December 29, 2022: Touba
Jordan, Paul and I woke up in the Lompoul Desert having spent the last 2 days in Northern Senegal.
Today, we had a long drive to the central part of the country, which I define as south of Dakar but north of The Gambia. The drive was supposed to take 6 hours. Halfway along the drive, we stopped in Touba, the second-largest city in Senegal.
The town exists because of one man, Shaikh Aamadu Bamba. In the late 1800´s, Bamba came to what was an irrelevant part of the Sahel and received a vision underneath a large tree. From this vision, he created the Mouride sect of Islam. Bamba died in 1927 and wanted to be buried by the tree. His followers and successors built a mosque over his burial and eventually a town formed around the mosque. The mosque continued to grow and attract more people. Today, Touba has more than 500,000 residents.
The Mouride Brotherhood stems from Sufiism. Its membership is estimated to be between 3-5 million, and they hold strong power over Senegalese politics. Its members are known for being very industrious. Many Mourides live outside of Senegal in cities such as Paris, Barcelona, and New York where many are street merchants – specifically knockoff handbag sellers. A huge percentage of their incomes gets sent back to Touba, which helps fund the town and the mosque. The Mourides are very proud that their mosque is build and supported by their own members and not a rich foreign nation.
Due to the unique history of the town, Touba is run by Mouride leadership and not a civil government. The head of the Mourides is called the Shaikh and is a direct descendant of Aamadu Bamba. The current head of the Mourides, the 8th Shaikh, is a grandson of the Aamadu Bamba. The head of the city used to be the Shaikh, but they recently created the mayor role so the Shaikh can focus more on religious affairs. In addition to the mosque, the town has several strong institutions such as hospitals and schools.
One of the world´s great religious pilgrimages is the Grand Magal which takes place each year at a date that rotates depending on the Islamic Calendar (September in 2022). During this pilgrimage 4 million Mourides (which is nearly the entire global population) descend upon Touba.
When driving into Touba, you immediately see the mosque which towers over the rest of the city. It´s central minaret, at 96 meters tall, is one of the tallest in the world. The mosque´s grandeur stands in stark contrast to everything I have seen thus far in Senegal.
After parking, we were taken around the mosque with a guide. At the time, 300 female workers were cleaning the mosque to prepare for Friday prayers tomorrow. They were cleaning carpets and washing the floors with vigor.
We also saw a group of men chanting the writings of Shaikh Bamba. He apparently wrote 7 tons of material.
While we were not allowed into the tomb of Shaikh Bamba, we did get to peek into the main prayer hall which is outdoors.
After an hour or so at the mosque, we headed back to the car. The guide asked for a “donation to the mosque”, which we gave and then drove away towards Toubakouta and Central Senegal.
Touba is in the middle of nowhere and therefore it was most unexpected to see such a magnificent structure.
I was fascinated by Touba´s ability to function outside of government control – it is run by a religious authority that itself exerts control over the government! Touba´s existence is one example of the many extra-governmental powers that exist around Africa including tribal kings and chiefs who carry very strong informal powers.
I am also amazed by the international community of the Mourides. Having seen the bag sellers all over New York and it felt satisfying to know their backstory.
The mosque is well worth the multi-hour detour due to both its beauty and the incredible significance it carries. The rest of the town of Touba seems to be skippable, but I am sure there are some good options for food.
A two hours should be more than enough to see everything in Touba.
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