Last weekend I visited the small island of Gorée with the rest of the students from my CIEE Program and, after having been to all three Museums, many of us decided to make the trek to the top of the sole peak on the island. The view from the top is extraordinary, you can see the entire cityscape of Dakar clearly or turn around and stare out into the Atlantic, and I was doing just that when someone tapped me on the shoulder and thrust an armful of necklaces under my nose for my inspection. There I was, on top of a mountain, in a light drizzle, with a circle of women trying to sell me the wares that I had seen in the market down below.
It’s hard to miss that many foreigners moving en mass, even on an island that survives off tourism, and the size of our group convinced an impressive number of local women to join us on our hike to the top of the island and back down again. They were smiling, eager, persistent, and unwilling to take “no” for an answer. I eventually settled for telling them that I already had enough jewelry, but I think it was the presence of another 30 potential buyers that finally convinced them I wasn’t worth their time.
The Senegalese have a word for us foreigners; they call us “Tubabs.” It’s a word often used in jest and it comes with the stereotype of deep pockets, western clothing and strange habits. Vendors on the street will shout it at you to get your attention, and little kids stare wide-eyed as they point you out to their parents, but even my host grandmother refers to me as “the Tubab” around the house. It’s more than a little unnerving to be so conspicuous when I’m used to effortlessly blending in, and I worry about attracting unwanted attention, or how best to shake off merchants that have followed me for blocks, but sticking out like a sore thumb isn’t all bad.
Just the other day I was standing with a friend by the side of the road, attempting to cross the street – a dangerous process that involves correctly judging the speed of oncoming cars and then darting between them (note: Dakar does not have crosswalks, passing rules, or, seemingly, speed limits) – and had been doing so for more than a few minutes when one of the many men selling phone cards to passersby stepped out in front of us, halted two taxis and ushered us across. He then turned around without a word and went back to his post.
Small kindnesses such as this one are common occurrences here in Dakar. Yes, there are many people waiting to take advantage of the hapless newcomer, but there are an equal number that just genuinely want to help you, even when there’s nothing in it for them. I have to admit it took me some time to be willing to accept the proffered help, but I now welcome it and find it as encouraging as it is strange (even as I think that this would never happen in New York). This helpfulness stems largely from the prominent guest-culture of a 95% Islamic society – the same culture that led my family to offer me an entire container of instant coffee when they learned that I usually drink coffee at home – and has turned my experience as a member of a small minority into something quite unexpected.
I still try to remain as inconspicuous as possible, which is a bit of an impossibility, but I have learned that, when I do need assistance, all I have to do is let it show and someone will step forward with an offer of help, whatever the motive. So now I have some new goals: come December I would like to, not only actually own the African jewelry I claimed to have purchased back on Gorée, but also to be able to make it down the street without a pack of vendors following me like ducklings and to maybe be the stranger helping bemused tourists cross the street. You never know, it could happen.