The Toubab Dilemna

Matthew Travers - Senegal

April 23, 2013

Words here in Senegal are a valuable commodity. The wisest people string the neatest webs of words, and a new word learned in Wolof is a new tool to use. However, since the beginning of my time here, one word in particular has followed me wherever I go: Toubab.

As you walk down the road to work, a group of teenagers snickers, “Toubab, ana sa xaalis? Doo nu ko may?” (Toubab, where’s your money? Aren’t you going to give us some?) Later at the market, the merchant tells you the price of a piece of clothing you know is three times what it is worth. Upon returning home, you are followed by a group of kids who asks you for presents and laughs at you, yelling, “Toubab! Cadeau!” (Toubab! Present!).

The word Toubab in it of itself is not necessarily a vulgar word. Of Wolof origin, Toubab simply refers to someone who comes from Europe, particularly France. The problem with the word is what it implies about all white skinned people who come to Senegal.  Due to irresponsible tourism and a general unwillingness to adapt to Senegalese culture, when children see white skin, they see strange creatures wearing fanny packs full of candy with digital cameras hanging around their necks. There are some places in Senegal that are worse than others. In tourist destinations like Joal and Mbour, one can expect to hear Toubab remarks often, from shopkeepers trying to sell you overpriced souvenirs or youth looking to make a spectacle of you. In Dakar and Thies, where there are many foreign residents, the distinction is less often made.

The reality for the Toubab here in Senegal is drastically different from the lives of most Senegalese, something always apparent by the cars foreigners drive, the food they eat, the houses they live in, and the relatively luxurious lives they lead. In Senegalese culture where communal living is the norm and sharing is expected, a dollar or a candy does not seem like an outlandish request, especially when asked of someone who is intrinsically wealthier. However, as an American who rarely receives such requests, this constant attention often makes me feel uncomfortable and the victim of an inaccurate stereotype.

It is not simply the image of the archetypal Toubab that disturbs me. To me, the idea of constantly being identified and targeted by my race is a new experience, one that I had never seen in multicultural California. Having to pay higher prices for things and being manipulated by people who seek personal gain from a friendship with me feels like racism, whether that be its intention or not.I explained to my host uncle why I didn’t like the word, and he assured me that it is the people’s way of integrating you into their society, by acknowledging your presence in their village. To me, when someone calls me Toubab, I feel anything but integrated. In fact, I am reminded of how out of place I am here, and it takes me a step back in the complicated process of integrating in this culture.

That being said, how do we change the idea of how Toubabs, particularly Americans, are viewed in Senegal? As with any impact, it starts small; when I am ‘Toubabed’ in my village, I take the time to explain to children and adults alike that I am a young person, and I come from a family that is not by any means wealthy. I explain that my presence in the country is not to gawk at rural life or ride a safari bus around villages snapping photos, but rather to understand my neighbors as much as possible and be an active member in my community. I can tell it works too; now in my village, kids run behind me shouting my name, “Doudou! Doudou Ndong!” In daily interactions, people light up when you speak to them in Wolof, their native language before Toubab, or French, imposed itself on the Senegalese. When you bargain respectfully but confidently, the merchants understand you did not just come to Senegal to escape a cold winter and ride around on ATVs for two weeks.

To me, there is great value in disproving the assumptions that the Senegalese have about their white-skinned neighbors. It is not always easy or pleasant, but once you find people you really connect with, that can see beyond your skin color and the stereotype you are associated with, you are able to prove you are more than just a pocket full of money or an ignorant visitor. The respect I have within my group of friends for being willing to learn how to eat, sleep, dance, talk, and live like a Senegalese has come to define my experience. Man, duma Toubab. I am not your average Toubab.

Matthew Travers