Zoo Animals

Mai Lee - Senegal


February 27, 2013

Every passerby stares. Even a brief passing calls for double takes, especially with groups of children.

Staring. Gawking. Examining.

Even through my shades, my eyes alternate between looking straight ahead and a random object that I suddenly find oh-so-interesting. My hand adjusts its grip on my bag strap and I continue forward.

Is there anything on my face? Is my hair a mess? Why is everyone staring?

Questions circulate through my head, although I already know the answer: I am a toubab.

Here in Senegal, toubab is the name given to foeigners—white, Latino, Asian, you name it. In a country where everyone is dark-skinned, I stick out like a sore thumb. Therefore, everyone tries to catch a glimpse of the toubab—a rare beast in western Africa.

I imagine this is what it feels like to be a celebrity; wearing giant diva shades and trying to get past all the staring by acting like I don’t notice them. It feels like I’m a zoo animal.

It’s like “observe the toubab, the animal of the West” everyday. They examine how I look, monitor all my actions and movements, and try to get my attention by making hissing noises. It gets tiring having to live under a microscope all day, everyday, as I have to constantly stay alert.  I’m in this foreign world where everyone seems to know about me, but I know nothing about them. I don’t know much about where I am, while many have lived here their entire lives.

Even when it comes to eating, my lifestyle is very zoo animal-like. Back home, I used to eat throughout the day, snacking on food in between meals whenever I pleased and oftentimes preparing my own platter when I was craving a dish. But here, I have to adjust to the Senegalese schedule and eat when they feel like feeding me. The Senegalese seeme to eat the three main meals throughout the day, but have no concept of snacking whatsoever. I eat breakfast around 8-9am, lunch between  1-3pm, and dinner between 8-10:30pm—a completely different schedule from what I’m used to. And there is only one dish: no appetizers, no side salads, no nothing.

It’s funny because I decided to take this bridge year with the intention of being able to be independent, but that really isn’t the case. At least in Dakar, that is. Everybody wants to watch this strange and foreign animal outside its natural habitat, and its life is at the mercy of the people.

But it isn’t a bad thing. Although at times all the staring everywhere I go gets uncomfortable feeling monitored everywhere I go, it makes sense; these people probably rarely see toubabs walking down the street. It makes you think about the differences between the U.S. and Senegal, and how unique our country is relative to the rest of the world as there are no other cultural melting pots like it. With a mixture of so many different races and cultures, seeing someone of a different color or religion is normal for an American. For a Senegalese, it’s not.

The disparities really are amazing. Although we say “it’s a small world after all,”  the world we live in is still so much bigger than we think.

Mai Lee