Published: November 11th 2007November 10th 2007
Finally, after three months of looking forward to it, we made it to Touba.
Touba is not a tourist destination, nor is there anything to do there. It just so happens that I think it's one of the most fascinating cities in Senegal. It was founded by Cheikh Amadou Bamba in the early 1900s as the center of his brotherhood, the Mourides. After being exiled to both Gabon and Mauritania, the French finally let him be the head of his brotherhood in relative peace (though he was still essentially under house arrest), and they started building the Grand Mosque in Touba in 1926, just before Cheikh Amadou Bamba died.
Touba today is a huge pilgrimage site for the Mourides in Senegal. They're still expected to travel to Mecca if they can afford it, but their membership in the brotherhood requires frequent trips to Touba, especially during the holiday that celebrates the return of Cheikh Amadou Bamba from exile, called Grand Maggal (French/Wolof for "big celebration"). Mourides from all over the world have their bodies sent to Touba because they believe that they will automatically reach paradise simply by being buried in the cemetery. Many Mourides want to move to
Touba to be close to the holy center of their brotherhood, so the city just keeps expanding (and it's in the middle of nowhere, so it can keep growing for awhile).
What else is there in Touba? A huge black market. One of the biggest in the world, actually. Here you can buy pretty much anything you want, including automatic rifles, apparently (sadly we weren't able to visit this, or else you guys would be getting much more interesting souvenirs...haha). This market supplies many of the guys who try and sell you fake Rolexes and the like on street corners in New York City (many of these "salesmen" are Mourides). I find it surprising that this kind of market exists in a city where it is officially forbidden to smoke or drink.
Anyway...back to my experience in Touba. We left Dakar the typical 45 minutes late. Touba is only 170km from Dakar, and since 100km is about 60 miles, you'd expect the trip to take less than two hours. Wrong. Over four hours later, we got out of our minibus and got suited up to enter the mosque.
If you're a man, you can enter the mosque
as long as you're wearing long pants. If you're a woman, well, that's an entirely different story. We had to put on our ankle lengths skirts or pagnes, pull on three-quarter-length or longer shirts, and wrap scarves around our heads. Surprisingly, a bunch of toubabs dressed up like that didn't look as ridiculous as I thought. Instead, we looked an awful lot like Ukrainian peasant immigrants. We were wearing a rainbow of colors (none of us quite matched), and most of us weren't tan enough to pass as Middle Eastern. After several photos of our get-ups, we slid off our sandals and entered the mosque.
The Grand Mosque in Touba is the third tallest mosque in the world (after one in Indonesia, and another in Morocco). The minaret is 87m (over 250ft) tall, and the muezzin can be heard in a 45km radius when he calls for prayer. The mosque was built in many stages, so nothing fully matches. Most of the domes are purple, but there are also blue, green, and turquoise ones. The inside is full of pillars, tile mosaics, and intricate carvings on the ceilings. It was very cool, dim, and quiet...and very awe-inspiring, even though
there were some young boys tagging after us, begging for money.
We also got to see the library full of Cheikh Amadou Bamba's works. He apparently wrote one poem for every letter of the Qur'an. Yes, every letter. He also wrote cultural religious texts in Arabic and Wolof. The library is full of volumes, and it's no wonder because one estimate says he wrote seven tons of literature in his lifetime.
After a huge lunch of ceebu jen and Fanta, our class was then lucky enough to be able to meet a female marabout (religious leader). It was some sort of celebration (I didn't catch the name of it), so we got dropped off on a street full of people wearing blue boubous and robes with black scarves. It was a bit unnerving, actually, to be in the middle of so many believers dressed identically. It turns out the outfit is the "uniform" for people who belong to a certain federation in the Mouride brotherhood. The marabout, a rather large woman decked out in a huge blue boubou, listened to our guide spout off blessings for about ten minutes. She then bent her head, murmured something to our
guide, and he translated, saying that she was happy to see us and would pray for all of our wishes to come true in our lives. It was a bit odd to have someone so important stand in front of us and not address us personally, but marabouts and other people in important positions are not supposed to eat, drink, or even really move their mouths in public (they want to appear dignified, restrained, etc. and eating/drinking/etc shows a lack of these traits).
During the long, almost five hour ride home (there was terrible traffic in the Dakar suburbs), I was still thinking about the ridiculous influence that Cheikh Amadou Bamba had, and continues to have, in Senegal. The Mourides are incredibly powerful, and they hold Cheikh Amadou Bamba in such estime that our guide said he is almost like Christ is to the Christians (I thought that was a bit blasphemous, but he said it, not me!). The evidence of his importance is all over Dakar and Senegal...it's even plastered on the front of my house.
I hope everyone back home is doing well (and preparing for my return!) I'm off to enjoy the rest of my
weekend and hope my Senegalese prescription medication works as well as the pharmacists says.
Ba beneen yoon, inchallah!
There are more photos below