Shades of Gray
When I lived in Guinea, in West Africa, I answered to many names. My passport said I was Josh. I was also Georges and Jacques — francophone interpretations of “Josh” in the mouths of my local colleagues. Certain students called me “Klinsmann,” after a German soccer star whose hair was said to resemble mine. After a while, I became Fode Moussa — “learned Moses” — to friends who decided that I should have an African name.
And all children under a certain age had their own name for me: foté — “white person” in the Susu language.
Peace Corps literature is comprehensive on the subject of local names for outsiders. In West Africa alone, an American can be called foté, toubab, porto, kweepolo, yovo, and dozens of other names in other languages. Etymologies are inconsistent. Toubab means doctor in Wolof. The Fula porto is thought to be derived from the word “Portuguese,” after the first European explorers. Foté literally refers to the color white, though the usage is flexible. An African-American volunteer who lived in a village near me was called foté-noir — the black white man. All of this name-calling seemed rude to me. I tried to explain this. No, people assured me, the word foté was intended neither as insult nor as mockery. It was a friendly greeting, they said, for people who did not know my name. But I noticed that older, more educated, people tended not to use the word. Never was it spoken by anyone who seemed interested in being my friend. Except for children, who wielded it without mercy.
I noticed that local women, when they saw me coming, would often begin whispering to their young children. Invariably, the child’s eyes would widen in terror and it would begin to shriek, pressing its face into the folds of its mother’s clothing.
Unnerved by this, I once asked a bystander for an explanation. He laughed. “Mothers like to scare their children by telling them, ‘There’s the foté! He’s coming to take you away!’”
I protested that this was cruel, and that it made things difficult for me. My protest was in vain. I had come thousands of miles to live in a place I didn’t understand, with people whose language continued to escape me. And now, a white man in a black country, I was the bogeyman.
Once these cowering toddlers got a little older they seemed to lose their fear of me. It was as if, in groups, they were emboldened enough to confront the bogeyman. They evidently believed that if they screamed my name loudly enough, they could overcome my power to spirit them away. They would call out as I passed: first a lone voice, then a chorus. These older children now clung to each other rather than their mothers; it was their job to keep up the chant, warding me off. FOTÉ! FOTÉ! FOTÉ!
Early one morning during my first week in Guinea, I was riding my bicycle to the school where I taught English. My feet felt heavy on the pedals. I was lonely and depressed, overwhelmed by the newness of everything. Everyone who knew me well was 5,000 miles away. The road passed through three miles of trees and rice fields. The sun appeared over the mountains behind me. I came to a point where the trees on either side of the road grew together, forming a canopy, a marvelous shady amphitheater that each morning was alive with birdsong.
I slowed and concentrated on the birds. My spirits began to rise. At times like this — the birds, the mountains, the early morning light on the unbelievable green of the rice paddies — I couldn’t imagine living in a more beautiful place. Then — I hadn’t even noticed the young boy at the side of the road — it began. “Foté!” A half dozen children appeared, shattering the morning’s peace. FOTÉ! FOTÉ! FOTÉ! FOTÉ! FOTÉ! FOTÉ!
It might seem incredible to anyone who hasn’t been in a similar situation, the power of these small children over my mood. My self-consciousness returned, that awful feeling I was having far too often of being uncomfortable in my own skin. I thought: I don’t belong here.
Then, something happened. A Guinean man emerged from a roadside café and began sweeping his concrete verandah. At the moment I noticed him, he happened to look up and see me, moving slowly up the hill. The screaming kids were keeping pace with my bicycle. My sense of shame deepened. It was worse to have a witness. How could I be a serious person and let myself be tormented like this by eight-year-olds? But the man surprised me. In a friendly, confident voice, he called out the first English greeting I had heard in a week: “Hello, my black brother! How’s the day?”
Had he watched the scene, understood my desperation? Was this irony? He seemed in earnest. He waved. A wide smile crossed his face, as though to broadcast satisfaction at having successfully wrestled with the dim memory of an English lesson. Whatever his motivation, it didn’t matter. The spell was broken. The words of the children suddenly seemed small and unimportant. As I picked up speed I answered, “Good morning, my brother.” I offered no correction to his description of me. Though I was an English teacher, this was a misuse of the language I could live with.
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