Sarcasm in Wolof Culture

They don’t get it, but let’s start from the beginning.

Picture this: me walking down the street. I’m rocking my reflective aviators for intimidation purposes. I have a straw fedora, which is worn topside in order to appear cool and also to protect my head from the African sun. I’m sporting a t-shirt bought from Goodwill and pants purchased from Urban Outfitters (a store that, SHOCK, doesn’t exist in Senegal). I’m greeting my neighbors in the local language, and I’m understanding their responses. To sum up, I’m feeling pretty good. I may even splurge and buy a Sprite later.

Then it happens. I spot a child. I pray he doesn’t notice me. Then, he whips his head around (in slow motion, for effect) and spots me. “TOUBAAAAAAAAAAAAAB!!!!” he screams in a high-pitched tone heard only by dogs and white people.

My head, held so high 30 seconds prior, drops. A single tear trickles down by cheek, catching first on the end of my aforementioned reflective eyewear, and then slowly making its way down my face, falling from my chin and moistening my expensive ($2) Goodwill t-shirt.

My loyal readers, do not fret. Although this is a daily occurrence in my life, I have found a way to parry these verbal assaults.

THE PLAN: when the vile children decide to say THAT word, I will counter their rudeness with a few choice words of my own. Now, when they say THAT word, I have started to answer sarcastically (for those of you who know me well, you’re not surprised). Here is how the conversation goes (translated from the Wolof):

Child: TOUBAAAAAAAAAAAAAB!!!!
Me: WHERE? Where’s the toubab? I don’t see him!
Child: TOUBAAAAAAAAAAAAAB!!!!
Me: Where? Let’s get him!
Child: TOUBAAAAAAAAAAAAAB!!!!
Me: Oh, me? I’m not a toubab! I’m Senegalese! Obviously.
Child: TOUBAAAAAAAAAAAAAB!!!!
Me (patience rapidly dwindling): Look, kid. My name isn’t “toubab”. Shut it.
Child: TOUBAAAAAAAAAAAAAB!!!!

Basically, the plan doesn’t work. It has about a 5% success rating, and even then it’s not successful. In the rare occasion that the child gets that I am joking, he laughs but continues calling me THAT word.

As a whole, the Wolof culture does not understand sarcasm, which is a little disheartening for me. The Senegalese people DO have a sense of humor, in general. Unfortunately, sarcasm, my favorite subspecies of humor, is mostly lost on them. As a result, I save up all my sarcastic quips and use them on my fellow volunteers, which I’m sure they appreciate (and as you can see, I also cunningly drop them into this blog).

No worries. I have 20 months left in Senegal. This gives me plenty of time to teach the neighborhood children my American wit. When (not if) you come to visit me, hopefully the children will be dropping sarcastic Wolof bombs like there’s no tomorrow. I have plenty of time to embed my way of thinking into their brains, hopefully resulting in a permanent change. After all, Peace Corps is all about sustainability, right?

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    • Mama
    • January 22nd, 2011

    Tears are trickling down my cheeks (although I am not cool and/or sporting aviators – instead, bifocals)! I miss your sarcasm desperately and the tears are laughter (with a bit of nostalgia) not sadness. Due to spending hours with 5 year old children, I understand how empowered they are with “toubab” – should I send candy? crayons? stickers – it just might work! You know, find the child who is not yelling (or at least the quietest) and kill him/her with kindness. Also, should I send small packets of tissues? Thoughts of saltwater spotted aviators distracts from the cool appearance!
    ps I really do love and miss you!

    • terry
    • January 22nd, 2011

    Jamie,
    Your posts never fail to put a smile on my face. The whole family always looks forward to reading them. Those kids sound annoying as hell. 🙂
    Terry

    • Lindsey
    • January 24th, 2011

    Very funny. The post, not the epic toubab battle with the kiddies. You should tag both sarcasm and a yet-undecided name for this war with the local kids. Just woke up and brain’s too fuzzy to think of good suggestions. Keep up the good work!

    • Sca-rah
    • January 24th, 2011

    My fav part = “I’m rocking my reflective aviators for intimidation purposes.” hahahahhhha you are intimidating people? Oh you and your sarcasm because the idea that you intimidate people is awesome! Love you!!

    • The Amazon
    • January 25th, 2011

    I totes miss your sarcasm. I would appreciate it =]

  1. Jamie, you are too funny! I can see you telling the child to ‘shut it’…Your mama’s advice is right on the mark (aren’t mamas that way??). Can I send you anything?

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