I'm told it's not a racial slur, but have my doubts. It felt like one. It was certainly a verbal assault.
Toubab, toubab, toubab! Give me candy ("minties"), give me pencils, give me money, buy my product, what do you have for me?
Everywhere we went we were assaulted by this cry, from children and adults, but especially from the children. I'm told it's much, much worse in the main tourist areas—which we avoided—where hustling is a major adult occupation, but it was saddest to see in the children. Even toddlers came up to us with their hands out, calling "Bab!"
Before we left home, we were advised from many sources to bring a supply of items to give to the children. Some recommended candy, others pencils or pens. Well, why not? It's a trivial expense for us, and so joyfully received by the kids. Why not give them a little happiness?
Fortunately, Kathy warned us in time to halt that apparently generous impulse. The lesser of the consequences is what it does to white people living in the Gambia. Because begging is so successful with tourists, who are generally white, local whites cannot go about their everyday lives without being bombarded by swarms of pint-sized mendicants. It feels painfully rude to pointedly ignore people, especially children, but it's the best defense.
The worst consequence, however, is what the practice does to the Gambians. From the time they learn to walk, these children are being taught that the way to acquire anything is to beg for it. This mendicant culture does not leave them as they grow, though it morphs into a more sophisticated form: the country is completely dependent on foreign aid, NGOs, grants, and donations from overseas.
Nor does it help when the donors are no more careful about their gifts than tourists thoughtlessly tossing candy to a crowd of children. While we were there we saw boxes piled on boxes, just sitting in a storeroom—as they had been for over a year—labelled "Books for Africa." No doubt the American donors are content as they imagine happy children poring over their books, and maybe, someday, in "Gambian Maybe Time,"* they will—if the volumes don't rot away in storage first. Bureaucratic nightmares, graft, and outright fraud prevent a lot of well-intentioned assistance from reaching those who need it. Kathy told us of one organization in Germany that persists in pouring money into a local group despite having been shown clear evidence that it is nothing but a scam.
Need in the Gambia is great. Unemployment is very high, and long before Syrian refugees made the headlines, young Gambian men were taking the "back door" route to Europe (illegal entry), which many still see as their best hope. But if the Gambia itself is to have hope, they need to shed the mendicant mentality. For now, they do need aid from outside, but if that aid isn't aimed at putting itself out of business, it does more harm than good.
Without the wisdom of the serpent, the dove isn't so harmless after all.
Despite many serious problems, the Gambia is making progress, and there are places where money can make a big difference. Education, for example, and the simple act of helping a family with their children's school fees. But even that is a painfully slow process with some backward steps along the way. The government has made education a priority, and indeed there are now many more schools available. Unfortunately, the creation of new school buildings vastly outstripped the availability of competent teachers for staffing them. More children than ever are going to school, but without decent teachers, many are simply wasting their childhoods (and their parents' or sponsors' money) sitting in classrooms. That's one reason help with school fees is a good investment; many private schools, though far from all of them of course, still provide a good education. That is why you will often see see Muslim children at Catholic schools, with their families' blessing: since Muslims and Christians generally get along well in the Gambia, parents who value education don't hesitate to take advantage of good schools whenever they can.
To return this post to the experience of being the only white folks in a sea of people whose skin has a deep and rich darkness almost never seen among American blacks—it wasn't nearly as surreal as you might think. After all, I don't usually see my own face. It was when I looked at Porter and Kathy that I was startled by the contrast. If it hadn't been for those never-ending cries of "toubab!" I might have been able to forget what I looked like.
*The Gambia's time zone is Greenwich Mean Time, but the wry observation that GMT stands for "Gambian Maybe Time" is not without basis in fact.