Toubab

They had arrived a few decades before and slowly, methodically proceeded to make themselves the undisputed masters of the area. A few centuries before, not nearly strong enough to even dream of domination, they had been content to constrain themselves to the coasts and to trade with local kings and chieftains from the safety of their vessels. But now, their militaries sustained by the power of an unparalleled industrial might, they wanted conquest and there was little the Africans could do to hinder them. Scorched earth tactics, guerrilla warfare, amulets, incantations, and even malaria were all inexorably brushed aside. It was the dawn of a new age, a European age.

After the conquest, the Whites decided that the best way to keep stability would be to co-opt the local elites. Kings would, of course, be deposed but wherever possible local chieftains would be kept in place, their children sent to Western schools so that the next generation of local administrators could be trained. These children, once grown, would owe their status more to the colonial power than to traditional power structures and could be expected to be loyal out of self-interest.

There was a chieftain who did not like where any of this was going. It was one thing to have to kowtow to these Toubabs; it was another thing entirely to have his children stolen from him and indoctrinated. Who knew what manner of things they would learn in those so-called schools? Would they be accepted by the uneducated majority? Would they keep sacrificing to their dead ancestors and the spirits of the village? Or would they instead become nothing more than dark-skins Toubabs, unmoored from their own culture?

For years, when the Whites came for a new batch of children, the chieftain sent away children of cousins, friends, and retainers, anyone but his own. But one day he had a discussion with one of his kinsmen who thought that these children groomed by the Whites would rule the land someday.

Wouldn’t it be safe to send at least one of your children?

The argument had more merit than he could possibly know. The chieftain relented, but only a bit. He would send a child but it wouldn’t be his first born son, who was expected to be his chief heir. Instead, he would send his second son.

And so it was that the second son was sent to be schooled by the Whites.

And so it was that the second son became one of the first indigenous teachers in the country, a position that made him by far the wealthiest man in his family.

And so it was that when he had children of his own, he decided that the most important thing he could do for them was to provide them with a Western education.

And so it was that his children, even the girls, were highly educated: a lawyer, some accountants, a dentist, an economist, and a pharmacist, among others.

And so it is that it is I, the son of one of those these children, not a grandson of the first son, who is today a physician in the US.

The biggest plot twist in my life, it turns out, occurred two generations before I was born.

My first language is French, not Jula, of which I can speak only a few words and expressions in a French accent that sends my mom into an uproarious laughter every time she hears it. I roll my eyes when my father tells me about sacrificing to our ancestors or performing a ritual washing to ward off evil spirits. I am an atheist. For all practical purposes, I am a dark-skinned Toubab. Sorry, great-grandfather.

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