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Published: August 1st 2017
Greetings from a place called Touba, a little-known city to outsiders, located in central Senegal, but very well-known within Senegal. Touba, or Touba-Mbacke, as I am currently staying in the small town of Mbacke on the outskirts of Touba, for reasons which will be explained below, is the spiritual heart of the country, the centre of a Senegalese order of Sufi Muslims called the Mourides. It is an interesting and very beautiful place indeed, and I am glad I overcame some initial reservations to come here and visit. I currently write once more from an air-conditioned and white-sheeted location, but not quite so luxurious, a world away from boutique-status, and rather unclean – the Campement Touristique d’Etat Le Baol, the only place to stay in town. It is comfortable at least.
I believe I last wrote having left The Gambia after having been delayed for the morning by “National Clean the Country Day”, and checking in once more to the delightful Keur Youssou in Toubacouta. Well, it turned out my journey was delayed once more, this time by a whole day, and I have come to understand that these kinds of events underpin many a journey to
Africa – TIA, or “This is Africa”, as they say. On Sunday, the country held its Parliamentary Elections – I had counted on these taking place in early July, as I believe it is generally not a good idea to travel in an African country during an election – this is when political sentiments and tensions are at their highest, and can often lead to violence during election campaigning, the day itself, and the period after, as can be observed in the recent elections in The Gambia. Things don’t seem altogether terrible around here at the moment, though apparently here in Touba, an election office was attacked by members of the minority opposition party. However, the election did mean that the government decided to close all transport routes for the day, and thus it was not possible to travel on from Toubacouta on Sunday. I did try to catch a sept-place taxi from Toubacouta that morning, but after an hour of waiting on the roadside, a local guy told me that they had closed the road further ahead, and no sept-places were at that time making the journey to Kaolack, where I was heading. So after having departed that morning,
I checked back into the lovely Keur Youssou for one more night.
This was actually a really good thing. I enjoyed a delightful three-course meal at the nearby Hotel Keur Saloum, the swishest place in town, with a salad for starter, delicious kebabs and cous-cous for the main course, and an absolutely delightful crème caramel for dessert. One thing is for certain travelling in a Francophone country, you can enjoy some amazing food out here! After this, I joined a very interesting French couple and their adopted Senegalese son, who were actually on the same flight as me from Madrid, the gentleman being very memorable as he generally clothes himself completely in Indian attire and robes. They were also staying at the Keur Youssou, and were heading off that afternoon on a pirogue trip downstream to visit the nearby island of Sipo, and its resident “Queen” – “La Reine de L’Ile” as they call her.
Sipo is one of the many islands which form part of the Sine-Saloum Delta, and has around 150 inhabitants. It has its own tribal leader, who is referred to as “La Reine”, and visits there can be made from Toubacouta. This was a
On the way to L'Ile de Sipo
fascinating visit, very worthwhile, and made me glad that the election had caused me to stay around for one more night. After a 45-minute journey by motorised pirogue, we arrived at the humble little village, consisting of the typical round mud huts and straw roofs, with the Queen’s residence being an equally humble mud hut at the centre of the village, differentiated only by the fact that it was rectangular in shape with a small porch. The Queen was there to greet us, and we were welcomed inside to sit on her bed, while she sat on a plastic chair facing us, and greeting each one of us with a huge smacker of a kiss on each cheek. She spoke only Wolof, the local Senegalese language, and with the help of our guide Ebraem, and the French couple’s adopted son, Kebe, who both translated what she was saying into French, and then myself additionally trying to translate what I could understand into English, I could just about make out a few interesting pieces of information, but actually not that much I’m afraid. The Queen was 87 years old, and had been leader of the island for over 20 years now.
On the way to L'Ile de Sipo
She has many sons and daughters, but they have all left the island for the mainland. The other piece of information to note was that her younger brother was imprisoned by the former Gambian dictator President Yahya Jammeh, and was actually tortured to death there. Along with this, he apparently executed some prisoners by feeding them to his private collection of crocodiles. What a brutal man. The lady was small and visibly aged, but still exuded power and authority, and had a strong character I am sure you wouldn’t want to cross. After about half an hour of questions and answers in French and Wolof, with myself mainly gazing around the extremely simple and humble mud-brick home and its collection of mattresses on the floor, presumably serving as beds, we said our goodbyes, once more with huge, and rather wet, smackers to the cheeks, for a tour of the village. This included a visit to a nearby farm growing all sorts of crops, including cashew nuts, mangoes and aloe vera, and a walk past a goat shelter, memorable for a little baby goat sitting too close to the fire in the middle of the shelter, presumably to keep the goats
warm, and our guide calling a nearby lady to tell her about this. She came out, followed by her small son, moved the baby goat away from the fire, and proceeded to give her son an almighty wallop, not quite sure why…
During this time, and particularly in the Queen’s house, it was raining really quite heavily. In fact, the night before there had been an almighty storm passing overhead, the worst of it lasting around two hours. The rain seriously lashed down in sheets, the thunder was booming and directly overhead, but the thing that stood out most to me was the lightning – the sheer amount of it. It was like someone up there was switching a light on and off very quickly, for two hours – it lit up the evening as if it were daylight again, and probably around 30% of the time it seemed like daylight – it was a veritable thunder and lightning storm. In fact, the violent storm apparently caused disruptions to the election process in some places, and here in Touba, because of this, and also of the afore-mentioned election office violence, the voting stations remained open past the scheduled close
L'Ile de Sipo
of 6pm until midnight. As we boarded the boat, the rain picked up again. And rather unfortunately, although it was actually really quite hilarious, and the guy I believe thought so as well, the French gentleman in our group fell backwards slap bang into the water as he was getting onto the boat. He was absolutely drenched, although most of us were getting that way as the rain picked up as we were heading back. After arriving back in Toubacouta, the water had turned the village into a complete mudbath, and walking back was actually quite perilous for the two older French tourists in particular – Youssou himself came out to meet us and guide us along the safest way through the mud, also as night was falling – with no street lights there, it would be pitch black again very soon. Eventually we made it back to the cosiness of Youssou’s compound, and it was lovely to be back again, dry off, and contemplate what a fascinating trip that was.
So after another two lovely nights at the Keur Youssou, I finally left the area yesterday morning, being able to hitch a lift with the French travelling party
to nearby Kaolack, from where I took a sept-place (once more ending up on the very uncomfortable back seat, this time on the right-hand side, with not enough space to keep my head up straight) to a town called Mbacke, on the outskirts of the said spiritual heart of Senegal, Touba.
The urban agglomeration itself is called Touba-Mbacke, and actually forms the second largest city in Senegal after Dakar, with 700,000 inhabitants. Touba was founded in 1887 by Cheikh Ahmadu Bamba Mbacke, founder of the Mouride spiritual order of Sufi Islam. Sufism is different to the mainstream Sunni form of Islam, as while the latter only accepts Muhammad as the final and ultimate prophet of God, Sufis believe God appoints further prophets and teachers, many of them referred to as “marabouts”, or holy men, in this part of West Africa, to continue to teach people His message (Shia Muslims, incidentally, consider Ali ibn Ali Talib the successor appointed by Muhammad upon his passing, and thus additionally listen to his teachings, whereas Sunni Muslims believe Muhammad did not appoint a successor). It was in this city of Touba in 1894 that the Cheikh is believed to have had a visionary
The Queen's house
encounter with the Prophet Muhammad, and although he was formally exiled from the place by the French colonial authorities and died under house arrest in 1927 never having returned to his city, it has since become the spiritual heart of the country, which adherents of the Mouride order, making up around 40% of the Senegalese population, refer to as their “capital”. It is a very interesting city, and is run along religious lines, having autonomous administrative status reflecting the sanctity of the city. Alcohol and tobacco are banned there, and visitors must not bring them in. Thus, as I travel with cigarettes, usually only smoking one a morning with my coffee and usually only when I’m on holiday, and a small bottle of brandy just in case the travel gets tough (!), I thought it a good idea to lodge up in the nearby and connected town of Mbacke, which is not subject to such religious laws. It is also the only place for tourists to stay in the region anyway – I did see a few hotels on my journey in to Touba this morning, though I presume these are only for visiting pilgrims.
So after a three-hour
L'Ile de Sipo
journey in total, one hour with the French travellers, and two hours without being able to move my head much, I checked into the Campement Touristique d’Etat Le Baol, in Mbacke, yesterday lunchtime. What a fascinating place, though I wouldn’t want to spend more than two nights here. It is a lodge housed within a large square encampment, which is also home to a couple of private houses, a fair number of sheep and a wandering, rather skinny turkey, with rooms being mainly of the rondavel, round-house variety. Unfortunately when I arrived these were all full until 6pm, so the gentleman in charge here (who I don’t really understand much, neither does a French guy who is staying here, so I’m sure it’s not my French…!) put me in an annexe room at the edge of the compound, which was a real dive. It did have air-conditioning and a fan though, so it was a nice place to wait until a proper room became available at 6pm, and in actual fact made me welcome the comforts of receiving my very own rondavel at 6pm. What a room! It is actually quite comfortable, with en-suite bathroom, warm water (either heated intentionally,
L'Ile de Sipo
or perhaps by the hot midday sun here…!), air-conditioning, fan and a large comfortable bed with white sheets (the annexe room didn’t have these, but some seriously minging old sheets, and a shared window with the en-suite bathroom of the room nextdoor – not something one wants to hear, the ablutions of another…). The only problem is the air-conditioning drips, constantly, around two drips a second, into a large bucket conveniently placed beneath it, itself needing to be emptied constantly. It can also not be switched off – there is no discernible switch within the room, and the gentleman in charge says there is no remote control which works with it – thus it is always on. This is no bad thing, making the room a wonderfully icy escape from the midday sun, except for the drip. Thus, to drown out the drip during the night, along with my earplugs, I have had to put the fan on its highest switch, which actually works – no dripping sound. The subsequent problem with this is the room is super cold and draughty, and I have calculated there is no way of making this otherwise. So last night I had to sleep
L'Ile de Sipo
fully-clothed, with my own blanket I travel with, as well as a blanket which was very fortunately in the room (a blanket is a rarity travelling around these parts). With this in place, I actually had a very good night’s sleep! And a warm shower this morning just topped it all off 😊
And this morning, I took a taxi and an English-speaking guide, arranged by my lodge, into the religious city of Touba. This visit confirmed that a trip way out east and off the tourist trail seems well worth it, as the Great Mosque itself was just amazing. A beautiful, stunning piece of architecture, right at the heart of this planned city. Every main artery in the city leads out from this central Mosque, and the city is arranged in concentric circles around it. At 87m high, the Mosque’s main minaret, one of seven in total and referred to as “Lamp Fall” (not sure why), can be seen from every point in the city, making it a truly impressive landmark. The Mosque and grounds are finished off with white and pink marble, making it literally quite a dazzling place to walk around, having to remove shoes as
Campement Touristique D'Etat Le Baol
well. I wasn’t allowed inside the main tomb, the final resting place of the founding leader himself, as a non-Muslim, but all other parts of it were accessible, including the main prayer hall, and a fountain of holy water just outside. The holy water is said to cure any form of illness, and pilgrims can be seen drinking from it – though as the guide said, the water may be holy, but in no way is he allowing it inside his body, being non-purified and non-filtered. I had to agree with him. Following the Mosque, we visited the nearby Bibliotheque Cheikhoul Khadim, where the librarian showed us around the shelves upon shelves containing the writings of the founding leader – I did wonder to myself how one person can write so much, there were literally thousands and thousands of books there, but when asked aloud, I’m not sure my question was fully answered. After this it was just a short walk to the nearby cemetery, and this completed the main sightseeing of Touba. Whilst it was short, it was remarkable, and I could feel a deep sense of spirituality within the place. I was glad I visited, and a trip
The Great Mosque, Touba
out here, staying in this off-the-beaten track location, has been so far very much worth it.
I had intended to visit Touba during the initial planning stages of my journey, though had always been a bit apprehensive about visiting a Muslim holy place in a region (not country) not currently renowned for its stability and security in the face of international Islamic extremism (mainly Mali to the east). But back in Dakar right at the beginning, I had met a French guy, Charlie, who was doing a short internship with an NGO out here, staying at this very same lodge, which confirmed to me that it was probably a safe enough place to visit, and I still feel so now. We had dinner together last night, and are meeting again for dinner this evening. It is interesting to hear about his work out here, meeting local community and administrative leaders, though understandably, after nearly two months out here, he is very much looking forward to going back to France again this weekend.
So I am planning to spend the rest of the day in air-conditioned (deep cold) bliss, writing up my blog entry and resting up from the
My Guide, Bouna
The Great Mosque, Touba
day. Although it probably seems to the contrary, I actually do quite a lot of resting while I travel – I aim to do my main travelling and sightseeing during the morning, for around five hours or so, and then the rest of the day take it easy, making sure I eat, rest and sleep well. After all, I am on holiday, and I have also found from experience that taking it easy, rather than overdoing the travelling and sightseeing, makes for a much more relaxed, enjoyable time.
Tomorrow I head back to the tourist trail (though still of course off-season, there continuing to be very few travellers around at this time), to French package-holiday tourist destination Saly, seemingly the Senegalese equivalent of The Gambia, but to French tourists. This will probably involve a sept-place journey from here to the city of Thies, in between here and Dakar, and then a shorter sept-place journey south-west from there, to the Petite Cote region of Senegal, and its long strip of beaches, and associated tourism-related facilities.
I’m looking forward to a few croissants, yoghurts and perhaps some more Francophone cuisine 😊
Until the next time, au revoir for now.
Holy Water Fountain
The Great Mosque, Touba
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