This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

November-December 2019

Who are you calling a foreigner?

When visiting your ancestral home doesn't go quite as planned

Bilan Hashi

The children raced barefoot alongside us in the muddied street through the shallow pools of water that were left over from the building of mud houses. It didn’t matter if we were in a small village or a sprawling metropolis, on a boat that just landed on their island, or rushing to catch a bus to our next destination; they managed to find us somehow as if we were the Pied Piper of children. Amidst their laughter, they would yell, “Toubab, toubab”—”foreigner.” This word became familiar to us after three months of travel in West Africa, yet the word—at its core—was meaningless for me.

There were four of us that met accidentally—like when you mindlessly stub your toe, and after a while the throbbing subsides, but doesn’t really, rather the endorphins kick in, masking the pain—and while there was some initial friction, we found each other interesting enough to travel Senegal and Mali together. We were an odd mix: there was Piet, a Dutchman who generally was cheerful during the trip except when he had to cram his frame into pint-sized cars and Leo, equally blond and a farm boy from the American Midwest who seemed to be performing all the time. Thandeka was a South African who continually reminded us of her roots via Miriam Makeba,
by singing her song, “The Click Song (Qongqothwane).” And, finally, there was me.

I was Canadian. But more than that, I was African by birth and heritage. I say this not because that part of my identity was more significant, but because I felt it legitimized my claim to that place even though it was my first time visiting. Simply through my connection and entitled belonging—no, perhaps because of it—I saw those people as my people, similar to the way that Black people in Canada—strangers on the street—acknowledge each other through direct eye contact and nods. These visual cues were a recognition of each other—a way of saying, “I see you. I see you through me.” It was particularly prevalent in small town Canada, like Brantford, Ontario—where perhaps the need for solidarity was more poignant in a place where there was a lack of racial diversity, a place where, at times, one felt invisible (and hyper-visible simultaneously) as people on the street walked past you silently.

For me, that acknowledgement is exemplified in the Zulu greeting: sawubona. The simple translation of this word is “I see you.” But there’s much more to it. I love the simplicity and depth of this word, for contained within it is the message, “I see your personality. I see your humanity. I see your dignity and respect.” Imagine the power of acknowledgement in that phrase, and it was this connection and understanding that I was looking for as I tried to blend in while in Africa.

The adults were equally as friendly as the children. Whenever we were in the market place, sellers would approach me and Thandeka, greeting us with choruses of “mes soeurs,” (“my sisters” in French), yet when they talked to Leo and Piet, they would refer to them as “mes amis”—my friends. They were distanced in a way that Thandeka and I were not. Ironically, since my male friends both spoke fluent French, they immersed themselves more into the culture and interacted with the locals more than we could ever do with our limited linguistic abilities and integration into the male-dominated street culture—for these reasons alone, it makes sense if they would have been welcomed more than us. But I didn’t question this. Very quickly, I accepted this warm behaviour from the market vendors and, in time, actually started to believe I deserved it.

Toward the final leg of our journey, we passed through Saint Louis, in northwestern Senegal, in part for the colonial architecture. One day, late in the afternoon, we were in the courtyard of the Hotel La Residence, with its colonial posters of the French Aéropostale mail planes and its overflowing greenery, to escape the earlier heat when we decided to go to the beach to watch the sunset. On our way, we were accosted by youngsters yet again. These giggling children called out the typical refrain and I assumed from previous experience they must have been referring not to me or Thandeka, but to our lighter skinned friends. (Unofficial sources like Urban Dictionary suggest the word means “white person”; I definitely heard it as “not from here.”)

I looked over at Piet to see his reaction, expecting a look of resignation, but to my surprise, he was smiling. I followed his gaze to the kid who spoke. She was looking at me.

Toubab, toubab,” she said to me.

Toubab? Moi?”

I held my arm next to hers as if this nine-year-old child could not see the similarities of hues between mine and hers.

She shook her head, still smiling. In that moment, she denied my claim to Africanness. I was a foreigner. Like my white European friend. There was a cognitive dissonance that undermined my self-conception and the adaptive ways of being and belonging that I participated in.

Of course, I was aware and acknowledged that I was Canadian, but what did that mean really? What mattered was the context. In Canada, I was definitely not part of the majority. In Africa, I was. I was surrounded by people who physically looked similar to me. But in this moment, through this interaction, the relationship—flimsy and superficial—between this girl and me was severed as that narrative was disrupted.

Of course, I was different: my economic status was clear. It was evident in my dress, physical manner, in my stride. It was what allowed me to get a passport and travel in the first place. Without a visa. And if a visa on rare occasion was needed, I could procure it with relative ease. How could I not see this? But as privilege does, it blinds us to the point of selectively seeing what we want to see. We have confirmation bias. And our subjective reality reinforces our belief system.

Adults could see my difference, but if I were a cynical person, I could conceive of the idea that they used this knowledge to their advantage—that the use of kinship terms creates a false sense of relationality, similar to the way, we colloquially use “bro” as a term of endearment with strangers. It reduces the meaning and worth of the word, but at the same time, because we are so clumsily grasping at straws for any kind of connection, we accept it willingly. In her book, Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route, Saidiya Hartman highlights this elusive thread between language and intimacy, how using the words of kinship, even a fictive relationship was necessary for social inclusion and affiliation for the group that was looking
for belonging, and was an economic payoff for the other.

The benevolent part of me would say that the adults were just being polite in not pointing out my difference. But the children refused to play my game. I can recall them dancing, encircling me with their bashful laughter. As the sun slowly descended past the concrete half-wall that protected the town from the unpredictable ocean, the children pushed me out of my comfort zone. And forced me to confront the things that were clear to everyone except me.

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