Summary: Reading Group #3

The reading was: Lawson, S. and Jaworski, A., 2007. Shopping and chatting: Reports of tourist–host interaction in the Gambia. Multilingua 26.

We had around a dozen participants again. Our conversation was delightfully lively and probably best accounted for by the series of questions below which we explored. 

Does the article allow us to get insights into the nuances of tourist-host interactions in The Gambia?

Participants acknowledged that the aims of the article were clearly stated at the start and that as such it fulfilled what it set out to do. Nevertheless, ways in which this research could be supplemented were discussed at length. The absence of analysis of naturally occurring data was posited as a possible limitation of the study. However, the diaries were also said to avoid the issue of the Observer’s Paradox (term coined by William Labov), i.e. it was suggested that if the interactions between hosts and tourists had been recorded, the hosts would have most likely adjusted the way they speak. While the limited time dedicated to the data collection (one week apparently) was acknowledged, some of us suggested that more/a different kind of data would have allowed to:

  • account for the impact of the age of the tourists on the interactions;
  • contribute a less coy account of how hosts verbally sought sexual relationships; 
  • focus less on ‘bumsters’ and more on other kinds of hosts, e.g. drivers, National Centre for Arts and Culture (NCAC) workers, etc. involved in the tourism industry;
  • share a more detailed/accurate account of the range of languages involved in tourist-host interactions (e.g. Swedish, German, Gambian languages) and the levels of proficiency in English in particular.

Who are the so called ‘bumsters’ and what are the issues with this term?

We had a fascinating debate around the term ‘bumster’. It highlighted the importance of labelling in research and other endeavours. It was felt, for example, that the term possibly carried negative connotations which are primarily fed by (i) the tourism industry itself which warns tourists coming to The Gambia against interacting with the so called ‘bumsters’ and (ii) the government’s continued discourse around reducing their number, which the article echoes when it talks about strides taken by the Gambia Tourism Authority to control their growing numbers. Overall, a wide range of other issues/topics were discussed in relation to the term ‘bumster’, it was notably suggested that it:

  • refers to people found in tourist attractions in The Gambia (e.g. beach) who engage with tourists for the purpose of achieving an economic transaction (these greatly vary, hence the difficulty in saying who a ‘bumster’ is); 
  • fails to account for the variety of people ‘doing bumsting’ in The Gambia (it was suggested that women and children can be labelled as such); 
  • doesn’t reflect the reasons why these local entrepreneurs, etc. become involved in the tourism industry, namely to provide for themselves and their families;
  • is a rather non-discriminatory/vague term. In that regard, participants raised the issue of who does the labelling and why, of how intentional someone’s ‘bumsting’ needed to be for them to be labelled a ‘bumster’, the processes of otherisation underpinning the calling of some and not others ‘bumsters’, etc. 

We seemed to agree that the term was loaded and that, for the purpose of research at least, other more objective terms such as ‘local entrepreneurs, beach vendors, etc.’ were probably better suited, unless the participants define themselves as ‘bumsters’.

Is the word ‘toubab’ offensive?

As might be expected, and bearing in mind the power imbalance between ‘toubabs’ and ‘bumsters’, we also discussed the term ‘toubab’. Although we started by translating ‘toubab’ (equivalent terms are found throughout sub-Saharan and North Africa) by ‘white’, we rapidly recalled that a more accurate translation would be ‘from Europe or the West’ and/or ‘fair in complexion’. It was emphasised by one of us that ‘fair in complexion’ in The Gambia might include people who may be labelled as ‘brown’ or ‘black’ in other countries. An anecdote was shared regarding a Gambian woman returning to The Gambia after some time in Europe and who, because of her ‘fair complexion’, was called ‘toubab’. Another anecdote was built on the premise that children calling out foreign visitors ‘toubab’ was offensive. This was compared to how offensive calling people in The Gambia ‘black’ would be. Regarding the latter, it was noted that ‘toubab’ was used respectfully by children who are merely repeating what they have been taught to say to foreign visitors they might encounter. Without explicitly saying so, we therefore had a lengthy discussion around the pragmatics of ‘toubab’ as it is used in The Gambia.  We largely focused on what the speakers intended to mean and how it was interpreted by the hearers. Please note that pragmatics is typically defined as an area of linguistics concerned with the study of what people mean-locution, how it is interpreted-illocution and what impact it might have on our surrounding-perlocution. Also of relevance to pragmatics was our observation that the mismatch between Gambian children’s intended meaning when using the word ‘toubab’ and the interpretation of the word by tourists pointed to the topic of intercultural communication breakdowns in tourist-host interactions in The Gambia. 

Sadly, we did not have time to discuss the migration of this term, e.g. as ‘babtou’ instead of ‘toubab’ in Banlieue French which incorporates elements of French verlan, a type of backward slang (e.g. the order of syllables is changed), which has been in use in the banlieues and urban lower classes of French society for the past 60 years or so.  

How insightful was the representation of tourist-host interactions in The Gambia in the article?

Towards the end of the meeting, and drawing on all the insights gained from the discussions summarised above, it was concluded that the ‘toubabs’ were responsible for the reification of the notion of ‘bumster’. In other words, we came to conclude that the term ‘bumster’ was the byproduct of the tourist gaze. This, some convincingly argued, meant that we needed to be mindful of whose vision of the world we were engaging with when conducting research. Tourists were said to deserve attention for what they are, namely social actors for whom only a superficial, fixed interpretation of the world they encounter while on holidays is possible. As such, those interested in doing research involving tourists, for example, were encouraged to carefully consider this and whether terms such as ‘bumsters’, etc. were acceptable descriptions of their research participants.

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