"We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures that we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open." - Jawaharlal Nehru

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Hello, my name is Toubab.

Definition of "Toubab" - outsider, foreigner (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toubab)

Can be used as:

1. Noun - someone of lighter skin color, a european.. or someone seen as "whiter"
2. Verb - to toubab someone, or "do toubab".
** example: I am given a price that is higher when I'm in the market ONLY because my skin color - this is known as being "toubabed".
3. Adjective - a toubab price, especially seen in the larger cities, where the tourists roam.  During tourist season, all prices are jacked up unless it's a set price, which is only seen in larger stores, also known as "toubab stores".

Sometimes it is used as a way to get my attention, and it works.  When I go to the local market (Luumo), I am usually the only person with white skin, so when I hear "TOUBAB!!!" being yelled out, I know it's for me.  As for kids, it is their first word they learn after birth.  Why?  In the areas where tourists come, Toubabs give mintis (candy).  And in the case of my training village, they may receive books, prescription reading glasses, cookies, etc etc by the tourists who have come to do their good deeds for the year by riding around in large busses and throwing these items out to "the starving african children".  But that's a reason for another blog... handouts - these make my job as a Peace Corps Volunteer very challenging.

So why am I writing a blog on this term? It's because I absolutely loathe it - it's implications, it's literal definition, the sound of it, everything about it.

Other than it being used as an attention getter, I see this term as being extremely degrading - comparable to "The N word" back home.  The concept of "outsider", in my mind is the thing that disconnects us from each other, and thus stunting any hope for progress and integration.  WE ARE ALL OF THE SAME SOUL, THE SAME MATTER, THE SAME PLACE IN THIS UNIVERSE.  When I hear this word, I cringe, and sometimes even shut down.  This is because often it is accompanied with "give me money" or "take me to America".  I mean LITERALLY people say "TOUBAB, GIVE ME MONEY!" and is screamed at me by tens of kids at one time "TOUBAB, MINTIIIII!".

Just like the person calling me Toubab, I have a name.  I have 2 names actually - Shawn Reed and Mariama Sowe.  Granted, the may not KNOW my name, but they don't yell out "HEY BLACK PERSON" to their fellow Gambians to get their attention (okay sometimes they say "boy!").  Even if the person doesn't know my name, I expect to be greeted just like every other person in this county, with "Salaamaleekum" - meaning " Peace be upon you ".  Before you approach anyone, the first thing you say here is Salaamaleekum.  If they will not take time to greet me like every other person they come in contact with, then I will not give them my time or attention. 

My coworkers and I have sacrificed 2 years of our lives of comfort, left behind friends, family and loved ones, and are living halfway across the world in a new culture, language and for most a new religion.  We have come to help one of the most underdeveloped counties in the world, and the smallest country in Africa... At least give us a proper greeting!!

Sadly, being called a Toubab every single day, by 2-year olds and 82-year olds alike, in and outside of my village (ESPECIALLY outside of my own village), sometimes makes me not want to be here.  YES - I am a foreigner.  I glow at night and you can see me from a mile away.  I will NEVER blend in, no matter how culturally appropriate I dress or how well I master the local languages; I am not a Gambian, I AM AN AMERICAN.

However, underneath my skin, I am the same as every human being.  If you really want to get into it, I am the same as every single THING, living & non-living, in this entire universe.  But, I digress.

This has been a problem for every PCV I know.  Sometimes, I feel like even the birds call me "toubab" ( I swear I heard it once.. or maybe that's the mephloquine) when I'm strolling in the bush.  When I hear it, I am reminded how far away from home I really am.  Imagine, hearing this about 20 times a day or 200 if in the city. 

So how am I coping?  I'm learning to shake it off.  Maybe I should just embrace it?!  I AM TOUBAB, HEAR ME...laugh?" ,because it's all I can do.  I cannot escape the wrath of the Toubab.  Maybe there will be  a day when I am called "sister" by everyone.  I like to consider every human being to be my family.  Things will change, but the Gambia has a phrase I like to remind myself of frequently.  You will see this many times in the life of this blog... "slowly slowly".

Thank you for hearing my rant, and by ALL means - leave a comment.


  1. Shawn! Definitely one of those most frustrating things to deal with. Sometimes it gets to me more than others. Lately, I've been practicing my princess wave. I used to do the whole "my name is Jonsaba thing" but nowadays I just ignore it. Or just say "hello" or some mandinka phrase... As long as its not pulling at my bike or swapping at me... grr...

  2. Excellant description. Don't take it too hard. You're on the right track expressing it this way and it helps us back here at home, knowing what our PCVs are going through. You need to know that you're a hero to all of us, and we're proud of the work you do in TG.
    W. in IL