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What Really Lies in a Name?

By Ndiémè Oulèye Ndoye

“Half black and half white,” living in both the northern and southern parts of the United States, I’ve faced challenges throughout my life. The duality of my Senegalese and American birthright is all I have ever known. However, this duality goes deeper than “half and half”: I consider myself not just “half black,” but Senegalese as well. This uniqueness distinguishes me, as Senegalese and African American are concepts that recall different memories and experiences. The African American and the Senegalese have certain cultural norms, traditions, and habits that differ vastly; including the celebration of different holidays, roles of women in society, dietary habits, and even details such as proper greeting etiquette. However these dissimilarities do not preclude the existence of similarities between the two. Similarities exist between the Senegalese and the African American. The retention of cultural values found in African-American communities can be traced back to Africa, especially in the Southern States and in Creole cultures. Nevertheless, to a stranger in Senegal, or almost anywhere else in the world, I am not Senegalese and American, I am simply an African American. Knowing this fact, I chose to attend Spelman College, a historically black liberal arts college for women in Atlanta, Georgia. Until my freshman year at Spelman, I had little knowledge of what is perceived as the African-American lifestyle, mind frame, or culture, by which so many people define me. By attending Spelman, I have realized how fortunate I am to “have the best of both worlds,” by being born in the United States and by knowing my African heritage.
As Samba Diallo explains in Ambiguous Adventure by Cheikh Hamidou Kane, “Adèle’s exile was in many respects even more dramatic than his own. He, at least, was a ‘half-breed’ only by his culture.” Adèle arguably represents every African American, in search of her heritage. Contrary to Adèle and some African Americans, I have a very distinguishable family tree on both my mother’s and my father’s sides. Thus, I have never experienced doubt over who I am, or suffered from the identity crisis that Adèle laments and which is so familiar to many African Americans. 
Ndieme Ouleye in the USA
Imagine a 7-year-old girl looking up at her first-grade teacher and saying, “Yow da nga reew!” (You are rude / impolite!) It was the first day of computer class, after returning to New York from my second trip to Dakar. I said this to my teacher, out of frustration as she continued to mispronounce my name, Ndiémè, as “Nay-dey-me” despite my many corrections. I was banished to a far corner of the room, until my parents arrived. From that day forward, I was to be known in the United States by my middle name, Oulèye.
But, for the next 12 years, the first day of each school year was spent explaining to the teacher that she was to call me Oulèye even though the school persisted in printing my name on the roster as Ndieme Ndoye. I then would engage in the same trite conversation: “My father is from Senegal, my mother is American, and yes, I was born in the United States, I have lived here all my life, and I am a U.S. citizen,” all with a smile plastered on my face to hide the annoyance. Puerto Ricans and Dominicans in New York City always speak to me in Spanish, mistaking me for one of their own, and in Martinique, I blended in as a native of the island. Despite these situations, I have always loved my name, from the way it looks written out in script, to the symmetry of my initials. I constantly felt sorry for the three Laurens, two Heathers, and five Michelles in my classes, and was extremely grateful for the uniqueness of my name. 
Ndieme Ouleye in Senegal
“Comment vous appelez vous?” (“What is your name?”)
“Je m’appelle Oulèye.” (“My name is Ouleye.”)
“Oulèye!? C’est un nom Senegalais. C’est quoi votre nom américain ?” ( “Ouleye!? That is a Senegalese name. What is your American name?”)
“Je m’appelle Oulèye. C’est mon nom !” (“My name is Ouleye. That is my name!”)
“Naka nga sant? ” (“What is your last name?” … Switch in language due to the assumption that since my name is Ouleye, I must speak Wolof, the native language.)
I participated in this conversation every single day in Senegal, starting with Monsieur Ndoye, the customs officer at the airport who stamped my passport and left his stand to carry my suitcase through the checkpoint. This warm welcome was what I had hoped to encounter throughout my trip. However, this conversation soon became the lead-in for a number of unimaginably frustrating dialogues. I have seriously contemplated introducing myself as “Lisa White” to avoid the inevitable interrogation over my identity. Ironically, I had anticipated my trip to Senegal as a return home.
Now that I’m here for my third trip these comforts still exist like when I visit family at Sicap Dieuppeul 4, or in Yoff; or when I meet welcoming Senegalese, such as Fatou Ndoye at Toubab Diallo who gave me the gift of a protection necklace. However, on the street, at the market, or in a taxi, I am just any other American, vulnerable to the same rip-offs of any tourist, because I am of a lighter complexion than most Senegalese and I do not fluently speak the major language. These difficulties have become a daily struggle, but one I must approach with patience, “Ku muñ, muuñ!” “He who has patience, tolerance, acceptance, will smile!”
Dakar’s influences on my childhood
My two previous trips to Dakar were when I was very young, but they broadened my mind, and changed my perspective on life. I grew up looking forward to the nights my mom cooked mafé (a dish with a peanut buttery sauce) and couscous, and to the trips to Harlem for ceeb bu jen (Rice and fish)! I craved laax (a breakfast pouridge made from millet eaten with yogurt), and I missed the feeling of being with cousins my own age. I remember being surrounded by love, showered with acceptance, and eating great meals.
When my older brother (Senegalese and Malian, but raised in Senegal) moved to the United States to live with his long-estranged brother and two sisters, I did not understand his adjustment pains as well as I do now. Now having both experienced cultural misinterpretations, my brother and I have had thought-provoking conversations since my return to the United States.
Mistaken identity and acceptance
I chose to study abroad in my “home” to learn the language, spend time with my family, and form a familiarity with the culture. Despite other people’s difficulties accepting my duality, I, like Samba Diallo, in Kane’s Ambiguous Adventure, “have become the two.” “I am not a distinct (American), facing a distinct (Senegal), and appreciating with a cool head what I must take from it and that I must leave with it by way of counterbalance.” I have developed a deeper appreciation for my name, not a borrowed or imposed name, but a name that has existed in my family for generations, and that can be traced back for literally hundreds of years by the family griot. I know that this trip has already changed me, and I welcome this change. I suppose, in a sense, I agree with Kane, and realize that a part of me has died.  But this part has died and regenerated into a new and different Ndiémè Oulèye Ndoye.

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