Dumelang! Leina la ka ke Koko. [Hello! My name is Koko.]
Koko has been my most used nick-name for as long as I can remember. I never introduced myself that way, it was more so just a name used by my family and close friends. Until I came to South Africa.
Overseas, Koleana can be a mouthfull for some people, and on paper it’s even more confusing so when asked if I have a short name I offered ‘Koko’ and that instantly stuck for a couple of reasons. The most obvious being that Koko is a nickname for my first name. But here it has more implications. In the Sepedi culture a Koko is a grandmother, a wise old woman. You would call any elder women Koko as a sign of respect.
Many Peace Corps Volunteers are given new names by their villages which they embrace as a new identity; names like Lerato-which means love, or Mpho-which means gift. I was not re-named because my community saw me as Koko. I don’t know if I molded to the name or if the village made the name mold to me but either way, I feel honored to be recognized as a wise old woman.
On a side note this whole new take on ‘Koko’ is ironic because I used to have a roommate named Jon that called me grandma. I remember the joke started one day when I wore a crochet cardigan and he said it was a grandma sweater and that I dressed like a grandma. Then I started calling him grandpa just to be a brat. This was nearly 8 years ago, haha.
Now I’m not trying to problemetize my village name but I also kind of am. Peace Corps gives us alot of time to sit and think and try to understand. When I think about what it might mean to be called a Koko even though I’m 26 and childless, my thoughts immediately shift to the very real existence of internalized oppression in rural South Africa. I was dubbed Koko before I did anything to earn that respect or privilege, it was afforded to me instantaneously and under some assumption that I hold wisdom, knowledge and all the answers. Is this because of my Americanness? My skin color??
Serving in South Africa as a health Volunteer was more like completing two Peace Corps services simultaneously. While trying to impact community health I was also struggling to break down racial divides left from Apartheid. My job was not only to prevent HIV but also to be an ambassador for racial integration and trying to capacitate people who think they are incapable because they are black. The Apartheid regime was a true crime against humanity and although it was overthrown about 20 years ago, its effects still linger and the society is still very racially divided. For generations, black South Africans were segregated from white South Africans and forced into labor, project housing in remote areas, and treated as less than. They were denied education, fare wages, and recognition as humans. This relentless oppression eventually became internalized and subsquently many black South Africans today honestly believe they are less than, and that white people do everything better, are smarter, more capable, and have all the skills and all the power.
What does it really mean to be called Koko here? Is it just a nickname, or is there something going on beneath the surface? What can I do to combat this whole white-savior complex? Over 2 years have gone by and I have yet to really place my feelings on the matter. I’ve never been quite so aware of my skin color, and defined by it, as I am here. I’ve blogged about this before and I haven’t developed any solid strategies but I know my task is to constantly be aware of what my whiteness means, and to try to not contribute to the continued oppression of everyone that’s not white. I didn’t choose this skin color but because I was born with privilege I believe I have a responsibility to not exploit others. If you’ve ever seen the movie Ever After, you’d know there’s a running theme of ‘those who are born into privilege have specific obligations’. If you haven’t seen it, you should. Also, Drew Barrymore. I challenge myself to think about what privileges I have and how I can use my advantages to help others. The struggle is real.
At my farewell party a close host family friend gave a speech where he said he never thought he could talk to white people until I came. He praised me for being a good ambassador for America. I guess I’m doing something right.