This past month, my driver Zhu added a baby boy to his clan of 10 kids. The name he gave to the boy was Niankoro Yeah Soumaoro, in honor of Yeah. It made me reflect about the importance of names, especially last names, in Mali and one of the finer distinctions of the Malian culture. In Mali your name means everything.
Mali is a culturally diverse country comprised of many ethnic groups. The Bambara form the majority group and their language is the dominant language in Mali. The Malinke (Maninka) and Khassonke occupy the West. The Fulani/Peul/Fula people are nomadic herders. There are Senoufo and Manianka in the South and Songrai, Dogon and Tamashek in the North. With all this diversity, one can only imagine the cultural richness and different pasts that have been merged into one to give you beautiful Mali. Your ethnicity determines your name. Diallo, Bah, Barry, Diakite, Sidibe and Sangare are all Fulani names while Dembele, Sissoko, Diarra, and Traore are shared among the Malinke and Bambara. Coulibaly is also another common last name. My last name, Samake, is a common Bambara name. Certain family names are also best known for certain things. For example, the Koites are griots, record keepers of Mali’s rich history. Dansockos and Bagayoko are best known as blacksmiths.
The most interesting part, however, are joking cousins. Sinankuya is the relationship between “sinankus” (joking cousins). In Mali, it is common to hear joking insults based on your name. It is believed that in the 13th century, King Sundiata Keita created the joking cousins as a way to reduce tensions between the different clans and ethnicities. Who knew that it would carry this far and is one of the reasons for the peacefulness between Mali’s many ethnic groups today. The insults may appear childish to a foreigner, but to truly master them is a sign of cultural integration and acceptance. Bean jokes are very common. You might wonder what is so funny about beans. Well, beans make you pass gas and fart jokes seem to be universally funny. Samake means male elephant and so sometimes you can be teased for being fat like an elephant. Keitas are teased for being peanut farmers. The Coulibalys however are teased by everyone. Even calling someone a Coulibaly is considered a joking insult. When you first meet someone they will usually ask you your last name to determine if you are a joking cousin. A conversation may go something like this:
Me: Good morning.
Coulibaly: Good morning. What is your name?
Me: Fanta Samake.
Coulibaly: You Samakes are bad. You eat too many beans. You need to be a Coulibaly.
Me: Oh no. We Samakes are good. All Coulibalys are our slaves. You are my slave.
The conversation breaks down at some point mixed with laughter. Conversations like these are common, non-personal and non-threatening, and beautifully unique to Mali. Foreigners who come to Mali are usually given a Malian name. When I first came to Mali, I was given the name Fanta Samake after Yeah’s aunt.
By being able to participate in such a joking conversation in Bambara, I have learned that it quickly gets you farther in Mali. Malians see it as a cultural acceptance of their way of life. There in forms a mutual understanding. And a sense of belonging.