The Toubabs of Thies

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      In a street shop bursting wall to wall with colorful boxes and packaged foods, I ignore the curious eyes on me and step up to the counter with my attaya and bleach. Conversation blurs around my ears in a rapid-fire stream of unintelligible words. “Toubab,” I hear. Foreigner. I smile, the one universal gesture I still know, and greet the vendor with a stumbling of basic Wolof.  “Salaamalaikum.”

     Before long, I’ve exchanged my intricately decorated currency note, 5000CFA, for a plastic bag filled with the contents of my shopping list and done some bargaining in the process. It’s not pretty, and I sound like a kindergartener again, but I’ve completed my first purchase in Senegal. It’s the best feeling in the world. In a rush of good vibes and adrenaline, I’m suddenly reminded of morning language class and Kouly Mbaye, my Sereer teacher. Listen, he told us.

Redefine your version of success. Success should not be measured by negatives. Failure is not, and will never be, a negative metric; no, failure is only a positive step in the right direction. Choose to live by the positives. It’s how you find happiness.


    Every day, I learn so much more than language, than navigation, so much more than culturally appropriate practices. Navigating Thies with a couple other Fellows and a language teacher, overwhelmed by the dusty streets filled with children and goats and street vendors, I am inundated by questions in this city of jagged edges and half-built concrete structures. That, to me, is a small success in itself. The oligarchical network of TIGO and Orange phone stations covering the city forces me to dwell upon technology infrastructure. Discovering that foreigners who don’t speak French are anomalies, I find myself wanting to research the history of colonialism in Senegal. Every aspect of this world I now live in sparks curiosity. And even when I shake my head in complete bewilderment, even when I fail little by little, the positives keep adding up:

the enthusiasm of my taxi driver when he finds out I speak Wolof

sprinting through the downpour of a Senegalese rainstorm, soaking wet

successfully eating my first meal with my left hand

acclimating to surviving without toilet paper

talking about life with my Ebunoluwa, my amazing roommate

dancing late at night beneath the wide open sky with my cohort

    This year is turning out to be everything I needed, and much much more than I ever imagined. There will be challenges. I fully expect to break down in tears multiple times before I make my way back to the United States next spring. Yet like Kouly Mbaye, I am determined to make tears, like failures, my positives this year. They’ll mean I’m headed in the right direction. With that mindset, who knows how many imaginary fears will disappear? If I refuse to be afraid of the word no, of tears, of challenges, who knows what I can overcome over the next eight months?

    So as I stand in a thin alley, drenched in sweat, layered with dust, overwhelmed by the fruit sellers and the taxis and the meat shop swarming with flies and the beautiful dresses of the women and the children pushing goods upon me, heart pounding in a comforting rhythm, I feel at peace. My shopping bag swings from my arm, heavy with bleach and attaya and soap. It’s not perfect, but it’s a start of a new life.

Jaam ak jamm.

Be at peace until we meet again.

~Elise Marie~