Toubab! Eh, toubab!

Olivia Hill - Senegal

April 23, 2013

I can become fluent in Wolof, I can wear the exotic clothes, I can cook ceebu gen bu suff (rice and fish that is tasty), and I can get myself a Senegalese husband, but there is one thing I cannot do.

I cannot change the color of my skin.

I’ve even asked if there are blackening lotions instead of the many xeesal products (skin bleaching), but surprisingly those do not exist in Senegal.

So here I am; white as ever.

If I wasn’t aware of color status before I came to Senegal, there are now constant reminders.  From being called a toubab (foreigner) as I walk down the street, to little kids crying and running away when they see me.  It’s not easy to miss that I don’t quite belong; is this where the integration stops?

My five year old rakk (younger sibling) came into my room one day calling out “Xadi toubab,” a rude distortion of my actual name, “Xadi Kebe.”  I angrily asked why she didn’t say my name.  Of course, she had no solid answer because she’s five but, that doesn’t mean it didn’t sting. For seven months I’ve worked so hard to blend in, yet I can be instantaneously thrown back to day one by a five year old.

There’s no way of blocking out the color of my skin or the connotations that come with it.

Money. Prosperity. Money. Can’t do anything.

The stereotype of a foreigner has a history linked to colonization.  Many Senegalese assume I “speak toubab,” French.  Then, they assume I have as much money as a movie star, and I’m friends with the characters you see on “90210” and “Gossip Girl.”

That’s not to say I’m endlessly discriminated against and my life is horrible. The majority of the people I come into contact with are extremely friendly, even if they are motivated by my whiteness. Once they realize I speak Wolof and have a Senegalese name their attitudes change.  I become a little more like them.

When I’m used to being in a community of people who have moved past toubab and then go to another community that only sees toubab it moves my thoughts away from how far I’ve come to how far I may never be able to fully integrate.  How can I become completely assimilated if there are always people to correct?  Is it possible to correct everyone?  Is it just a matter of putting forth the effort?  Or will the effort always be washed away by an outside community?

When I walk into my courtyard after I get home in the afternoons I begin a round of greetings.

Xadi Kebe ñew na!” (Xadi Kebe arrived!)

Namm na laa” (I missed you)

Ya ngi ci jamm?” (Are you with peace?)

I see the genuine happiness of my family as I shake each one of their hands; I start to wonder if maybe this is integration enough.

Olivia Hill