There are days here when I’m glad I have sunglasses to hide the tears. It’s been a while since the days of being ganged up on at school, or being humiliated by a bunch of little kids, but being in Africa has a way of bringing me full-circle. Here I am again, getting upset over being called names.
There is probably not a single day that passes without me being called, “toubako,” which simply means “foreigner” or “white person.” In and of itself, it is an innocuous term. Many Senegalese people have explained to me that it is not meant as a pejorative; it is plainly the word to call people who are outsiders. But that’s just it: in Senegal, you can call an outsider a name, and it’s not bizarre or rude. This, along with creepy men who follow me or repeatedly ask me to marry them, has to be the most grating aspect of integrating into this culture that I have experienced.
For the most part, I don’t let the “toubakos” bother me. It has happened countless times, and it’s just part of the landscape. But there are certain moments, like while I’m riding uphill on an already sweltering day, when getting jeered at by someone who is trying to be provocative just gets my blood boiling. Worse, there is the word, “toubahako.” A pejorative portmanteau of “touba,” meaning pants, “hako,” meaning leaf, “toubahako” colloquially means something you wipe your ass with. And those teenagers saying it to me, they know exactly what it means.
On an intellectual level, I completely understand why I’m called these names. For one, it’s just a cultural thing. Paradoxically, while Senegalese people have mastered the art of the euphemism (when declining an invitation somewhere, they will rarely say “no,” but instead say, “it’s too far”), they sometimes don’t hesitate in calling a spade a spade. Secondly, the obvious: my skin is white, I ride a nice bike, and I stand out. Many people, especially children, are simply surprised to see me and have never seen a real live American up close. Imagine being a little kid in the United States and seeing an exotic animal walk down the street—you would call your friends, yell, and jump up and down, too. I understand that. Given Senegal’s history of colonialism and current tourism industry (including sex tourism), I clearly represent American/European hegemony, power, and money. Even though I speak Pulaar and live with a Senegalese family, I’m not fooling anyone: I don’t belong here.
But on an emotional level, it is difficult to have people remind you repeatedly that you are different, you don’t belong, and perhaps, you are unwelcome. Frequently, while minding my own business walking through the market or riding my bike somewhere, people pop out and yell “Toubako!” in my face and hiss at me to get my attention. One time, a little kid yelled “toubab,” and hit me with a bottle so hard it left welts on my arm. After yelling at him that it hurt, he just ran away and giggled with his friends. An nearby adult did nothing to defend me. Another time, as a group of high school girls yelled “toubahako” at me, I rode over to tell them “toubako is not my name,” but they just continued with the taunting and laughing, getting louder and louder. There I was, an adult transported back to a circle of hostile, catty girls.
Some Peace Corps volunteers have joked that some Senegalese suffer from Toubab Tourette Syndrome, an uncontrollable compulsion to scream “toubab” or “toubako” at the mere sight of a white person. And sometimes this seems to be the case: there are those who don’t wish to greet me or start a conversation, instead they just spot me and without even blinking, blurt “toubako” at me. It can be strangely automatic. Other times, I receive a long up-and-down stare as I approach a group of people, only to be called “toubako” as I pass them and my back is turned. And it is not only innocent children who do this; grown adults sometimes do it too. I’ve always wondered why I can’t just be greeted with “salaam aleykoum” or “bonjour” like anyone else. And even if “toubako” truly isn’t a pejorative, why would Senegalese people think that calling a foreigner “foreigner” would make them want to talk to you?
All frustration aside, it is immensely valuable for me to be going through a period in my life where I know what it means to not belong. Aggravating and belittling as it is, I think everyone should know what it feels like to not be in the majority, to not be automatically accepted. Not only am I reminded of being an outsider every day, I have the added pressure of feeling like I have to prove myself even more. Among people in Kolda who don’t know me, the assumption is rarely that I must be part of some organization doing work. Rather, the assumption seems to be that I am just a dumb white tourist lost in hot southern Senegal. And in some senses, those who think the latter have a point—what AM I doing here?
But to be automatically misjudged is frustrating and to be hyper self-conscious is exhausting. When people say Peace Corps is “tough,” it’s not the shitting-in-a-hole or the 120 degree weather elements; it’s things like this that make it tough every day. And the memory of how I feel about this will stay with me my entire life.
I should say that of course, Senegal being the “land of teranga” (teranga means hospitality…I snicker silently), there are plenty of people I know who have truly upheld that characterization. Once people know my name, they do not call me “toubako,” and plenty others have agreed with me that calling someone “toubako” is unnecessary and the result of a lack of education. When I say to Senegalese friends that I don’t like being called, “toubako,” they always say, “those people, they just don’t know, they don’t understand.” However, they often say that those who say “toubako” are just trying to be friendly and do not know how to interact with me. Again, the cultural friction: in my view, any foreigner is still just a person, and there is no different rules of how to interact with them. But I guess if you have never communicated with a foreigner your entire life, that changes things.
No matter how many times I am called “toubako” in a day, once I arrive at my house and melt back into my host family, I forget about all of the petty frustrations I may have had on the ride there. But I long for the days when I can walk around in public, in a city that I consider home, and not be such a spectacle.