Dancing with Jackals (gethenian) wrote in little_details,
Dancing with Jackals

Need help with West African names & folklore/mythology

Googled: a labyrinthine series of terms involving general African mythology; Jangu; Mami Wata; names and surnames and name meanings of "native African" peoples, "West African" peoples, and by individual countries, regional variances in skin tone, Von Luschan's chromatic scale, etc. etc. etc.

So here's what I got:

I have a character whose mother is... quite something. Quite something indeed. All that anybody really knows about her is that supposedly her parents were natives of some country in West Africa who emigrated to the United States either when she was a very young child, or very shortly before her birth. She was a teenage runaway who was living independently by the age of 15 or 16. Although this could have gone very badly, she was an incredibly enterprising girl -- tireless worker, reliable, clever, and so she ended up as a nomadic roadie. Jumping from city to city either following a band or a show or a circus for a while, or just talking her way into a paycheck at the biggest theater in whatever city the road led her to. She was always very successful in this because she had this commanding air about her... the kind of person who can just give a LOOK and make people go to battle for her. So as she picked up all these random techie skills and contacts along the road, she became kind of a legend, like a master craftswoman among roadies. And with such an otherworldly aura, more superstitious folks who got to know her and worked with her came to say, half-jokingly but with that little sliver of but-it-just-might-be-true, that she was some kind of [fill in regional or cultural supernatural being of choice]... an angel, a ghost, some kind of theatre spirit, a muse, one of the spirits who protects travellers, an elven queen...

And one fine day, she joined up with a band that had achieved a fair amount of success... a folk-rock band whose headman was a fluffy gay hippie poet. Somehow, for reasons known only to her, she managed to seduce this guy into sleeping with her... once, twice, a dozen times, nobody really knows. She got him and got out, never telling him that she had become pregnant -- very much on purpose -- and never revealing the identity of her child's father to another living soul. For 20 years. That guy also became obsessed with the idea that she was some kind of enchantress and what HE decided she was... was a mermaid, or a siren... or both.

Which brings me to where I am now, trying to hammer out her origin story as it's becoming a bit more relevant to the story than I had ever imagined it would be. I am trying to figure out the following things:

1. Her country of origin. This must correspond with the darkest areas on this map. I happen to have just recently found a photograph of a woman who looks as close as I think it's possible to get to my mental picture of this character unless she finds a way to step out of my brain and in front of a camera. This is her.

2. Her name. It's Marnie Harris, but whether she was born with an American name given to her by her parents or adopted the pseudonym when she ran away, I don't know. Frankly, I still don't know for certain whether she actually had parents at all. That will depend on how far I decide to take this story into the realms of true fantasy, as opposed to just drawing more specific parallels between my character's natural traits and a supernatural entity native to her place of origin. In any case, as a teenager (or being wearing the appearance of one) living on the road, she would have at least had astory or a birth record or citizenship record or something, even if she never had to use it, and her parents' original surname sure as hell was not Harris. And I don't know whether her first name is an Americanized nickname based on her real name, or a name she made up for herself, or what. At the very least, I'd like to be able to give her or one or both of her parents names appropriate to her region and culture of origin. My googling suggests that there are naming traditions associated with various African cultures but I haven't had much luck finding any sort of clear or comprehensive explanation of them.

And finally, the most important one (as far as progression of immediately relevant plot is concerned):

3. The nature of the "supernatural being" she is... descended from, or associated with, or blessed by, or whatever. In fact, I believe I have found the root of the answer to this question. After googling all kinds of African mythology and folklore traditions, I found one that matches every aspect of my character's already-defined "supernatural" aspects and themes incorporated either into her actions and personality, or in those of the hippie poet or the daughter she had with him -- Mami Wata. That covers the mermaid thing, sex, fertility, snakes, healing, good fortune and wealth, fidelity, being a conduit for deeper spiritual or philosophical understanding, shapeshifting... And hell, lookit this, if you chop the second M in half, you get... Marni[e].

So how is number 3 a question? Well because therein lies the trick of what I'm trying to do. I need to figure out where all three of these threads intersect, and THAT is where I am getting very lost here. I can't start defining her potentially supernatural nature or drawing parallels to folklore in a more straightforward way until I can research exactly what the beliefs surrounding Mami Wata are in her place of origin. Because I'm not about to start picking and choosing aspects from all the cultural interpretations of Mami Wata and throwing them onto one character as if that was like somehow totally referencing real world traditions and beliefs. That could end up being like putting Baba Yaga and Professor McGonnagal in a blender and saying IT'S OKAY THEY'RE BOTH WITCHES...

I also can't give her or her hypothetical parents names until I know the naming traditions of that same specific culture. And while I could just start throwing darts at a printed out map and looking up Mami Wata beliefs in whatever area I hit until I find a place where the attributes of Mami Wata most closely match important attributes and themes of my character and her family group, that seems like it would be inefficient and and incredibly time-consuming.

So basically I just don't know where to start here. This story of mine will probably never amount to anything of consequence -- it is, after all, being written just for fun -- and this is a lot of thought and effort to put into something that will never be read by more than probably a dozen people at the very most, but even so, I feel like it would be doing a great disservice to myself and my character as well as to the cultures I'm trying to represent in my writing if I don't at least TRY to do it right.

Thanks to anyone who's had the patience to read that. Any ideas would be appreciated. ^_^
Tags: africa (misc), ~folklore (misc), ~names, ~religion & mythology (misc)

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