Category Archives: Travel

Toubab in Touba

“Gee Sam,” I hear you saying, “Word is that you’ve eaten Obama-flavored ice cream and attended a bongo symphony recital in the projects.  However, have you taken any steps to experience religious life in Senegal?”  Yes.  I went to Touba.

Touba is, to Senegalese practitioners of Islam, arguably as important a religious site as Mecca.  It is home to La Grande Mosquee de Touba, the largest mosque in Senegal, and is the headquarters of the Mouride brotherhood, an immensely wealthy and powerful religious sect.  The caliphate that controls the city pays for most public works out of pocket, and the religious leaders centered there have enormous influence over the politics and culture of the whole nation.   For me, Touba was the keystone that put a lot of my questions about Senegal into context—taxis, buses, and businesses are brightly emblazoned with the names of Imams and holy families, reverent Muslims and beggars chant their names in the streets, Baay Falls demand money on the behalf of their brotherhood, and reigning over them all is the only picture ever taken of the man who founded the movement.  Going to Touba showed me how this plethora of  names and sects knit together.

Cheikh Amadou Bamba, Khadi Kassoul, the Serigne Touba was born in 1848 and lived until 1927, and over his lifetime he founded in the city of Touba the brotherhood that henceforth has defined Islam in Senegal. He was exiled for 8 years by the French, but later collaborated with them, all while preaching a defiant message of stalwart resistance to colonialism and compulsion.  He’s a legendary figure, gazing down from behind his white scarf from walls, taxi dashboards, and a 8 foot by 6 foot print in my host family’s living room.  I went on the day of the Magal, an annual religious commemoration of his legacy.

I got up at 0530 on the day of the celebration to meet my Senegalese friend Papa and join two American friends to get on the bus to Touba.  The Mouride brotherhood arranges large buses to take people to the city at low rates, and even as the sun was rising there was already a swarm of people jostling on the sidewalk to get on the buses.  Because of the enormous demand for transport and the anarchic approach to line-forming in Dakar, the buses have a unique way of loading.  A battered Tata truck will swing around the corner with a skinny kid hanging out of the door to cram people onto the bus.  “Touba?” the crowd asks the kid.  “Touba!” the kid answers.  “TOUBA!!!” the crowd roars, and immediately a crush of people surges towards the open doors of the bus, which never stops rolling less than 5 miles per hour.  My friends and I sprinted next to the bus wheels and lunged for the doors—I was last on and clung precariously to the door as the bus picked up speed and people in flowing robes tried to claw me loose.  It was like the Walking Dead.  Bus fare was 2000 CFA ($4) to go 300 kilometers.

It took 4 hours, non-stop, rolling through flat, dry scrubland, the landscape punctuated by herds of goats and chunky baobab trees, which look like they’ve grown upside down—roots in the air and one is left to imagine leaves spreading out under the dry sandy soil of the Sahel.  We got to Touba at 1100, and walked a mile down the Champs-Elysees of Senegal; a perfectly flat straight road that beckoned bustling believers forward towards the 5 soaring minarets of the Mosque.  It was so hot that I could see the air shimmer, and sweat vaporized on my skin.  At the entrance of the mosque we separated from the two American girls, removed our shoes, and entered the sanctuary.  It was hot—perhaps to remind visitors of the impermanence of the flesh, the courtyard had been tiled in dark stone that had been under the desert sun for 5 hours, and the barefoot crowds stepped lively to get into the mosque.

Well, it was incredible.  I was amazed by the eerie order of the visitors.  People stood in lines to enter different sections of the mosque, no one pushed or yelled, and there was a perfect division of space. There were places to stand, places to kneel, places to read, and places to yell: certain devotees, overcome by passion, clutched their hands over their ears and let loose throat-ripping repetitions of Allah and Serigne Touba’s name.  I don’t think I was the only white man in the mosque—I think I was the only white man in all of Touba.  It didn’t matter.  Nobody pulled me aside or barred me from certain areas, and I was able to circle through the inner sanctuaries, fountains, mausoleums and libraries of the sanctuary.  It was like an out of body experience.

After we reunited with the girls and pulled on our shoes, we set out to visit The Two Marabouts: as Papa explained to me, these were the two men who had served as his spiritual guides.  We got in the back of a pickup truck that churned over dusty roads to the quiet backstreets on the outskirts of the city, and found The First Marabout: one of the 150 grandchildren of Serigne Touba himself.  Imam of the neighborhood mosque, which is named after him, and cousin of the reigning caliph, we caught him just as he was sitting down to lunch in his shady compound.  We joined in him in eating couscous, fish, and carrots with our hands, and then retired to his inner room for spiritual guidance.  First came the addiyah—we presented him with an offering.  Papa, who has no income, still managed to find 1000 CFAs for his guide, and we all matched his contribution.  In respectful silence, we listened as the Marabout explained some of the history of Mouridism, and counseled on how to live better lives.  I was impressed by his advice.  He told us to be sure to travel and see the world with our own eyes, and that the essential teaching of doing right by others held true outside of the confines and precepts of any one religion.  His eyes drifted in and out of focus as he spoke haltingly in Wolof, which Papa then translated into French.  We then approached him and were blessed.  Finally, he offered to let us go into the backyard and take a shower to refresh ourselves.

Understand, this would be like the cardinal of a diocese inviting you to his house and drawing you a hot bath to soak in.  I filled a bucket with water, went out to the concrete outhouse behind his chambers, and poured cold water all over myself.  I was dry in minutes.  We then set out across the scrubby plain of the Sahel to find The Second Marabout.  We got lost, it was hot, and by the time we reached his enormous compound 45 minutes later, we were all exhausted.  I was happy to have arrived, and then all of a sudden I realized—we had wandered into The Hive of the Baay Falls.

Baay Fallism is a variation of Islam that teaches fraternity and devotion to a marabout.  I didn’t know much about them besides that I disliked them.  The Baay Falls are all young men who I tended to see downtown in groups of three or more, dressed in traditional clothes and demanding donations by shaking a bowl of coins in your face.  They use young children, talibes, from the village areas, often orphans sent to the city to get a religious education, to ply the street dressed in rags to beg and bring back money for the marabout.  We walked through the courtyard filled with at least a hundred  lounging Baay Falls dressed in harlequin traditional costumes mixed with cargo pants and camo jackets, wearing wraparound sunglasses, twisting their thick dreads, and smoking huge joints.  It’s rare for me to feel ill at ease when I’m abroad, but the atmosphere here was distinctly cultish and intimidating.  The marabout was inside the house perched in an ordinary lawnchair in a densely packed room, holding muttered conversations with those closest to them while everyone else kneeled on the floor in reverent silence.  We shuffled our way through the crowd, legs bent, and they grudgingly made way for us.  When we arrived before him, I rose to shake his hand, but a disciple behind me pushed me down and told me to stay kneeling on the mat.  In a country of “tu,” the marabout was a “vous”.  We presented a small offering—Papa gave his shoes because he had nothing left—were hastily blessed, and shuffled out again.

And that’s it.  Night fell, we got on the bus, and got caught in the wicked traffic of a mass diaspora from Touba.  The bus waded through cars, motorcycles, donkey carts and pedestrians as the lights of the Grande Mosquee faded behind us.  It took 6 hours to get back to Dakar; we made it at 2 in the morning.

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The Oasis

Let me tell you a story about the Institut Francais de Dakar, Pole Culturel. Today as I walked through the gates and passed my backpack to the guards for inspection, I noticed that I was being followed by Ernest Hemingway. Almost. He was a stout 60-something Frenchman with flyaway white hair, a terrific moustache, a khaki safari vest that had more pockets than all of my clothes combined, and under his arm he clutched a long padded case that clearly held a hunting rifle with an attached scope. When accosted, he dutifully presented the rifle case to be checked, and the guards opened it to find that, indeed, it contained a beautiful wood-stocked high powered firearm. The guards waved him through and with a cheerful “merci!” he puttered off to the shady bar. All this is a long-winded way of saying that I like the Institut immensely, and also that there is something profoundly troubling about it.

The Institut Culturel takes up an entire city block, contained behind a 12 foot high security wall, and as far as I can tell it is the only green space downtown. Once you enter the gates you see the long bungalow-like Institut itself, a colonial-style building painted green and white with a cool tiled lobby and a long porch wrapping around the entire second story. There’s also a 300 seat amphitheatre where plays and concerts are performed, a leafy garden overflowing with pink flowering vines and dominated by a massive jacaranda tree in the middle, easels that display photographs and paintings by featured local artists and a bar/ restaurant that serves duc a l’orange and has a screen set up to show all of the UEFA cup games. It’s a fantastic little oasis that expatriates flock to, parking their Volkswagens and LandRovers outside while they enjoy halfway-decent flaky croissants.

It’s like being on another planet—a completely different environment from the sweaty and hectic Sandaga Market and Grand Dakar neighborhood outside. When I was working in Uganda I felt pretty disdainful of exclusive places like this. I felt very strongly that during my time abroad I would sink myself into my environment, and I made the choice to drink banana beer rather than milkshakes and to dance in local nightclubs patronized by prostitutes rather than in the upscale expat bars. However, Dakar and Jinja are VERY different places. In Jinja I loved to walk through the fish market and see people selling sacks of grain from farms a few kilometers away, flip flops made from repurposed bicycle tires, and baskets with elaborate patterns made by knitting together raffia and colored computer cables. Here, as soon as I step through the gates I’m bombarded by sales pitches from different hawkers who are all selling the same knockoff Chinese watches and belt buckles, cheap foam sandals and yards and yards of identical machine-made batik fabric. Vendors grab me in minute-long handshakes and try to literally drag me into their booths, people in traditional costumes demand I take their picture and then pay 1,000 CFA for it, and taxis careen up onto the sidewalk inches in front of me to ask me where I’m trying to go.

This is by no means a condemnation of Senegalese markets in general—this is just what my experience has been moving around in a touristy area that over the course of 50 years of lax zoning laws has cobbled together a crazy patchwork of luxury hotels and local restaurants with zinc roofs and charcoal-burning stoves. Honestly I can only stand about half an hour of walking around in the 90 degree heat and shaking off persistent salesmen before I duck back into the sylvan sanctuary of the French institute. That’s what I find troubling. I love to travel, I know that I’m good at and I enjoy adapting to circumstances and talking with a diverse range of people, and yet so far one of my favorite parts of downtown Dakar is a cloister with a library filled with Baudelaire and a décor that hasn’t changed since the Tricolor went down in 1960. Being here reminds me more of Paris than Uganda; something that I would have found off putting in Jinja but strangely refreshing in Dakar.

It’s a big world out there. I guess sometimes it’s easier to handle when broken down into smaller chunks.

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Jusqu’ici, Tout Va Bien, Jusqu’ici, Tout Va Bien…

I’m in Paris!  I got here at 6 AM on Tuesday, having flown through the night and slept hardly at all.  I was fortunate enough to have time to nap while AirFrance scrambled to find the bag that I had checked–apparently the bag had been loaded onto the plane I was on, but the ground crew in Boston “loaded the bags into the wrong part of the plane, so it will take much longer to bring them up.” This sounded odd to me, as were repeated assurances that my bag was “in transport” or “only 20 minutes away.”  Whatever.  In the end I got the duffel, paid a ridiculous fee to store it at the airport for 4 days, and equipped with only my backpack and my meager wits I got on the RER to center city.

Well, it was wonderful.  I surfaced in the heart of Paris, with Notre Dame looming over me and the Fontaine St. Michel bubbling away, and immediately it felt like home.  I knew exactly where to find a store to buy a phone(06.59.35.36.69, works til tomorrow), knew exactly where the ATM was to withdraw money, and having done both of those things I decided to walk to the Sweet Briar office in the 6th Arrondissement to visit my old study-abroad program.  It was great to meet up again with friends from the program and meet a couple of the new students.  My friend Chris and I went off to Montparnasse to drink coffee, and eventually met up with Jacques and set off across the city looking for food.  Walked 4 kilometers, ate nothing, but it’s all good cuz I like walking here.

In the afternoon i got caught by the RATP for riding the metro without a ticket, and had to pay an enormous fine on the spot, because they made clear to me that the punishment for riding without a ticket was a 25 year sentence of hard labor in the Pyrenees with hardened criminals.  They don’t catch you often, but when they do turnstile jumping is not taken lightly.  This was the first time I had EVER been checked.

That night I went to revisit my wonderful former host family in the 5th, where we drank a glass or three of champagne and talked about the recent election, their upcoming trip to Brazil, and Eastern European geography.  I also met their current homestay student, a Venezuelan named Federico, who happened to be high-school friends with one of the interns I’m about to work with in Senegal.  Crazy coincidence, really nice guy.

Finally I went off to meet up with Ah Ouh Puc, the club ultimate team I played with while I was in Paris.  Over the course of the night about 20 of them came out to the bar where we met up to say hello again and wish me a bon voyage in Africa.  I nearly WEPT to walk into the bar and see a whole table of 15 people jump up to greet me.  Stiff upper lip, however, and we had a raucous night that reminded me of the LAST time I said goodbye to PUC in that same bar and had a hectic adventure that will have to be recounted elsewhere.

So that was day 1, in Boston for dinner and in Paris for breakfast.  Since then I’ve been hanging out with my Brazilian friend Gui, who’s hosting me in his really nice apartment a mere 500 baguette-lengths away from the Bastille.  He and I and a flock of his friends have been going out and exploring Rue Mouffetard, Place Contrescarpe, and other places that used to be my neighborhood while I was here.

And tomorrow I fly to Dakar.  For a while I was nervous that landing there would be a major shock, because Paris is so overwhelming and different from what I’ll encounter there.  On the other hand, this brief stay here has prepared me pretty well for new adventures.  I’m once again familiar with the feeling of being completely on my own, at once free and self-sufficient but also dependent on my friends for places to stay etc.  The simple acts of moving around the city and feeding myself here is good preparation for being adaptable and self-sufficient in Dakar.  I can’t wait.

What’s the Plan? (Boston—> Paris —> Dakar)

I’m in the midst of a packing frenzy.  On my last trip to Uganda, I decked myself out with bales of durable, wicking and wrinkle free outdoors clothing from REI and North Face in preparation for the heat, dust, and rough handwashing that my clothes would have to endure in East Africa.  As it happened, I ended up showing up for my first day of work looking like SafariSam, with multi-pocketed hiking pants, a shirt marketed to Appalachian trail hikers, and a pair of hiking shoes on my feet.  The Ugandan interns, meanwhile, went out to do fieldwork dressed in preposterously glamorous outfits, mincing on high heels and wearing flowing white cotton scarves around their hair. My easy-washing preparation paid off–the Ugandans came back spotless despite an hour-long trip in a bouncing 4X4 acros the countryside, while I came back coated in a curiously unshakeable red dust.  Lesson learned: it’s not what you wear, it’s how you wear it.

For this trip I’m preparing more sensibly, packing clothes that will look good, be comfortable, and wash well in the more metropolitan setting of Dakar.  I’m packing lightly: a laptop for work, some books, first-aid kit, and plenty of ultimate discs to distribute (pro-tip: Ultimate is the most portable sport EVER).  It’s not too stressful, however.  I have a better idea of what to prepare for than the last time I went to Africa, and if I forget anything then I’ll fend for myself once I arrive in Senegal.

Before I arrive in Dakar I’ve built in a flight layover in Paris, where I’ll spend three days staying with my awesome Brazilian friend Gui, who I met last semester studying at the University of Paris.  It’ll be great to be back in the city again– friends that I studied abroad with are just wrapping up their spring semesters and I’m looking forward to hanging out with them during the day.  It’s pretty cool to go back to Paris for a tourist length of time (just 3 days) but still feel like it’s a sort of homecoming, giving me an opportunity to revisit the friends, gardens, cafes, bars, and streets I became acquainted with during my time there.

From Paris I fly directly to to Senghor airport in Dakar, which conveniently is only a few kilometers from where my host family lives.  My host family plans to meet me at the airport and see me home, which is convenient because although I have contact numbers to call I won’t yet have a phone to call them with.

3 continents in a week!  It feels great to be preparing to travel again.  Every time I leave the country it gets easier to pack up, mostly because I take less and less stuff with me.

And finally… some incredible Senegalese hip-hop.  Check these guys out.