What’s IN a Name?: Artichoking the heart out of Zaouré (Part 2 of 3)

(Blogger’s note: This is the second in a three part series introducing you to this blog, myself, and my upcoming trip. Sorry for the verbosity and self-centered focus, this place should be more narrative and cinched down storylines in the future)

This is the story of an artichoke. But you’ll have to read a preface first….

As you can see from the URL of this blog, my name is Thomas E. Leonard. But for those of you who linked here from Facebook, you will notice that my name shows up there as Thomas Zaouré Leonard. Many of you have asked if this is my real middle name. Often I simply respond that it is “my African name.” This is somewhat disingenuous, however, so I hope to clear things up for you below.


I had three names while a Peace Corps Volunteer in Niger. The last name, and the one with the most sustaining power, was Zaouré. I was given the name Zaouré roughly 30 seconds after arriving in my second Peace Corps village of Lido, Niger. Not knowing one lick of Hausa at the time, I was beholden to the accompanying Peace Corps staff member to ask the village elders for a name (since my last name was a uniquely Zarma name). I was given a new name, not of my choosing. But that was best that way. This reminds me of a recent sermon I heard relating to Isaiah 62:4: many of the most famous Biblical characters underwent name changes, and so can we!***

I have often heard the analogy of onions used to describe a word with layered meanings. While I learned last weekend that Niger supposedly gets as much profits from onion exports as from its uranium, I still have my Western proclivities for more ‘gourmet’ tastes. The richness of an artichoke is incredible – as one digs deeper, the flavor grows richer. Finally, once you get to the heart of it, the taste is overpoweringly creamy and satisfying. It fits with language as well as relationships: the closer to the heart you get, the more readily apparent you will taste how rotten or rich the heart will end up being.

The Story of Zaouré

As I tell the story of my namesake, I begin to realize how much I am beginning to see shadows of myself in this great man, and that there is much still to be learned from him. This story is based primarily off an oral account I heard from Lido’s own Imam Idi, and I know how to verify very little of it with written records.

Back in the year 1899, the French Voulet-Chanoine Mission was trekking across what is now known as Niger along the border with present day Nigeria. As the French skirmished at the village of Dioundiou, Zaouré, village chief of Lido, went down to ask the chief of Dioundiou to work with the French, not against them, saying that their horses would be unbeatable. Dioundiou’s chief relented, and the French continued on their way, passing by Lido. Nowadays, all anyone wants to talk about in relation to the French conquest of Niger is the story of Saraounia, “a warrior queen” who held back the French for a day in the North of the very same region in which I lived. Zaouré, the liaison and peacemaker, has never until now been internationally documented (to my knowledge and Google’s).

A few short years later, the French were fabricating “canton chief” titles (called Tsarki, in Hausa, referencing a much older tradition of regional chiefs, essentially watering down the title by making it universal) to govern groups of villages. Zaouré and a neighboring chief were both candidates for one canton. The other chief had made friends with the French through the King of the Zarmas (Zarmakoye) in nearby Dosso City. Zaouré got wind of this, and moved the entire population of Lido out before the village buildings were bombarded by French cannons. Sometime later, Zaouré brought the entire village back safe and sound, thus refounding the village. This is why he is now known in Lido and surrounding villages as “Lido’s first chief.”…. Zaouré, the tenacious facilitator for friends and family. At the same time, I remember being in a village about 45km away from Lido and being laughed at for the same name.

The village chief of Lido meets with guests to his father's funeral in the Lido Zaouré
Madougou, the current village chief of Lido, meets with guests at his father’s (whom I also considered my Nigerien father) funeral in his zaouré, days before my evacuation.

What is a Zaouré?

I’ve now told you the story of a person, but a zaouré is also a building. Being named after a building may have caused some to laugh, but it causes me to reflect.

Here are a couple sayings that go along with a zaouré: “Zaouré, the home of the guest/guests,” and “Zaouré, the place where one waits to enter, saying ‘May the Peace of God be upon you.’”

A zaouré is the entryway to an important person’s house. It is the place where the village chief adjudicates disputes between villagers. It is indeed the place where guests sleep; and it is also where village chief can hold court with important people and strangers. Essentially, it bridges the gap between the outside world and the leadership of a given locale.


In recent weeks, I have seen undeniable confirmation of my calling as “liaison,” “facilitator,” and “bridge.” For example, I found myself connecting a Burkinabe friend from Greenwood, IN to someone I worked with in Paramaribo, Suriname, now living in Michigan. This person in turn put me in contact with someone in DC, who in turn put me in contact with someone in Accra and back in Ouagadougou. Another connection has brought Bloomington potentially closer to South Bend through a friend from Niger, now working in New York City. Whether looking for funding for AIDS research, or finding a journalism job, what I saw as my role between Sahelians and Americans is  a role I am playing that makes the world a smaller place.

One last example of this that I had nothing to do with, but is a perfect example of the “Global becoming Local,” came out of the Great Blue Sky the other day. I found out that the guy I worked with in Taiwan in 2006, who was my brother’s roommate for about three years, and who now lives in Colorado, is marrying a woman who attends the church of which I am a member in Bloomington, IN…. I didn’t have enough regular contact to find out from either, so I really could not have scripted it better if I tried!

While facilitating is often a simple question of emails and phone calls, it can also be delicate and trying to put your name out on a limb on someone else’s behalf. Yet is it not true that we are all called to channel love to and from one another in such forms as this. In Isaiah 64:8, it is clear that this role of ours is not something that can be ‘forced’: “But now, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.”

Clay water pots for sale at Gotheye market

And you know what the clay pots do better than anything else in modern day Niger (and presumably ancient Israel)? By harnessing the wind, cutting out the sun, and in general caressing their contents, these pots mysteriously chill water into the most refreshing water you ever did drink. But those of us called to channel Living Water are more than mere pots; we have a new name and are constantly being renewed by the uncovering of hearts to new and deeper truths.


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