Not Your Typical Toubab

Cittely Fuentes - Senegal


December 23, 2014

Noun /tu.bab/ Toubab : West Africa – white person (used especially in Gambia and Senegal) Although the official definition indicates that the term is only used for white Westerners, I must clarify that at least here in Senegal, people from all descents, backgrounds and places around the world whose skin is not black are referred as a Toubab. During my time here I’ve met people from Brazil, Belgium, Argentina and even Japan each and every one of them with different physical features, languages and customs but is ironic that on this country we all Toubabs. The word can also be used in the Wolof language as an adjective, yow Toubab nga in this case, either a local or a foreigner commits an action or behaves like someone who is not from Senegal. For example, here in Senegal it is very disrespectful to lay on someone’s bed with your shoes on, of course the first weeks in country I was not aware of these customs and so I accidentally did lay on my sister’s bed with my sandals and immediately my niece screamed yow Toubab nga which in English translation it literally means, oh Toubab you. Also, in the country’s capital, Dakar there are many stores full of American products and they are known as the Toubab stores. It is very common that in many countries locals traders tend to overprice things to tourists, here in Senegal they even came up with a term for that action. The important thing here is to know that the word itself is not offensive in any way, in fact, there is also a term for black person in the Wolof language nit ku ̱ul. Many of our host families told us joking that anytime someone called us toubab, we should respond them nit ku ̱ul! And so one time I did to a man that lives in my town. Every time he would see walk in the street during the first weeks here, he would stop whatever he was doing simply to scream at me eh toubabåÊ for at least four times and one day that I was not too happy I replied to him in a loud tone eh nit ku ̱ul.åÊ I must confess that I was scared to use this word because I didn’t know how would people react to me saying since in the US is extremely rude to call people by terms that have to do with their race. After I shouted the N word in Wolof to that man surprisingly everyone who was around laughed including him and after almost crying of laughter he says “oh toubab yow danga nex” which means “oh toubab you are funny”. Time later, I have seen Senegalese people called between each other nit ku ̱ul and it that made me realize that I should not be offended when I get called Toubab. Today, I can proudly say that every time I go to the little shop that is in the corner of my house everyone screams at me eh Khady Gnagna nanga def? Khady Gnagna kai which are all greetings accompanied with my Senegalese name or sometimes they simply shout Khady Gnagna with a huge smile. Day by day as I more interact with the people from Keur Mass, the name of my neighborhood I feel more as a member of the community. I can also say that I naturally have the desire to do everything they do such as attend to the stadium when the team of Keur Mass is going play, attend to every ceremony like weddings, baptisms, and sadly funerals or wear Wolof clothing made by a tailor every Friday just like all the girls. My family has utensils when they eat but I choose to use my hand instead simply because it is traditional, I also have access to toilet paper but I choose to clean myself the Senegalese way using water and left hand. I forgot about all the music I used to listen at home so now my playlist has only Mbalax, the popular dance of Senegal and Waly Seck is my new celebrity crush. I am falling in love with country that six months ago I had no interest in because if you didn’t know my first choice was to take this bridge year in Brazil. However, due to bad experiences in the past with the Brazilian consulate, the staff åÊchose thisåÊother direction and I am extremely happy with the decision I made. I am going to be honest, when I first got to Senegal, I had no interest whatsoever to learn Wolof. I wanted to focus on just learning French because I knew that it would open more opportunities to me in any future career I choose. In contrast during my first days in Dakar I would find myself walking and all these locals would stare at me with grumpy faces and as soon as I would greet them saying Asalaam Malekum which is the most popular greeting in Wolof and their whole face expression would change in seconds after I say that. That is when I realized that I had to learn Wolof not only because most of the people in my town do not speak French and there would be no other way to integrate with the community and my family, åÊbut more importantly toåÊrespect their heritage. The other day, I met the Japanese volunteer that works in the school next to mine and I thought it was super cool that the only way we could communicate with each other was by speaking the maternal language of this country. The one that we hear on the streets, the one that locals feel more comfortable with and the one that helped me build friendships I will never forget. Two weeks ago, we had our first seminar at Mbour, Sally a well known touristic destination here in Senegal that is known for its beautiful beaches and tranquility. We stayed inåÊthis extremely luxurious hotel with AC, comfortable beds and beautiful views ofåÊthe beach that was meters away from us. Here in Senegal, greeting is the most essential aspect of its culture and I learned the since the very beginning of my stay here. Therefore, one of the mornings I went to the pool and there was a French couple next to me and am so used to greet everyone in my town that unconsciously greet them happily with a smile. Their reaction was not full of warmth and happiness as I am used to, they only gave a confused look thinking why are you talking to us? I went back to my room upset thinking how rude they were but minutes later I came back with the conclusion that they don’t live in Keur Mass like I do and they don’t know my friends Fatou and Sidi. They are tourists who came to Sally to relax and for other recreational purposes. Like I mentioned before, I only eat with my right hand here because according to the Islamic code of ritual purity, Muslims must always wash with water when they go to the bathroom with their left hand. Every time I would grab the bread with my left hand I would feel a sense of guilt in my stomach for no reason but it is because I am so used to the customs here. That led me to the conclusion that I am not a foreigner, I am Khady Gnagna and I live in a Senegalese home and I am extremely blessed to have the opportunity to experience things that aåÊtourist could never do.      

Cittely Fuentes