Given Tender: on Naming in a Bi-Cultural Family

by Mara Jebson


My stepfather had always wanted twins. In his culture, having twins was lucky, and a sign of more luck to come. In parts of Togo it is customary to give both twins names beginning with the same letter. One would hear about Afi and Abla, Joseph and Jonathan, or Elise and Esmee.

Although my stepfather never did have twins, he gave the three children he had with my mother names beginning with the letter “V”. He never explained about the “V”. A disciplined man, rigid in his habits, he was weird about names. Family lore holds that he was once charged with taking his baby brother’s birth certificate to the official bureau for naming. Along the dusty road he must have gotten inspired. In any case, most people in Togo have French or Togolese names, but his youngest brother would go through life as Martino, the O courtesy of his brother.

His own name, Kodjo, was really quite boring. In the years after Colonialism, there were a few Africanist measures taken to try to revolt against the pervasive French influence. Togolese citizens christened with European names were required to go re-name themselves with African names. These names were easy to choose, as all Ewe also have the name that is determined by the weekday of their birth. Kodjo merely means, “born on a Monday.”

When my mother met Kodjo in graduate school in America, he used this official name, and it was his American name. When we three, along with my new sister, left Philadelphia to move to Togo in the early nineties, among the many astonishments we had in store was the fact that no one else called him Kodjo. In Togo he went by “Johnny.”

My new sister’s name began with “V”, and, he told us, meant: “it has happened.” The “it”, he said it was implied, was a something long awaited and wonderful. I don’t understand how the Ewe language works, but my stepfather understood it very well. It was the first of the five languages he spoke, and his sense of it seemed to lay at the base of much of his work in ethnography. In any case, he understood it so well that he sort of invented my sister’s name out of sounds from the Ewe language. Its meaning also had to be explained to other Ewe speakers—but when it was explained, they seemed to “get it.”

Once we’d been in Togo a few years, my mother got pregnant again. My stepfather came up with another “V” name. This one meant: “that which has two roots grows strong”—an explicit call to my next sister to appreciate her bi-racial, bicultural heritage. And finally, a few years after that, the thing that Kodjo had wanted even more than twins happened—my mother had a boy. Another “V” name. This one meant: “God has blessed us.” By then I was in college in America.

When I was a teenager in Togo, my stepfather and I did not understand one another very well. I had never had a father before, and he had never had a daughter. Neither our natural personalities nor our cultures prepared us to deal with one another. He was serious-minded, principled and orderly, and seemed to assert that in return for his protection and care, I should learn to speak his language, to cook, and honor his family. But I was too shy to engage with most of his family, too frivolous and generally un-domestic to interest myself in household tasks, and, at first, too homesick to interest myself in his culture.

When I went to college and became a poet things changed. Then, when I went to Togo for visits, we would sometimes talk about Aimee Cesaire, and the other poets of Negritude that I was studying. He would warn me that becoming a poet might make me hungry, but that when I was hungry, I should enjoy poetry even more. He had a wide romantic streak. By then, he was the father of three other children and had softened some of his assumptions about what daughters were supposed to be like.

I was in my mid-twenties when I asked for a name beginning with “V”. It had not been as difficult as some might imagine to be the only white child in my family. People rarely mentioned it, and some would say to Kodjo—“your eldest is very light-skinned!” But I wanted a “V” name.

The name he gave was Vevie. But I can’t entirely remember what it meant. I remember the sheet of paper with different names written in pencil on it; a piece of paper much like the ones he’d laboured over when each of the others was born.

“Vevie” seemed to have something to do with expensiveness, struggle. Something to do with work. I remember being confused but satisfied with my partial understanding of the name.

The word “tender” means a formal offer duly made by one party to another. One can tender amends, which is to offer compensation. To tender anything is an offer of something for acceptance.

The word “dear” seems to help me work my way towards it. When something is dear it is valued, as in: “to hold dear.” And dear means: obtained at great cost.

In the end, I can’t ask him, as he got ill many years ago and now it is too late. And because he invented these names himself, I can’t ask anyone else, either. No one has ever called me Vevie. He suggested I could use it as a poetry name, and one day I might. In any case, I think I understand it. It has something to do with me not being the daughter God gave him, but the one he had to work for, himself.