“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.