Meaning white person, or foreigner.  It is a word with such power, such ‘umph’ when yelled (which it usually is), such negative sound, and yet it is just a word.  Just a signifier of a category of people.  It feels as if we were back in early America when there were very few people of African descent and we called them not by there name, but by their skin color.  It seems so strange, like we have reverted back in time.  We, the Caucasians, are being distinguished by our skin color, by our race.  We are not treated as people, but more as a fascination.  This becomes infuriating to many volunteers and probably to Ex-Patriots living here in Senegal (but I can’t speak for them as I don’t know many Ex-Pats).  It can be extremely frustrating at times, just being called by a determinant category.  Being treated more like a thing and less like a person.  But I have realized that, as frustrating and degrading as it can be on your nerves and on your dignity, it is not often meant with insensitivity as much as it may seem.  We are an oddity, and people here sometimes just don’t actually know how to act/feel about us being there.  To the children, we are either fascinating and they can’t keep their eyes/hands/yelling away from us, or we are terrifying because we are so vastly different than anything they have ever seen before.  When it comes to the older generations, however, we tend to be less lenient with them because their calls of “Toubab” are usually with a tone of sarcastic sneers.  These are the ones we usually have conversations with about the word.

Conversations usually go like this:

Senegalese: “Toubob! Heh Toubab!  Buy mangos.  Mangos are here.  Hey Toubob!”

Us: “Hey!  Toubob is not a name.  Is Toubob a name?  No.  I have a name, and it’s not Toubob” – This usually followed by walking away, refusing them service because of their upfront-ness.

Others are more in-depth.

Senegalese: “Hey, Toubob, have them sit over there.” Or , “Toubob, the pass will be $______” (Much higher than it should be)

Us: “Hey, Toubob is not a name.” (followed by refusing to pay or refusing to move)

Senegalese: (Usually surprised by the retort) “Well I don’t know your name, now, do I?  You are a Toubob, so I’ll call you Toubob.”

Me: “I am not a Toubob, I live here.  You can ask me my name and call me that or you can call me Madame, which is what you would call any other woman on this bus, wouldn’t you?”

Senegalese: “Yes, but you are a Toubob, and that’s what you’re called.  You are a Toubob, I am black.  This is the way it is.”

Me: “Yes, but should I call you ‘Hey Black Person!’?” No, I call you Chauffer or Aparantee, or if you are younger than me: boy.”

Walking down the street, you hear “Toubac!  Toubaco, HEH! Toubac!”  You look over to see a child in a doorway, huge grin on his face waving.  My first reaction is always something along the lines of ‘ugh, what do they want?’ but then you see their faces and you realize they just wanted to get your attention.  It is just so strange though to have someone looking at you, in the face, and exclaim “Toubob.”  They aren’t necessarily asking for anything, they aren’t telling you anything.  They are just saying this word to you.  I never really know what they expect from us.  How do they want us to respond?  Sometimes if I say, “What?” they walk away.  If I say, “what do you want?” they respond with, “how are you?” Then I feel bad for being irritated and asking what they wanted from me.  Saying this word to us is really just their way of getting our attention.


I had a conversation with a Senegalese English teacher recently about the word and how ridiculous it seems to us.  He thought it was hilarious how we reacted to the word and what it meant to us.  He had a good point about why we shouldn’t let it get to us, why we shouldn’t let it irritate us.  It’s not a negative word.  Yes, it can be used negatively and it is segregating, but for a lot of people, it is simply used because they are usually very surprised to see a real live Toubob.  The teacher said, most people in the Fouta region can remember the moment when they first saw a Toubob.  It was such a memorable experience for many of them, and that should mean something to us.


2 thoughts on “Toubob/Toubac

  1. yauianhuei

    Most people think toubab/toubako comes from the Arabic ‘tabib,’ meaning ‘doctor’ because many of the first Europeans in the region were doctors. That made me pretend like it was a compliment for a while. Now if I’m in a good enough mood, I’ll stop and talk to kids, telling them they should greet a stranger if they want to speak to them, like they would greet any of their neighbors. With adults yelling toubako… /fistshake


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