In the case of the photo above, Bassekou got the ball rolling: “Oh, you’re Dogon? So you’re flying back to Mali to plant your onions?” Unfortunately, Dogon don’t have a lot of weapons in their cousinage arsenal, so I’ve started telling people that I am their father. This seems to go over well.


Turns out, a lot of people struggle to pronounce “Phil.”

Tonton Phil

Uncle Phil. The hierachy of age is in full effect in Cote d’Ivoire. Younger kids call me Uncle Phil and I have to say, this title of respect is a lot better than “blanc” or “toubab” (white man) potshots. In the late afternoon, I often find myself meeting with David, my business partner, under the mango tree in front of Dilo’s house. Kids pass by, having just finished school for the day, and one by one they approach: “bonsoir tonton David, bonsoir tonton Phil.” I can live with this.

Stick around. Make friends. Build relationships. Collect some new names for yourself. Yes, I think this is the way to do it.

Next post will be on Lisbon. Got my tix back to West Africa. Washington, DC to Bamako via Addis Ababa July 17.

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{ 36 comments… add one }

  • Adam Pervez June 7, 2012, 10:37 am

    Great post, Phil! I was given an Ngabe name, an indigenous group in Panama. It was a 70+ year old grandma who was full of energy and life. Pretty cool. People have also called me Adan, my name in Spanish, Adams, thanks to a store in Peru by the same name and the company that makes gum, and Ahhhm.. turns out Adam is hard to pronounce in Spanish πŸ™‚

    • phil June 10, 2012, 5:27 pm

      haha, nice ones. I would definitely hang on to the Ngabe name. Sounds like a good one! Where you at now?

  • Kay Johnson June 7, 2012, 12:25 pm

    Kay – as you may know, means ‘what ?’ which doesn’t help a great deal around here. But I have been known as Katherine, Kate and, in extreme youth, Titch, which also doesn’t help much. In UK KatyJ is definitive and what I have actually been called in other countries is probably best left to the imagination. Age is, surprisingly, a helpful factor leading to Ma, Abuela, and Granny, and Lili_thedog calls me Grrr-an. Phil you have the edge as a quasi ‘adoptive’ son to these friendly people. In wishing ‘all the best’ – make sure you keep it that way – y buen viage !

    • phil June 10, 2012, 5:28 pm

      Lili_thedog can talk? You should send her to Arizona so she can meet Clyde. He is a camel that talks. Thanks, Kay!

  • Mzuri June 7, 2012, 1:12 pm

    This post on names was really touching. And the insult stories always make me smile.

    Will you be in Ethiopia long enough to take a side trip to Nazret to visit a school there (English Alive Academy)? The founders, kids, and teachers alike could sure use a shot of camel-drawing lessons right now.

    • phil June 10, 2012, 5:30 pm

      ah thanks, Mzuri, glad you liked it πŸ™‚ I will be in Ethiopia just for transit unfortunately. I will hopefully make it there for a substantial trip one of these days, in which case I will definitely take you up on your offer for more camel drawing students!

  • John June 7, 2012, 1:12 pm

    In Cote d’Ivoire, there’s a slight shift and Koffis are born on Saturday and Yaos (like me) are born on Friday.

    • phil June 10, 2012, 5:34 pm

      ahhh, interesting. Thanks, Yao πŸ˜‰

  • christopher June 7, 2012, 3:02 pm

    Any name is probably better than “toubabo!” yelled at you by children though, right? πŸ˜‰

    • phil June 10, 2012, 5:34 pm

      without doubt

  • Sophie HeadingThere June 8, 2012, 8:00 am

    Great post! I really like the fact that my name becomes Sofia in many countries. It makes me feel that little bit more exotic. I was also given the name Shanti whilst staying at an ashram in Peru, which was nice! I look forward to extending the list as I travel round SE Asia this year! πŸ™‚

    • phil June 10, 2012, 5:35 pm

      Nice, Sophie. I like Sofia as well!

  • Kerry Gubits June 8, 2012, 9:47 am

    Great post, Phil. You can call me Jerry, you can call me Larry, just don’t call me late for dinner.

    • phil June 10, 2012, 5:36 pm


  • Rastalion June 8, 2012, 10:40 am

    As a Brit of Mandingo descent, I find your blog quite educative.
    It’s my fervent dream to one day visit Mali. I’ve already been to Senegambia.

    Apparently my cousinage is with ppl with Drammeh/Adramane,
    Fatti/Phattie last names and the Fulani tribespeople.

    • phil June 10, 2012, 5:38 pm

      Thanks for the kind words. Fulani are also my joking cousins. Let me know if you make it to Mali. Hopefully the country will catch a break in the coming months. She deserves it.

  • Ekua June 8, 2012, 9:24 pm

    Love this… it’s so fun getting nicknames abroad. My most favorite has been “Tia Chocolate” which given to me by the preschoolers I worked with in Brazil. They called all of the teachers tia (aunt), but the cho-co-la-te was a special addition for me. I’m partial to Kofi for you for obvious reasons πŸ˜› But I think it’s super cute that kids call you Tonton Phil in Ivory Coast.

    • phil June 10, 2012, 5:39 pm

      What day is Ekua again? It Ghana, the kwesi obruni thing drives me crazy. I still don’t get it either. Any insight? LOVE tia chocolate πŸ™‚

      • Ekua June 26, 2012, 10:24 pm

        Not sure about the Kwesi part… that’s a boy born on Sunday. But I’m guessing you know that obruni is the Ghanaian equivalent of “gringo”? Ekua is for Wednesday!

      • Ekua June 26, 2012, 10:36 pm

        I was curious about the Kwesi Obruni thing so I looked it up right after I posted that 2nd comment. It has to do with the fact that when the Europeans came, they celebrated the Sabbath on Sundays as opposed to celebrating the day of the week they were born on like the Akan did. So because of that, Kwesi became the name for European males.

        • phil June 27, 2012, 9:50 am

          Aha!!!! So that explains it. Makes sense. I knew obruni-almost impossible not to as a particularly pale white dude-but this clears up the rest. Thanks for the research, Ekua πŸ™‚

  • Samyak June 9, 2012, 4:29 am

    ItΒ΄s amazing how quickly people embrace you here as of their own!
    Hey Phil, I am planning to teach English to some Malian colleagues in Bamako. Most of them have never been to any formal school. Any ideas for teaching English to illiterate learners? It is to improve their lives while they search for work with expats. No commercial objectives whatsoever. I have seen your post on Bambara. I plan to prepare lesson plans in Bambara. But it has to be all audiovisual at the moment.
    Any help on possible resources in terms of books, useful links,etc. will be welcome.

    • phil June 10, 2012, 5:40 pm

      Hey Samyak,
      I will send you an email with a few thoughts.

  • Dalene June 10, 2012, 1:48 pm

    *Love*. I dig this post hella lot.

    I, have no name to most people, as mine is mostly impossible for them to say.

    In Latin America, I just went by ‘Dalena’, and they could manage that much easier. πŸ™‚

    • phil June 10, 2012, 5:40 pm

      Did you ever hear dalenita? πŸ˜‰

  • Kay Johnson June 10, 2012, 5:44 pm

    Lili_the dog is highly verbose, Phil. She talks a lot on Facebook and is constantly taking over the type when my back is turned. She is very friendly, totally lovable, and as an ‘Affenpinscher’ is a ‘monkey’ dog which can render her a bit schitzo at times ! Lili is also highly manipulative if she has the chance. Be careful what you say about her to Clyde as she LOVES camels and, depending on the mode of travel, will be hitching a lift from the plaza in Polopos faster than Clive can say ‘hot dinners’ ! Having been to UK a few times she considers she is well travelled. Love to Clyde – from Both !

    • phil June 14, 2012, 12:47 pm

      Hitching a lift on Clyde?? I don’t know if Clyde takes schizo dogs as passengers. I will ask him.

  • Laura June 11, 2012, 2:02 pm

    That is a cool cat! I don’t have too many nicknames when I travel (actually, I’m usually the one who gives all the locals new nicknames) but people in Kenya, particularly who are Kikuyu, have a very hard time with the letter ‘r’. So my name usually comes out as Lau-la. On the streets of Nairobi, everyone just yells Wanjiru, a common woman’s name. At one point I had to ask my friend if it had another meaning, because I couldn’t imagine that all these people would yell the same word at me. But apparently they all just seem to pick the same Kenyan female name to call me. I guess it’s like Mohamed πŸ™‚

    • phil June 14, 2012, 12:48 pm

      There is a similar phenomenon in Ghana where I am called Kwesi. It’s sort of like a standard name given to non-Ghanaians. At least that’s my impression. Lau-la is kind of nice actually πŸ˜‰

  • Christy June 14, 2012, 1:24 pm

    What a fun post. I only have one name – how boring! I have a few friends that call me ‘C’ and I find that endearing for some reason.

    • phil June 19, 2012, 11:15 am

      Time to get some new ones πŸ˜‰

  • Tami June 16, 2012, 3:51 pm

    Like everyone, I love this post, especially the part about the random phone credit guy. I have just a couple names: my old BBS friends still refer to me by my ‘nym (and I commonly call them by theirs), and in Kenya last year on my birthday the son of the Maasai landowner said I should be given a Maasai name and they picked Nashipai, which means ‘happy girl’. After that, most everyone in camp started calling me that instead of my given name. Which was great, after I got the hang of answering to it. πŸ™‚

    • phil June 19, 2012, 11:16 am

      Oooo I love Nashipai. I think you should start signing your name in the comments like that πŸ˜‰

  • Nomadic Samuel June 16, 2012, 9:58 pm

    Cool post mate! In Korea ‘Sam’ means teacher. I joke with my kids to call me ‘Sam Sam’

  • simon fenton July 10, 2012, 7:54 am

    Hi Phil…I’m also known by many names and you inspired me to write a quick piece about them which I’ve posted here:http://simonfenton.blogspot.com/2012/07/two-for-one-names-post.html

    • phil July 10, 2012, 9:15 am

      Hey Simon, nice post — thanks for sharing πŸ™‚ Looks like you have quite a few. You might want to shed that “Si” one, though πŸ˜‰

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