The Grand Mosque of Touba
So what and where is Touba? Touba is the burial site of Chiek Amadou Bamba Mbacke, founder of mouridism Senagalese folk hero and religious icon. The mosque is built over the family shrine in the town of Touba and is probably the holiest place in Senegal.
Mourdism is one of the many Muslim brotherhoods, which came about with the spread of Islam to North Africa. In contrast to the original Arabian form of Islam where everyone is believed to have a direct relationship with God, the class based societies of the local Berber people found certain individuals to be prophets with divine insight able to perform miracles. Now one of the early brotherhoods from Morocco, the Almoravids (where the name Marabout which means holy leader/saint came about) helped to spread this form of Islam into northern Senegal and then on to the southern Sahara and Timbuktu in present day Mali.
When the French started to make expansionist inroads in West Africa a lot of local people found that there traditional tribal leaders interests coincided with French interests, thus the French attempts to subjugate the peasants helped push them towards the influence of the brotherhoods and Islam against both traditional and foreign rulers.
The mouridya brotherhood was founded in 1887 by Amadou Bamba. His court in Touba attracted many followers with anti colonial sentiment, which lead to Amadou's expulsion by a worried French administration. This only lead to Amadous infamy and place in Senegalese history and legend.
He was exiled to both Mauritania and Gabon for seven years. While travelling to his exile by ship he is said to have been told not to pray by the French colonials who said " if you pray aboard this ship you will anger me and if you don't you will anger your God ". The marabou is said to have replied by placing his prayer mat on the sea out of the colonial’s jurisdiction and miraculously prayed on the water.
My guides Alage and Mohamed sat either side of our traveling companion Thierry in the middle with me just visible in the foreground At Ibra Falls grandsons place
When I arrived in Saint Loui in northern Senegal I met Mohamed and Alage to young chancers and guides who where always doing "business". I was always weary as hustlers and unsavoury people plagued my short time in Saint Loui and I never really felt I knew what was going on or had much control of the situation. They did however turn out to be nice people who showed me a side to Senagal I was completely ignorant to and would otherwise have remained so. For this I am very thankful.
After several days exploring the faded colonial charm and river side setting of Saint Loui (one day of which I was yet again sick and for the first time learnt the joys and wonder of projectile vomiting, it was really quite impressive, plus an added bonus diarrhoea) I agreed to visit a strange place that I kept hearing about, Touba.
I left with my two guides Id met in the bar and a French man Thierry who was already well acquainted with Alage and Mohamed. It took three fairly uneventful hours to reach Touba after which everything became very strange and bewildering for me.
Mohamed and Thiery at the mosque, Touba
We piled into a small truck like thing that passes for a bus in these parts, they are painted brightly with religious iconography often of Touba and have two low benches on which up to 15 or so people squeeze in. In this we travelled to M'backe a nearby town where you can smoke and drink. Touba is a religious town that derives its authority not from the police but from the maraboutic militia who enforce a strict ban on alcohol and tobacco. We arrived at a small compound which turned out to be the home of the grandson of the great Ibra Fall.
Who is Ibra Fall? Well he was one of Amadous main disciples who spread the word as to Amadous story; praying on the water and his defiance in the face of French imperialism, and therefore a pretty important figure, who founded his own branch of Mouridism Baye Fall. I was fast being introduced to a whole new world and history that I never new existed.
The outer prayer halls Touba
I was soon introduced to the illustrious grandson. Although it took me a little while to work it out. He was a softly spoken man who moved slowly and purposefully and definitely had the air of someone who was born knowing there place in the world. He sat on a bed underneath a straw roofed wooden awning in a sandy courtyard. Behind this was a painting, three round-bordered portraits set in a brown background with curvy borders that depicted his prestigious lineage.
We four sat down on mats on the sandy floor and shook his hand pressing it to our foreheads, which is a sign of respect. Sitting there looking up at his large solid head and his gentle paternal smile I felt a bit like I was meeting Santa clause although I was nervous I would make some terrible faux pa.
After greetings and a very relaxed chat a large silver bowl was brought out containing fish rice and vegetables. We sat crossed legged and ate African stile with our hands which was strange enough to my Western sensibilities. But then the famous grandson started to rip small pieces of veg and fish adding some spice and a sprinkling of Lime juice before rolling the carefully prepared food in his hand and gently but assuredly directing me to take this offering. He then did the same for Thierry and slowly spoon-fed us reinforcing his appearance as paternal figure and making the experience very bizarre for me and I’m sure Thierry who kept smiling giving me nervous and knowing glances.
Things carried on in a strange vain when we met I think the grandsons wife or perhaps mother she was certainly older. We sat crowded on the floor of her room surrounded by important looking photos of her and religious leaders. She prepared a strange sugary drink, which seamed to have small bits of spongy cheese in it after which she encouraged us all to sit while she muttered prayers. She then motioned to spit over our outstretched hands to which we were required to act out washing our faces in ascent. We gave her a small offering and then left to see the grand mosque, one of the biggest in West Africa.
I’m running out of time now, things to do an all but next time Il right about the beautiful tropical island of Gorèe and its depressing slave history plus the booming metropolis of Dakar and beyond to Bamako Mali.