On Being A Toubab

Every day, and some days more than others, I am called a Toubab. “Toubab” is the Wolof word for “foreigner”, and due to my white skin, I am by default a toubab. One of the first things I learned how to say in Wolof was that I am not a toubab, and my name is actually Oumy Ndong (my Senegalese name). To some degree this worked and people would call me by my name. Many times they would forget or ignore it and still call me toubab. Some people would blatantly tell me that I’m wrong and that no, in fact I am a toubab. 

At the end of the day, it is true. It does not matter that I have a Senegalese name, live in a Senegalese family, wash my laundry by hand, buy snacks from the women on the sides of the street, carry CFA in my pockets, or spend that money at local boutiques. I does not matter how much Ceebu Jen, Mafe, or Ceri I eat, or how much Wolof I speak.  I will never be Senegalese. I will always have my white skin and American passport. I will always have my comfortable childhood memories from the US. In April I will go home to my house in the US to live with my American parents and spend my US Currency on US goods.  These are things that the vast majority of Senegalese people will never do. They have a valid point that I am different, foreign, and out of place. Sometimes I think that I have been here for enough time to feel like I have a place here. Most of the time I think that that thought is arrogant- to think that there is a discernible amount of time by which remaining here, I can somehow earn a rightful spot in this country. 

Yet, even though I understand this, it still does not feel good to be called and treated like a “Toubab”. At its best, it is annoying to constantly be badgered by the label; as if I needed to be reminded yet again of my differences, as if there is anything I could do to change them. At its worst, it is objectifying and ostracizing. The people shouting this word at me over and over day after day have already decided to treat me differently before I ever got the chance to open my mouth to say hello. I have become part of a generalized population of white people passing through this country, never being afforded a personal history to share. Many times I wonder if they will ever get tired of the same charade every day. They never do. They never get tired of chasing me down the road, of shouting and hissing at me, of giving me extra attention when none was warranted- simply because I am different. They never get tired of pointing me out. When it comes from my host community, it hurts in a sharper way. These are people, more or less family, that I have seen and spoken with and ate with every day for four months and counting. Yet to them, I am a stranger. A guest.  A ghost just passing through. A present moment which will very soon be only a memory. A lot of it could be called generosity, and I try to remember that and not be too annoyed with it. But at a certain point, an excess of generosity is just awkward and inauthentic. I try to be grateful for the hospitality, but it is difficult to feel welcome when it is clear that I don’t belong. 

The hardest part is that every day, there is this divide between my head and my heart. On one side, I understand and acknowledge my identity as a foreigner. On the other side, I want more than anything for a space to belong to. In the space between the two sides, there is a lot of complexity and tangled emotions and thoughts. I don’t think that I will ever truly straighten them all out.

(Side Note: The word “Toubab” is nothing like the N-word. The latter has a deep history of hate and violence while the former does not. It is also not my place to comment on the complexes associated with the latter). 

S. Metzger