Monday, October 11, 2010


I am thankful for electricity, a stable internet connection, skype, and the ability to share Thanksgiving dinner with my family halfway across the world. Too bad I couldn't actually taste the pumpkin pie!

I am also incredibly thankful for web of science, virtual private networks that function across continents, and my UBC log-in. You can take the girl out of academia, but you can't take academia out of the girl!

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Name Games

Written today! 09 October 2010

I'm sitting in the APROFES auberge, my temporary home and sanctuary in Kaolack, drinking sugary tea, writing blog posts and journal entries, reading an illuminating-yet-depressing book about international development, mentally preparing myself for an uber-religious Senegalese baptism, and plotting my return to Gambia...

Someone pointed out that I haven't explained what "toubab" means. This word is so ingrained in my daily experiences that I absent-mindedly assume that everyone knows what it means. Of course not. Many of the small details about Africa are so pervasive that I neglect to share them in my stories and descriptions. That's too bad, since many of the most striking things about Africa are the small ones.

So, toubab. Here's what Wikipedia has to say about it:

"Toubab" is a Central and West African name for a person of European descent ("whites"). Used most frequently in the Gambia, Senegal, and Mali, the term does not have derogatory connotations by itself, though it is also frequently associated with "wealthy traveller" (if one can afford to travel, then he/she must be rich). The word can also be applied to any perceived traveller - even those of black African descent with an identifiably different phenotype such as (whiter) Cape Verdeans and (blacker) Nigerians, up to foreign-raised locals (thus with a different accent) or a visiting expatriate...The most likely earliest derivation is from the Wolof word for Europe (Tougal). As Wolof means the people of Jollof, Toubab means the people of Tougal.

As wikipedia states, the term itself is not derogatory. "C'est n'est pas mechant," explained one of my Senegalese co-workers, though it can definitely be annoying. Children constantly yell "Toubab! Toubab!" wherever I go. Seriously, everywhere -- in bustley city streets, along quiet village paths, and even from the side of the road as I pass by in a vehicle. I'm totally fine with the label when it comes from children, but have little patience when it comes from adults. But, I packed my sense of humour and ability to light-heartedly laugh at myself (as recommended by Lonely Planet) so I'm usually able to hide my frustration. I do, however, humoursly lay down the law with anyone that actually wants to talk to me or be my friend.

"Toubab? Tuduma toubab. Haddy laa tudda." (Toubab? My name isn't toubab. My name is Haddy.)

Yup, my name is now Haddy. Haddy Kah. (Or, Haddy Ceesay if I'm in Tchisse Masse). In Gambian and Senegalese culture, namesakes (tomas) are very important. Names are never(?) chosen willy-nilly and newborns are always named after someone that may end up playing a large role in their life. It's not uncommon, I believe, for a child to be sent to live with their toma for a significant length of time.

Here, most toubabs get Wolof names both because of the importance of tomas (and everyone wants to have a toubab names after them!) and, more practically, because no one can pronounce or remember our Western names! Some toubabs resist their Wolof name, but I think that being Haddy is a small but symbolic way to better integrate into the culture and express mutual respect. People are thrilled when they ask my name and, expecting something Western, I respond with "Haddy." Having a Wolof name also identifies me as not-a-tourist, which is pretty important for my sanity and helps me to build relationships.

My toma is a woman named Haddy Kah (obviously). She is from El Hadje Mayebe and is the president of the farmer group that we work with there. During my village stay, I stayed with her family.

Unfortunately, Leanne's toma is also named Haddy. She got the name first, so my Wolof name is a bit sub-optimal, but it took me a long time to get a toma and I've embraced my name. I'm Haddy Kah and she's Haddy Fal Nying, so hopefully there won't be too much confusion when we're in the same village.

Learning and remembering names has been pretty challenging. I carry a little book for Wolof grammar and phrases and have taken to writing names in there, if I know that I'm going to see someone again. But this only works when I meet one or two people at a time, and I can actually remember their name (and face) after the conversation. Names are especially challenging when we arrive in a new place (like a new village) and meet 70 people in the span of 20 minutes. It's even harder when we meet many of them in the dark!

People are pretty forgiving though, and I think (hope) that they understand how difficult it can be for us when they are always mixing up the names of the three toubabs that have visited the village. (In Tchisse Masse, I stayed with the same family as Margaret, and was constantly being called Alimatu. I'm pretty sure that there are some children there that never did understand that Margaret and I are not the same person.) Exclaiming "suma xarit!" ("my friend!") seems to be a pretty good alternative to actually remembering someone's name.

Jamma rek,
Haddy Kah Toubab

Friday, October 8, 2010

On Husbands

Since there were no public bites (disappointing!), here's the answer to September 24th's translation assignment.

Amuma jekar, buguma jekar!
I don't have a husband, I don't want a husband!

I've just returned from spending a week in Tchisse Masse, one of the project villages. During my stay, my conversations typically went like this:

Am nga jekar? (Do you have a husband?)
Amuma jekar. (I don't have a husband.)

This was usually followed by hopeful looks, either in jest or in earnest, indicating that the asker either wanted to marry me or to set me up with their son/brother/nephew/own husband.

Lutax? (Why?)

Amuma jekar, amuma problem yi! (I don't want a husband, I don't want problems!)
Jekar bi, problem bu berri! (A husband, lots of problems.)

Aram, am na jekar. Am na problem yi? (Catherine has a husband. Does she have problems?)
Jekar bu Canada, problem tutti. Jekar bu Senegal, problem bu berri! (Canadian husbands, small problems. Senegalese husbands, lots of problems!)

And, if I'm feeling particularly defiant, I throw in this line:
Soxlauma jekar! (I don't need a husband!)

I've passed week-long cultural immersions in both Senegalese project villages and I've jokingly taken a husband in both. In El Hadje Mayebe, I intend to marry Ebu, a teenager that is likely likely the son or nephew of one of my host mothers. (Family structure is large and complicated here, and it's always difficult to figure out how exactly people are related.) I only called Ebu my jekar a few times, but he blushed profusely each time I did. In Tchisse Masse, I promised to marry an older man that I called "suma jekar bu mag" (my husband that is old) and this was met with riotous laughter.

Buguma jekar legy, buguma jekar legity, waay buga naa jekar si kanam, si Canada.

Taxi Man

10 September 2010
Bakau, The Gambia

For the record, my trip hasn't only been about Gambian men. I've also spent lots of time with Senegalese men. Kidding! Well, actually I'm not, but that's not what I mean. I have been learning Wolof, spending lots of time along, hanging out with some women (though mostly ex-pat women, as all the Gambian women are at home, married, and working hard to feed their husbands and children), and working. But, Gambian men make the most entertaining stories and, as a solo toubab woman, constant male attention is the one thing that I can be certain each day will bring.

Yesterday, I took advantage of a free morning to head to Latrikunda to visit a friend. When was time to head back to Bakau for language lessons, Kebba took me to the Brikhama Highway to catch a cab. It had taken me almost an hour to get to Latrikunda due to heavy traffic and full cabs. I was slow leaving Kebba's house, of course, and was eager to get to Bakau and not be too late for Baboucarr, so I was hoping for a fast trip. I get into a cab, in the back seat, with four other me. The cab driver starts chatting to me in English (no surprise) and I respond in English. Mistake #1.

The cab driver asks me the standard suite of questions: What's your name? Where are you from? How's your vacation? How is The Gambia? I am panka (Wolof: sassy) and confident and shoot back my answers. He eventually gets around to asking the most important question: Do you have a husband? "Yes, I am married. I have four Gambian husbands." The man beside me had been enjoying my sassiness but, until then, had stifled his laughter and remained fairly calm and reserved. My declaration of four Gambian husbands, however, was enough for him to let loose his laughter.

I establish that I have four Gambian husbands and the cab driver, of course, wants to be my fifth. I insist that Islam says that I can only have four husbands, so he cannot be my fifth. At this point, I've been in Africa for three weeks and been solo in the city for nearly two of those. I have enough Wolof under my belt and am sassy enough that I think I know how to handle harmless but persistent men. And I'm still confident that I do, as long as they back off eventually.

The driver asks me where I am going. He's only going to Westfield Junction and I have to transfer there to get a five-five (a shared cab) to Bakau. I tell him I'm going to Bakau and he insists that I'll have a hard time getting a car from Wesfield. "There are no cars going to Bakau." I'm pretty sure this isn't true. "Coming, yes, but going, no. It's almost prayer day. Everything's full. I will drive you to Bakau, 60 Dalasi." I am pretty skeptical about the Westfield-Bakau car situation, but Africa is full of ridiculous logistical surprises and I am in a rush. So, I haggle, in English (Mistake #1.5) down to 40 Dalasi (less than $2 CAD).

Once it's established that the driver will take me all the way home, he continues his inquiry:

"Are you fasting?" No, I'm not fasting today. I have fasted some days, but not today.

"Are you Muslim?" No I'm not Muslim.

"Oh, I that that the man you were with was your husband." No he's not my husband. Mistake #2.

We get to Westfield. Everyone else gets out of the cab and the driver invites me to sit in the front seat. Still comfortable with the situation, and aware that it is common for passengers to sit in the front seat, I oblige. Mistake #3. We head to Bakau along major streets (i.e. paved) but don't take the usual routes -- we drive along streets that I don't know. I start to feel a little nervous, though, granted, we did miss all the traffic along Kariaba Ave and made great time to Bakau. Nonetheless, we're following routes that I don't know, I'm in the front seat, and the driver has seriously cranked up his persistence.

He wants to be my friend. He wants my phone number. He wants to call me. He wants to see me. How can he see me? He wants my number. He wants me to call him. He's tired. He wants to come to my house and lie in my bed. And he wants to -- and does -- touch my arm. Repeatedly, despite my insistence that it's not okay.

He also starts to make a dopey-eyed kissy face and flick his tongue in my firection. I haven't seen this facial expression before, but I know exactly what it means. I start to get seriously uncomfortable, but at this point we're close to Bakau and back on routes that I know.

We reach the Romana and I get him to drop me off. Mistake #4. He now knows where I live, though I'm not sure that I could have done much to avoid this at this point. I try to pay and he refuses my money, preferring to come lie down in my bed. "No, we had a deal." He gets out my change and I had him 100 Dalasi.

"You're just going to leave me? You're going to leave me like this?" Kissy face, kissy face, kissy face.

"Yes, I'm going to leave you just like that!" And I slam the door.

I was livid. I paced back and forth along the empty path of the Romana until I calmed down. I felt totally frustrated and violated. How can some people think that it's okay to treat others like that?!?! Just because I'm a solo white woman doesn't mean that I should be a target for persistent sexual advances. But I am, and they're mostly totally harmless. Mostly.

Lessons learned? See Mistakes 1, 1.5, 2, 3, and 4. Also, call Baboucarr, my anytime stand-in Gambian husband and have a chat. And I can always use the "I forgot that I have to run some errands, please drop me off at the supermarket on Kariaba" line. And, I can also write down his license plate number and threaten a police report. Gambia's pretty serious about non-harassment of tourists.

So, don't worry Dad. I am safe, cautious, streetwise, and I have a good group of trustworthy Gambian men that have my back. The same thing could happen in Vancouver except, at home, I don't need a cab driver to help me ride my bike!

African Letters #3

Written 26 September 2010
Leybato, The Gambia

Dear Africa,

You do have hammocks! You were just hiding them from me. You needn't be so secretive about your hammocks. Let them go forth and multiply!

A content, beach-side, hammock-slung Eileen

Friday, October 1, 2010