My first month in Dakar has been a world of news. New friends, new places, new job, new culture, and in all this newness and with all my stage mates leaving it’s nice to know that the Pulaars, the ethnic group that accepted me and loved me through two years of my time here in Senegal are still here and are just as willing as the people in my village of Sinchurio Samba Foula to accept me as (almost) one of their own.
At first this surprised me. Dakar is a huge city, pulsing with millions of people too busy to look up from their own path, (which makes since because if you do look away you’ll probably get smoked by a public transport bus) so why would city Pulaars care about me? Why would anyone care about me? I rarely get called toubab anymore, because unlike in the village, Westerners here in this giant metropolis of a West African city aren’t that uncommon. But consistently, whether I’m on the bus or passing a fruit stand in the street, I know I can count on a Pulaar for help or a friendly word.
This is because in Dakar, Wolof is the predominant ethnic group and language spoken in the city. The city is run by Wolofs and they are quick to ask you why you speak Pulaar, instead of Wolof when they claim that Wolof is the national language of Senegal. In Dakar, the Pulaars are a minority, a disaspora living in a world they also are often extremely unfamiliar with. In general, but not always, I can spot a Pulaar based on his or her lighter skin and thin, willowy frame. They are almost always working as fruit vendors, orange cellphone credit salespeople, bitik owners, or children talibe. In a city where I cannot speak either of two major languages very well, French and Wolof, it is a relief and pleasure to be able to chat in Pulaar to someone. And the best part about it is that they are just as thrilled to be talking to me in Pulaar! They miss their language too!
I have had so many encounters with Pulaars who have gone above and beyond to help me because they accept me as one of theirs. They call me sister.
I have sat to talk and drink attaya with a group of Guinean Pulaars in the street when I got lost. I have been led around the city, once again when I got lost, and they’ve asked for nothing. I’ve had gifts pushed on me and offers to visit their homes, even when I know they have nothing to share.
I would like to express my gratitude to the Pulaars by sharing this story:
On a dark night in downtown Dakar when a friend and I decided to leave our other friends at the restaurant and head home, there was a moment that could have had less than a happy ending. It was late and I had been living in the neighborhood for a couple of weeks and knew that the restaurant was not far from my apartment.
There is a street in downtown that I always avoid because the most insufferable salesmen and street hawkers prowl there and more than one of my male friends has gotten into a scuffle over an attempted mugging. Therefore, I tend to avoid that street and head down the back one, which is darker, but usually a lot calmer.
On this particular night as we turned out of the street of hawkers and down the darker back road, two men began following me and my friend. They got very close to us and as one started badgering us aggressively about being white and foreign, the other began hitting at my friend’s pockets. It was the ‘ole partner mugging move where one guy swoops in to distract you and the other one grabs your wallet or purse. Unfortunately for these two upstanding gentlemen, they didn’t realize that this was not my first time at the rodeo.
I immediately looked to either side of the street and saw some men watching us. One was next to a fruit stand. The other was selling cellphone credit. Bingo.
“Ayjarama” I called. “Hire jam?” Hello, how is your night? I asked them in my calmest, pleasantest way.
“Hey-o! A nani Pulaar?” They called back genially. What? You speak Pulaar?
“Yes,” I replied in Pulaar, “and as you can see these men are following me and my friend. Would you mind helping me?”
Not one, but four men rose from sidewalk and another came running from the darkness on the other side of the block to converge on the two would-be thieves.
“Get away from them,” they told us. “They are trying to steal your money.”
I thought to myself, you don’t say, but I was content to watch the men drive the two confused thieves off into the night.
As soon as they were gone, they greeted me and asked me where I was going. They were so concerned that I would get home safely that they offered to walk back with me and my friend. I told them it was only a couple of blocks and that we would be fine. They expressed their happiness that I would be living in the neighborhood and told them if I ever needed my family that I should find them here.
That’s a pretty amazing welcome to a city.
The amount of love and kindness shown to me by the people who I have learned to call family is astounding. In a city where this ethnic group is often looked down upon, either for being poorer or non-natives to the city, I feel proud and grateful to have been accepted by them. Is it harder for me to navigate the city because I don’t speak Wolof or French well? Definitely. In fact, it is probably my greatest struggle here. Would I have exchanged Pulaar for learning a language that is easier to navigate the rest of Senegal? Never.
Don’t mess with the Pullo. Even though I’m white, American, and so many other things that should make them wary of me, it is only with giant grins and warm welcomes that the Pulaars give me the courage to live in this city and make me feel at home. Here in Dakar, we are all foreigners, we are all family.
We are strong, we are Pulaar.