Touba: A Pilgrim’s Progress

The Maagal

If you intend to go to a grand gaamo, where grand men of Ayatollah looks, wearing ten-metre embroidered basagne riz grand boubou congregate, take the dais and flaunt their pedantic wisdom, then you have to go to Tivaoune in Thiès or Piré Gourey. The Touba Maagal is no gaamo. If it were, then it could as well be called the ‘Million Man Conference’. In the days preceding the Maagal, pilgrims troop into the city, coming from all directions guided by the bright illumination of the 86.8 metre high central minaret of the Grand Mosque.

No one verse an ihram – yet – on entering Touba but a greater percentage of the pilgrims wear the matlombè, a free flowing usually white or dull colour caftan with a wide neck and equally wide hands. Some groups of pilgrims take along their cooking pots and condiments but the greater number go their serign, the equivalent of patron saints, who all bear the last name Mbacké and claim direct descent from Borom Darou (founder of the city, one of the many honorific tittles by which Ahmad Bamba is known).

Touba has thousands of beautiful villas, bungalows and sprawling estates with their magnificent little mosque known as keur serign. These homes are sometimes twice bigger than a standard football pitch. Actually, it is not just the Mbacké princelings who build houses in Touba. It is the dream of every talibè (devotee) of Ahmad Bamba to have a home in Touba – in life as well as in death.

The ndiguel (spiritual order) given to them by their serign year after year is to observe their wird, work harder so that they would become exemplars for all. And the Mourides (excuse the self-flagellating mortar-carrying Baye Fall) abide by this work ethic wherever they are; as tinkers in Farafenni, émigrés in Harlem or as ‘Modou-Modou’ in Italy. A secret of their success is their faith in their serign and its attendant discipline. A Mouride would give his last butut if his serign asks for it.

It has always been like that since that day when after searching Cayor, Baol and the upper reaches of the southern bank of The Gambia, young Ibrahima (Baye) Fall, son of Modou Rokhaya and Sainabou Ndiaye through the interlocution of Sheikh Adama Gueye met his Ndiambour-Ndiambour sheikh whom he started calling ‘Khadimou Rassoul’.

It is in these homes of the serign and talibè that the pilgrims fan out. Arriving on the eve of the Maagal, the pilgrims usually visit the peripheries of the Grand Mosque and then join one or two daira (prayer clubs usually named after their patron serign as in the case of the curious and flamboyant ‘Daira Serign Beccho’, in Banjul) and sing or if they can’t, twitch their fingers in mock spiritualism and rock to the rhythm of the talibè singing one of the psalms composed by Ahmad Bamba, the anthology that came to be known collectively as the khassaide (the name from which the late Senegambia singer Musa Ngum borrowed his off-repeated interjection ‘ak-kasaa!’

Loudspeakers set in all directions blast with the psalms and the chants until Fajr prayers. Then those who care would take a shower, refreshing themselves for the semi-desert heat of Touba. At the break of dawn, the crowd would surge on the mosque area. It is without doubt the most important Islamic edifice in black Africa. It was inaugurated on Friday, 7 June 1963, by Falou, son and third caliph of Ahmad Bamba. It could easily seat seventy thousand people and it took thirty –two years, 1.8 million work-hours and 4,800 tonnes of sand, tiles, cement, steel and glass to build.

It has five minarets. The pilgrims enter through the six great doors and do quick genuflections before going around the mausoleum of Ahmad Bamba, touching and kissing the tomb adorned with three verses from the Qur’anic chapters Ya Sin, Fatiha and Mulk writ in gold letterings.

Then the pilgrims would move out onto the patios and outside to ziyareh or pay homage at the tombs of the deceased successor caliph sons, Mouhammed Mostapha (1927-1945), Falou (1945-1986), Abdul Ahad (1986-1989) Abdul Qadr (1989-1990) and now Saliou and Mourtada.

Then a select few usually issued with the VIP laissez passer would enter the palace of the caliph while mere mortals like us either scramble for a half-litre of the ‘holy water’ from Ainou Rahmati well, visit the magnificent library with its thousands of titles, stroll in the grounds of the Islamic University or visit the ‘the City of the Dead’, the necropolis, interment in which Mourides believe, guarantees a place in paradise. Then if you have money to spend, you visit Touba market to buy curios as souvenirs and gifts, then everyone heads back to the home of his patron serign where a most delectable chéb repast fit for a king would await.

On the day of the Maagal, no one goes hungry in Touba. You down your lunch with a bottle of Kirène natural water (named after small town in western Senegal about 70 km from the capital) and complete the meal with a dessert of Moroccan oranges and bananas while thanking ‘Borom Touba’. At least, this is what I had when I went to my adopted serign.

Unlike most Gambian pilgrims, I did not go to Serign Sheikh, son of Serign Falou. In my adventure, while driving in the maze of Touba, I got lost and found my vehicle on a street that was transformed into cul-de-sac for the day. A serign lives on the street and his talibé had planted poles for a huge tent spread across the road.

I came out of the vehicle and after announcing myself was ushered into the presence of Serign Basir, son of Serign Saliou (the caliph at the time), son of Ahmad Bamba. I was in luck. Basir is a young man, in his early thirties and although his talibé fussed around him and waited upon his every word as if it were a revelation from the archangel Gabriel, he did not look spoiled (like the other Mbackè grandsons who behave pretty much like the five thousand princeling in the Saud Royal Family). He was lean and could even pass for being handsome. His room was frugally furnished and he sat in a corner while I hunched before him.

He asked me about Banjul, the ferry and the roads, and whether it was my first trip to Touba. To the latter, I said yes he asked me about my job. I told him and asked him to pray for my pen. He did and advised me to use it as a “a sword for peace and goodness’. Then we sat there and made little talk. I had wanted to ask him questions – why some Baye Fall do not pray or keep fast, what were his personal fears, what the name of Ahmad Bamba’s father was (no one seems to know), what their real last name is (it is not Mbackè) and many other questions. But I was awed by the man and awed by how hundreds of thousands of people outside regard him.

I left and prepared to join the traffic gridlock back home.
This is the essence of the Maagal. It is a testament to the spirit of the Senegalese people that they have produced a “prophet” in Ahmad Bamba. Social anthropologists have often written that it has to take society to produce a “prophet” for it to reach a certain stage in its advancement. Perhaps the Senegalese are on the way. But most importantly for me, the Touba Maagal is significant because it represents the Africanisation of Islam, the religion that I take to be my patrimony.

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