Your accountant won’t tell you about it and you won’t find it in the guidebooks, but plan on paying the Toubab Tax if you come to Dakar. The regulations surrounding the tax aren’t totally clear, but it’s a pretty sure thing you’re going to pay somehow or another. The question is just how much. And how many times. And for how long.
In a culture that waxales (bargains) for just about everything, negotiating a fair price is a learned skilled. Ask two expats how much you should pay for a couple woven baskets at the artisan village and you could get two wildly different answers. Is the person you’re asking someone who has lived in Senegal for 10 years and jokes in Wolof with the vendor named Diop saying he eats too much rice, or is the person a fairly new transplant who has seen the baskets featured on Serena & Lily and is excited about all the color choices available?
Odds are good that the experienced expat will already have paid the Toubab Tax many times over and can get out of it when buying baskets. But the junior arrival may still be owing and get charged a small to moderate (to mega) amount.
Unfortunately the Toubab Tax is a ‘live and learn’ deal and the longer you live here, the more experiences you have to learn! And yes, all of us are still learning…
Case Study: Strawberry Shortchange
Strawberry season is here! A woman came to our door last month with a beautiful tray of bright red strawberries. I bought a small container and they were delicious. So when she came back again, I agreed to buy a kilo (just over 2 lbs). Unfortunately, as is often the case in Dakar, the vendor didn’t have change for the 10,000cfa (about $20) bill I had. So she went to go get change and bring me back 6000cfa.
But she didn’t come back.
Not that day, not the next day, not the next week…
I had mixed feelings about (unintentionally) paying this Toubab Tax. One minute I was furious that she had stolen money from me. The next I was rationalizing that it was only $12 and she probably needed it. But still! But then… But still! I didn’t want this woman to think that she could take advantage of me just because I’m a toubab. (Somewhere along the way there was a highlight: my friend Sarah’s husband coined the nickname ‘Strawberry Shortchange’. #awesome.)
I talked with some Senegalese friends to get their opinions. I was surprised that they seemed to fall on the side of ‘she probably needed the money’. Very hard for my American self to deal with, but paying the Toubab Tax is more than just paying more for baskets every now and then. Sometimes it’s learning to see things from a new perspective.
I did see Strawberry Shortchange one time in our neighborhood. She actually tried to get away from me, but my nine-month pregnant self had no shame in running to catch her. She explained that she needed the money and couldn’t repay me, but said she’d bring strawberries by later that day as repayment. I agreed and shook her hand.
She never showed up.
Later that week I told our building’s guard about the incident. He was the one who had let Strawberry Shortchange come up to our apartment in the first place, so felt very responsible for what had happened. A few days later, he showed up at our door with five containers of strawberries. Apparently he had tracked the vendor down and gave her a good talking-to then insisted she repay me (in strawberry currency) right away. “So,” he asked, “Is this enough to cover what she owes you, or does she need to give you more?”
I call them Victory Strawberries. And they were delicious.