Saturday, May 22, 2010


The word I hear more than any other in Mali is, without a doubt, 'toubabu!'*  Children shriek 'toubabu' as I bike past villages and fields on my way into San.  Vendors yell 'toubabu' as I pass their stands in efforts to draw my attention to their spread of produce or appliances.  Annie shakes her head and sighs 'ah, toubabu' when she hears about customs in America or outside of Mali to which she is not accustomed.  Hearing the word so much makes it lose its meaning for me and at times 'toubabu' begins to feel like another way of saying 'hello'.  But at other times, like when I listen to the BBC or catch up on the news at the internet café, I am reminded of what 'toubabu' means to a Malian.  It means someone who is different and not of this place.  Someone who does not belong.  I have this strange sense of duality: being a 'toubabu' in Mali and trying to fit in but also seeing and hearing the news as a toubabu while living in Mali.  With only a few weeks left here before touching ground in the States after an absence of a little under two years I have started to think more about what it means to be a 'toubabu' in Mali and also what it will mean to be an anonymous Jennifer in America.

Listening to the BBC one evening a couple weeks back while whipping up a Laughing-Cow cheese white sauce on my bunsen burner stove the correspondent announced that the president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, a recent subscriber to Twitter, tweeted an official statement concerning the failure of a government project that had opened the week prior and subsequently failed.  My jaw literally fell open as my super-processed cheese tried to melt in the pan.  Have I been away that long that official announcements are made via Twitter?  I found myself muttering 'ah, toubabu' under my own breath, à la Annie, and feeling both disconnected from (the) America(s) and pondering what other novelties have developed during my absence.  News like this is shocking to me here in Mali not because I live in a 1,000 person village without electricity; Mali is connected with cell phones, internet and satellite TV (in bigger cities) and even has it's own version of Twitter (something called Orange Chat).  It's shocking because the story represents how many things, potentially, have changed since I have been gone and make me wonder what else is different and how will I feel being back home again in a few weeks. 

Chavez's story reminded me of similar news that reach me via packages, internet or the BBC and that make me feel like (the) America(s) are much further than the 5,000 or so miles that already separate us.  I took back a People magazine to village a few months back and gave it to the kids in my host family to look through.  The kids discarded the magazine after looking through the pictures and Annie, who normally ignores such things in favor of her knitting, asked me to explain the picture on front.  I took back the magazine and proceeded to try and explain the meaning of transgender and then how it is possible for a man to give birth to a baby; I had neglected to take care about what was on the cover before passing on the magazine.  Mind you, this conversation was all in Bambara which is not even close to my native language and on a subject that is awkward for most Americans and especially in Mali.  Annie shook her head, true to form, said 'ah, toubabu' and then said how every man should have to go through child birth at least once.  I've learned a lesson from Annie - even though things like the man giving birth to a baby and Chavez's Twitter story shock me here, they are also just stories and Annie's response reassures me that adjusting to strange news once I am stateside again will not be so hard.

In a small village 5 km from mine I slow down my bike on my way into San to take a corner and two children exit a compound.  The older girl takes the younger one by the hand while the little one opens her mouth and screams 'DJELIKA-AHHHHHHHHH!' as though I jumped from around the corner to scare her.  I laugh out loud and keep on biking after greeting them both, my name still ringing in my ears and my smile still beaming that she did not call me 'toubabu muso-ni**!!!'. 

I am 'toubabu' to Malians who don't know me, Djelika to those who do and Jennifer to those who know me best.  All that to say that after my plane lands in DC and my Djelika complet is tucked away in the suitcase and my Jennifer dress is taken out of my carry-on I'm sure I'll look around, take in all the once-again familiar sights, tastes and sounds and say, 'ah, toubabus!'.  If you're not there to see it, don't worry, I'm sure I'll Twitter about it later!

*The definition of toubabu is vague to me.  Some say it's a general term for a white person or someone from the West.  Others say that it comes from the 'tout' in French meaning all and 'babu' in Bambara which means to talk and together meaning one who talks a lot or asks many questions.  Either way, I fit the description!
**Toubabu musoni is funny too because it's like saying 'little foreign woman!!!'  The muso=woman and ni means little. 


Martha said...

This post made me grin in anticipation of your upcoming return! Can't wait to see you, love!

Anne said...

I am so proud of you on so many levels. I, too, am anxious to see you "state-side". Many decisions coming up, but bide your time (W.A.I.T. :))and you will know what's next!! xoxoxo mom

Oman Collective Intelligence said...

I don't know you but i'm also proud of you...:) Great admiration for people like you. Greetings from Oman.

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