April 24, 2015

Toubab or not

I never thought I will be called a “toubab” in my life but I guess it depends on what one defines as a toubab. Everyone is always going to be a toubab somewhere and at some point of his or her life. Here in Senegal, a toubab is “foreigner” and it is most often attributed to white people. In Madagascar, a toubab is called a “vazaha”. Some people get offended when called toubab or vazaha but I think the best way to deal with it is to let go and go along the flow. I understand that “vazaha” does not apply to Chinese, African, or Indian people meaning a vazaha is not quite every foreigner. It has “western” idea behind it. Being a toubab or a foreigner is not a bad thing however; it just means that you are different. You can be foreign in place, do things differently but still belong to the same place. You can be a toubab but still belong to a family in Senegal or anywhere. I still hear member of my host families call me toubab whenever they talk about me and this does not change anything. I don’t think not calling me a toubab will make me less of a toubab or more of a Senegalese person.

When I was doing a survey in a suburban area of Dakar, children there called me “chocolate” toubab because I was not white but I was not Senegalese either.  I know people in Madagascar like to group people as well. If I were to watch T.V  with my family in Madagascar and see people looking South Asian, we would shout out “Karana” a Malagasy word to say Indians and Pakistanis.  I think depending on how much exposure people have to different culture that they feel the need to label or group people.  As spend more and more time in the United States, I labeled people less and less to groups such as Indians, Chinese, and French… I learnt that there are more to people that the group that I try to put them in. Sometimes I don’t even put them in the right group they identify to. The most important thing I always remember from International student orientation is that a person is always an individual first before belonging to a group and should be taken as such.

Another thing about being a toubab however is the stereotypes that come with it. I heard from our intercultural classes that toubabs are thought to be “easy” girls, toubabs are very individualists and rude and of course have a lot of money in Senegal.

Baobab in Mar Lodj

Baobab in Mar Lodj

We went on an excursion in the South of Senegal, in the Sine Saloum (Kaolack region) last week-end. We went to an island called Mar Lodj and spent two days there. We went on a tour with chariot and visited the surrounding villages. In our last stop, we took pictures with the children and one of my peer played soccer with the kids. Right before we left the place, one of the older girls told me “Ne venez pas ici si vous n’avez pas de cadeau” translated in English “Don’t come here and visit, if you do not have gifts.”  I was shocked and did not know what to say. I am not really sure if it was shocked because of this girl’s boldness or the general view of the population that toubabs just have FREE gifts and of course, they are saviors.

Le fleuve

Le fleuve

posted in Rebeka Ramangamihanta

tagged with , , ,


  1. This is great Rebeka! I am proud of you and what you said is truly true about “toubab”. It’s not a bad thing. The word toubab came from a French slang word “Toubib” because when the Europeans arrived here many of them were doctors from the church and they were trying to “help” our people by curing them, that was the way to be here. Toubib is a slang word to mean a Doctor. People here mispronounced the word and were referring to white people as toubab.

    I hope to read more of your experience in Senegal!

    Moutarou, CIEE

    says Moutarou Diallo
    April 25, 2015 at 3:23 pm
  2. Moutarou,
    Thank you for explaining the origin of the word “Toubab.” Actually in Madagascar, the word “vazaha” also came from a similar story. The French colonialist used to order around people and say “vas-y” (phonetically vazi) so Malagasy people started to call them “vazaha.” It is interested how both words was transformed a bit to say foreigners.

    says Rebeka Ramangamihanta
    April 27, 2015 at 9:40 am

Leave a Comment