Subtle Changes and Deep Questions: Of Travels and Labels

The journey of my life so far has transgressed three continents and not as many countries as I would like. I’ve been called by several different titles, from the “African girl” (which was a bit irritating), to “the foreigner”, and then the “Ghanaian lady” (which I sometimes preferred depending on the context in which it was used). Recently however, I’ve had the single pleasure of being called a “tubab,” which in my country of current residence refers to a tourist or better still a foreigner.

It has always been a source of amazement to me how I always had the uncanny ability of not really belonging to a group but then being able to associate myself with that group anyways. Across my sojourn in the different countries I have had the pleasure of seeing in Europe, I was the Ghanaian girl who took her singular friendships seriously but got along with basically everyone. In India I was the black foreigner with long hair (braids of course, of which approximately half of their length were not originally mine) whom people stopped to stare at. I grew used to the teeny bit of adulation, “Can we take a picture pleeease?” And across Africa, I have the single pleasure of being called “Nasir” (a bit of a derogatory term reserved for blacks) in Morroco, blending in quite nicely in Ethiopia if I kept my mouth shut, acting and generally being accepted as a local in Togo and being referred to as a “tubab” in Gambia.

In my first few weeks of having moved lock, stock and barrel to the Gambia, I had originally thought the term “tubab” was reserved for Caucasians living or working in the Gambia of which we have quite a number especially in my current job; one could just imagine my outmost surprise when I heard a group of children following me on my evening run and actually calling out behind me “Tuba boo, Tubab oo.” That was genuinely the highlight of my day.

Being a foreigner or being classed as a foreigner in a country which resembled certain parts of my own in everything even in religion and some aspects of culture was a huge and utterly eye opening experience for me. It has also set a few questions which required some deep thinking. What classified me as different? Come on, I was as dark as they were, I walked their walk and was learning to talk their talk or just keep quiet so I would not give myself away. However, I found that everyone knew I was a foreigner and quite quickly too. What was that thing that differentiated me from the masses of Gambian women especially in the more cosmopolitan coastal areas of the country? I could understand this phenomenon when it occurred inland as I usually stood out like a sore thumb but not in the coast. I knew it could not be the clothes because I had taken to wearing Gambian outfits or at least matching jeans with kaftans made from traditional Gambian cloth most days, so I wouldn’t stand out too much. I stopped at wearing the hijab though as I felt that would be taking a desire for acceptance a bit too far.

That word “acceptance” brought with it a whole new set of questions, why did I want to be accepted here? What was it that was different about this place that made me go the extra mile to integrate into the society? And most importantly, why was it now so important for me to integrate into this society when in all the times I had lived in other places, it had never mattered? Was it because I was living and working for an extended period in this country that was so very similar to mine? or that getting called a “tubab” over an extended period of time begins to grate on ones nerves and mental faculties?

I have come to the realization that being labeled happens everywhere, whether it’s in a different region of your own country or in a totally new environment. I have found that most people address you with a label because of a lack of knowledge about you and your unique individuality; and I have also sadly come to know that most people will stick to the label because they will not take the time or make the effort to get to know you. I now recognize that though I will always be labeled especially in the course of my journey through the world, my reactions to the label are entirely my choice and knowing me for who I am will always supersede any label I am tagged with.

About the Author:

Lena Acolaste is a nutrition researcher interested in nutrition and its effects on cognitive development among pediatric population. She is currently living and working in the Gambia involved in research in that field. She has lived in different countries and has had the opportunity to experience life as an African in several different contexts. She enjoys interesting conversations, even more interesting books and has an eclectic taste in music.

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