Tubab (“White person”) Findings In Senegal

Shannon Yuen - Senegal


October 22, 2017

Let me take you on a simulation that is somewhat replicative of my first 1.5 months here in Senegal. And in case you do experience culture shock just from reading this and in case you do have trouble choosing your coping mechanism for it, take my advice: an excessively aggressive sense of humor never fails. Enjoy. 

1. Boobs EVERYWHERE

You walk out of your room just as you wake up and right in your face is a pair of boobs. You are greeted good morning to. And with the pair of boobs still in your face, you greet your salutations back. You look away and then (you guessed it) you spot another pair of boobs out and about. Just out here. Hanging around. Chillin’. You go back to your room to process your shock to understand that this is in fact a direct reflection of your society’s construct of hyper sexualizing women’s breasts. People here just feel too hot to give a damn. Whilst you exhale this culture shock in a huff of relief realizing that at least some women’s breasts in the world per say in Senegal aren’t hyper sexualized, you’re enraged at mainstream media for conditioning your internalized sexism. You are thoroughly conflicted. But in a good way. Especially when you walk into the market seeing that women can perform a natural, biological act of breastfeeding their children at such ease in public without getting stared at with judgement. This is freaking awesome. 

But wait, give this a second thought and you would realize how Western-value-infused, globalized corporate giants like Google and Facebook would have easily filtered and deleted a part of the world that does not align with their values. To name one culture specifically — in the Swazi/Zulu Umhlanga (Reed Dance), young women dance bare-breasted for the king as part of the ceremony. King Goodwill Zwelethini implemented this as a means to encourage young girls to stay sexually inactive before marriage to alleviate HIV transmission. Surprise, surprise — Youtube and Google have, in fact, taken down videos and pictures relating to this event, branding their culture as an inappropriate display of nudity. Only after multiple protests from TV Yabantu claiming culture chauvinism, an organization that aims to “protect, preserve and restore African values”, have they re-uploaded their content.) (Go check out TV Yabantu’s Youtube channel! It’s really great because it’s so hard to learn about absolutely anything other than the mainstream culture nowadays.) 

Edit: After observing and understanding more, I realized that this phenomenon (of bare-breastedness) is only present within the demographic of married women. Situations differ from region to region — especially between cities and villages. I’m saying this with the perspective from the city centre of Thies. According to the fellows living in rural villages, breasts are comparably exhibited more often. 

2. Getting called Tubab (“white person”) / Chinoise (Chinese) / Japanese / hissed at shamelessly 

As you’re making your way down the streets in your neighborhood, you get called “tubab” (even if you’re yellow and not white, they still call you white because your melanin game is weak af) and “chinoise” so much it becomes like background music for your pleasant little stroll. On some days, you get confused as to whether people get confused as to whether you’re a yellow cab or simply a person with yellow complexion because they will shamelessly hiss at your direction to get your attention. On some days, you find yourself centered by a bunch of kids showing off their kung fu kicks to you and daring one another to approach you to ask if you’re from “Chine” or not. On most occasions, you joke around and say “Deedeet, duma Chinoi. Ngir Yallah! Senegal la judu.” (No, Im not Chinese. For God’s sake! I’m from Senegal.) just so you get amused by their amusement as they howl back in synchronized laughter. But when you truthfully answer that you’re from Hong Kong, you get asked how Japan is. You shake your head and explain how Hong Kong is under the rule of China’s “one country two systems” with your limited Wolof/French skills and right on the spot you get a synchronized “ahhh” followed by playful yet aggressive mutters of “ching chong”s and “hee haa haa!”s in response. This does happen quite often, and you do get intimidated most of the time especially when you’re walking alone, but of course — not everyone in Senegal is like this. And if people do react in such a way, know that they have questions rather than bad intentions. 

3. Blessed in abundance — flies

The amount of flies I’ve seen in Senegal is incomparable to anywhere I’ve been before. But what’s even more interesting is how unfazed people are towards the sheer amount of flies that are dominating their living space. (Personally, I believe that they should be responsible for paying the rent as well since they do take up quite some space. Unfortunately, they are nothing but tyrannical roommates.) From now on, I have already accepted the fact that flies are an essential part of my life. (Though the living conditions in my house is hygienic. Such intense fly situations are only observed in other people’s houses I’ve visited.) 

4. People can make conversation out of absolutely anything (meaning that the greetings are often longer than the actual conversations)

Your colleagues would go from asking about how your morning went, your mother, father, brother, cousins, weather, work and the place where you live to asking about your mother back home, father back home, brother back home, cousins back home, the weather back home, and — you get the drill. Anything that is related to you, they will ask about it. And since peace is highly valued here in Senegal (there certainly is a reason why Senegal is known to be one of the most peaceful African countries), everything you answer to will have to have the word “jamm” in it (meaning peace). Compared to the idea of human interaction back home in Hong Kong (which is a slight nod and if you’re lucky — a half-smile), this feels real. And just like this, because a certain set of beliefs and culture is shared, trust and a sense of belonging is built within the community. 

5. On a monthly basis, you poop as frequent as you get your period 

Vegetables and fruits or just any type of food that has fibre in it is expensive. Especially now in October, these produces have to be imported from neighboring countries like Mali, Guinea-Bissau, and the Ivory Coast. Imagine this: 2 oranges are sold for 500 CFA (which is almost the equivalent of 1 USD, and the reason why I use the word “almost” is because inflation grows at an extreme rate here). This is the equivalent of a little less than the average daily wage of a Senegalese. But I am lucky enough to be living in the city next to the market, so at least I can have access to vegetables unlike the fellows living in the remote Serrer villages. 

And the moment that I say “Hey. Being able to poop is a damn privilege” is the exact moment I realize that my worldview has shifted exponentially and that I would never think of privilege the way I do now if I’ve never lived in this geographic location before. Thank you GCY. Thank you Shelby Davis for sharing your wealth. Thank you mom and dad for your unconditional support. 

It’s been quite the experience,

Shannon 

Shannon Yuen