• Nick Zacharias

What’s a Toubab?


From riding camelback in the wild outdoors to riding a motorcycle in wild urban traffic, Dorothy Smith has a wealth of funny and touching stories to share of her adventures in her new book Tales of Two Toubabs in Mali.

Dorothy Smith, now resident of Saint-Eugène just a stone’s throw from Rigaud across the Ontario border, has released a new book detailing her adventures while living in a setting that couldn’t be more different – Mali, in the middle of West Africa. It’s called Tales of Two Toubabs in Mali – which sets the scene perfectly. Explains Smith, “Toubab is the West African word for white people.”

Culture shock

Her transition there in 2008 was an eye-opening shock. “I was offered a contract working with Unicef in their human resources department,” says Smith, who accepted the job and relocated with her husband David knowing very little about what they were getting into. “The people there are black Muslims who all speak Bambara, the native language of Mali, and a sort of pidgin French. It was at the time the third-poorest nation on earth.” That was a jarring shift when she first arrived from Canada on her own to scout things out before her husband joined her. She says in the intro to her book, “To say I experienced culture shock would be a gross understatement.”

The Mali Report

She and her husband stayed in Mali for two years and learned many things. “It gave me a new appreciation for the importance of education, for example,” says Smith. “The people there are so poor and most of them have no access to schooling. With Unicef one thing we had to do was set up a program to teach people the importance of washing their hands – it’s at that level that even basic hygiene isn’t understood.”

With such adversity Smith naturally had many stories to share with friends and family back home, including their two daughters who stayed behind at college and university. “I didn’t want to set up a blog, but people at home wanted to hear how we were doing. So I wrote a weekly email to send to everyone, with the agreement that they would write back occasionally too. I called it ‘The Mali Report.’” There were a great number of such reports accumulated before they left in 2010, just before the country broke out into armed rebellions and military coups, the unrest from which remains to this day. Following stints in Ethiopia and Italy and now finally back in Canada, Smith decided to gather those emails into a book as a way of sharing her experiences in Mali with the world.

Humour and perspective

Smith’s stories provide a fascinating perspective, and are shared with plenty of humour. “Although a lot of the stories didn’t seem very funny at the time,” says Smith. In one chapter called ‘Hit and Run,’ she relates an incident where a local man crashed recklessly into her driver’s side car door with a motorcycle. “The moto wound up under my car. I was so shocked I just started yelling at him, and of course when I’m upset my French deteriorates badly. This poor man wasn’t physically hurt, but he just stood there bewildered while some crazy white woman gave him a babbling, finger-wagging tongue lashing in broken French.” She notes in the tale that with all the corruption of local authorities, as soon as a foreigner is involved in any kind of car accident, no matter who is at fault, the demands for bribes come swift and steep. So she handled it the only way she could think of. “Once he got his bike out from under my car, I finished yelling at him and just took off. He hit and I ran!”

Proceeds for a cause

Smith, who once shared a slideshow of some of her adventures in Mali at a ‘Grannies for Africa’ fundraiser in Hudson, is excited that the book is out and can reach a wider audience. All proceeds from the book will be donated to The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society of Canada, in memory of her daughter, Jennifer Crofts, who died five years ago. Said Smith, “It’s a way for me to give to people, to help others who are going through that.”

Tales of Two Toubabs in Mali was published on October 19, and is now available in paperback on lulu.com and amazon.com.

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