Dear Wife tells me that our veternarian finally came out and told her she was offended by the name of our dog, whom she’s had as a patient for ten years. Our dog’s name is Rosa Barks. She’s a black lab, and her name is obviously an allusion to Rosa Parks the great American patriot and legendary prime mover in the Civil Rights movement. We named our little puppy Rosa Barks twelve years ago, saying, “she’s a very dignified black lady, and she can sit wherever she wants.”
Obviously we knew this name was a little provocative when we chose it. Some people find it offensive. Our vet is sure that Ms. Parks herself would be offended, and perhaps she would be, given her recent lawsuit against the musical group Outkast over their use of her name in a song title.
Rosa Parks is a great hero of me and my wife; in fact, a copy of the very photo of her that adorns the Wikipedia page has also adorned our living room wall for years. But that does not mean I think she’s a god whose name cannot be taken in vain. And I think “Rosa Barks” is a great name for our pet.
The Tale of two Samba M’Bodj’s
From 1974 through 1976 I was a Peace Corps Volunteer living in the little village of Fanaye Dieri, which is located about halfway between Podor and Dagana, not far from the Senegal River, pretty close to the Sahara. As it happened, I was the only white person living within a radius of fifty miles or so.
Most of the people in the village spoke Pulaar, and they called themselves the HalPulaar people, also known as Toucouleur. There were also some Wolof families in the village. Soon after arriving in Fanaye I became friends with a young government worker there named Ismaila M’Bodj (I was 21 and he was 22), and the people soon gave me the nickname Samba M’Bodj. “Samba” is a name traditionally given to a second son. “M’Bodj” is a fairly common family name among the HalPulaaren. It also so happens that I’m pretty tall, the significance of which fact will be apparent later.
Ismaila was nominally an agricultural extension agent; he lived at the so-called agricultural extension office which was barely much more than a warehouse for the emergency food rations on which the whole village was subsiding at the time. (The region was 5 years into what turned out to be 7 year drought, and were it not for the emergency rations from France, the EU, the UN, Saudi Arabia and the USA the whole village would have had to decamp.) Ismaila drew a government paycheck, but like myself he had no immediate supervisor and basically had no real deadlines. On late afternoons I would hang out drinking tea at the extension office with Ismaila and some other friends, most of whom, like Ismaila and me, were not originally from Fanaye. There was a school teacher, a worker at a nearby experimental farm, and so forth. These were the state-educated people. The conversations usually started out in French as a courtesy to me, but often slid into Wolof, the lingua franca of Senegal, which I learned slowly.
One day when the guys were speaking in Wolof I heard my name come up several times. Samba M’Bodj this or Samba M’Bodj that. So I said (in French), “Hey, what are you guys saying about me?”
“Oh we’re not talking about you. We’re talking about the other Samba M’Bodj,” came the answer.
“Oh? Who’s he?”
They pointed to a big white chicken sitting in the shade under a tree. I had never noticed it before, and it turned out that it had been installed recently as part of an animal husbandry program to see if it could improve the local breeding stock, which comprised a lot of scrawny, multicolored bantams– a dozen of which were running all about the place.
“Why do you call him Samba M’Bodj?” I asked.
“Well look,” said one of my friends. “He’s white, and all the other chickens are colored. He stays off by himself. He sits in the shade while the others are out running around in the sun. He doesn’t speak the language of the local chickens. He’s bigger than all the others. And, he came here out of the goodness of his heart to improve the lot of the indigenous poultry!”
I laughed ’til I cried and immediately adopted Samba M’Bodj as my mascot. I went over to him and encouraged him to make more of an effort to mingle, to learn the local language, to not isolate himself. And indeed, I took the hint that my friends were giving me, and from that moment started making a more concerted effort to not so isolate myself. I had a great two years in Fanaye, and eventually became pretty fluent in Pulaar and able to get by in Wolof.
Alas, Samba M’Bodj the chicken never really got acclimated to Africa. He died a few weeks after his arrival.
But I’ve always been deeply honored that the little guy was named after me.