The perks of being a wallpaper

It’s a typical Saturday afternoon in Khombole. Pawla just picked me up from my house like she always does, and we are both on our way to Nisha’s house. One important thing to note about Pawla is that EVERYONE knows her in Khombole. I cannot put two steps together without hearing “Yaye Fatouuuu!”, her Senegalese name. I see all these kids running to her, smiling and grabbing her hand to say hi. No one takes my hand, no one says my name. We finally reach Nisha’s house. She gets out, smiles at us and we all start walking toward the market. On the way, I hear people screaming “Toubab!” and “Chinois”. Again, no one pays attention to me. We stop at a jewelry stand. Pawla wants to buy earrings. They are beautiful. The vendor smiles at Pawla. “1000” he says. We all gasp. That is too much. I bargain for her. Typically, when they see that I can speak wolof and that I look, well, Senegalese, they easily drop the price. So I talk to him, throw some jokes around to ease things. He is happy with my speech so he accepts to sell the earrings for 300. “Jerejef way” I say. He looks at me frowning and says: “Yow Senegalese piir nga” (You are a pure Senegalese). I laugh and say something to my two friends in english. I notice the confusion on the guy’s face. What are you? He asks me. I tell him I am Senegalese. He doesn’t believe me. “There is something different about you, you’re not exactly from here right?” Right.

To clear things up: yes I have Senegalese blood. I was born in Dakar to two beautiful Senegalese parents. I have the typical looks of a Senegalese woman: the shape of my face, the way my body curves and my dark skin colour. That is the reason why I blend so easily in Senegal: I look like everyone else. Yet, when I open my mouth and start speaking, they can sense that something is wrong. I speak wolof with a very, polished accent. I look at people in the eye instead of looking away. I let my frizzy hair out instead of covering it or stretching it. The fact is, despite my Senegalese looks, I don’t act like one. That’s because I have lived in the Western world my whole life, if not in very secluded white neighbourhoods. I was barely surrounded by my people. Everywhere I went to I was the minority, the outsider, the difference. I was seen like the cryptic exotic woman, the pepper in a sea of salt, the dirt in a perfectly white snow. I didn’t look like anybody and no one looked like me. At some point, I was so tired of being pointed out for my differences that I started to act like them in order to fit in. That’s how I completely lost my wolof proficiency. That’s how, slowly by slowly, I pushed away my Senegalese roots and completely transformed into a “Toubab” woman. I completely lost myself trying to be someone I was never meant to be.

Gladly I came to Senegal for my gap year. Here, I am a wallpaper, a rice grain, a drop in the ocean. The point is, people just assumes that I am one of them. They do not treat my differently, or look at me with curious eyes like my western fellows used to do. They talk to me like with any other of their friends, but they don’t notice me in an extravagant fashion like they do with Pawla and Nisha. You would think that my Senegalese community’s behaviour upsets me. At first, I was a little unsettled by the fact that people didn’t care about me. Why weren’t they saying hi to me? Why didn’t they notice that I was a “Toubab” too, when I walked on the streets? It bothered me for some time, until I realized that truly, it was the best thing that ever happened to me. For the first time in my life, I fit in to some place. I had people to look up to, people that looked exactly like me. For the first time I felt comfortable in my own skin and my own hair, because I was not the “odd” one. I finally found beauty in myself, and that made me become so proud and confident about my West African origins.

So indeed, I confused a lot of people in the streets of Khombole, but at least I’m not confused about myself anymore.