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Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Touba: A Pilgrim’s Progress

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In 1678, a half-literate Englishman wrote a Christian allegory about one man’s spiritual journey. He called it Pilgrim’s Progress and it became a well-loved book. I am no book writer and certainly lack the aggregate intellectual capital to write a classic, but I undertook a spiritual journey of my own, exactly this time 14 years ago, and I want to bore with you my grand travelogue grand to Touba. This Tuesday, millions of people from five continents made the same spiritual journey.

On Sunday, 20 April 2003, in the company of three elderly friends, I crossed with the noon Barra ferry and headed east towards Amdalai/Karang border post. We crossed. The Gambian potholed roads soon gave way to the gleaming new tar of the Senegalese highway dotted on the sides by bright red and white 50km p/h traffic signs that only horse-cart drivers seem to observe. We passed quaint villages and little laid back towns with strange names like Firdaossi, Daga Badou, Diaglè and Ndoumboudji with their Saharan nomadic architecture. We sped past dry lakes, naked baobabs and lean cows grazing on fields of lazy straw turned the colour of russet gold. About 90 kilometres from Karang, we saw vast wastelands that were once vegetated by mangroves where prawns, lobsters and crabs used to spawn and these soon gave way to little crystal white sulphuric pyramids that dot the approaches of the dirty city of Kaolack. Then we took a detour north, passing Ouror, Tenfoul, Qassas and headed for Dakar.

But Dakar is no pilgrim’s mecca. I was going to Darou Quddus – The Holy City. So we branched east at Diourbel (known to the locals as Ndiarem) and adjusted the navigator on our vehicle to 15” 52 west of longitude and 14” 52 north of latitude. It was only 47km to our destination but this day it would take us seven hours and nine minutes to get there. There were thousands of mostly brightly painted but battered car rapides, ndiaga ndiayes (gèlè gèlè), horse carts, trucks, French cars and American SUVs on the road. We were all headed for Touba (named after the fabled tree of Paradise). And we were all pilgrims.

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Touba may not be Jerusalem or Mecca (the people of the city are the first to tell you they hate the comparison with the latter (but it is to Mourides what the Vatican is to Catholics and what Salt Lake is to the Mormons and Karbala to the Shi’ites. And in line with its holy city status, there are no pubs, nightclubs, cinemas or even hotels in Touba. Even cigarettes are prohibited. And the founder of the city himself had cursed whoever goes to his city to engage in samba boye activities. For any happy-go Lothario looking for bacchanalian pleasure, don’t go to Touba. Or if you must go, stop at Mbackè, the nearest village, some 7km away.

Founded in 1887 on a 755-hectare land with a few hundred inhabitants, Touba has metamorphosed into a sprawling 9,500 hectare (Dakar is 8,000 hectare), 600,000 people metropolis and it is still growing. Forget Thiès, Diourbel, Zinguinchor, St Louis or Kaolack, today Touba is the second largest city in Senegal. It looks a city blessed, blessed by Allah as prayed for by its founder in the epic ode he titled Matlaboul Fawzeyni (Quest for Success in the Two Worlds):


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Let Touba be a place of wealth and abundance
Let the good from the west and from the east
From the north and from the south meet there.

Early that week, depending on which source you believe, I was one of one or three million people who went on the Maagal – a Wolof word that somewhat translates as ‘paying homage’ or the ‘great event’, as the pilgrimage to Touba is called. It is celebrated annually on the 18th day of the Muslim month of Safar. The Maagal is in commemoration of the exile to Gabon on 21 September 1895 of a simple Muslim cleric without pretensions, who had no handhold but Allah and his faith, by the French colonial governor at St Louis (the capital of then French West Africa).


This Toucouleur sheikh, Ahmad Mbackè, born in a village called Prokhane, was seen as a menace to the constituted authority of the French colonial administration. He posed a threat to the economic lifeline of the French when his growing legion of ‘fanatical’ followers would rather give him the aadiyah than pay tax and levy to the French. Bamba (a name said to be given to him by the Baddibu marabout Mam Bamba Barrow) spelt big trouble for the French. He hadn’t broken any of their laws so they could not do anything to him, yet they could not leave him alone.

So, on a Thursday, on 5 September 1895, a privé counseil of the French colonial administration was summoned by the governor and after nine hours of deliberations, issued the terse statement: “After having examined certain problems relating to the colony, the council has approved the decision to send into exile to Gabon, the marabout, Ahmad Bamba with effect from 21 September 1895. A pension of 50 Francs per month will be given to him during his stay in Gabon.”

On that fateful Friday, Bamba left on board the ferry boat Ville de permambouc. But unlike his other companion in exile, the Guinean resistance leader Almamy Samori Touré, Bamba refused to take either his wives or disciples with him. After a tempestuous sail, the boat arrived in Libreville and Bamba was taken to Mayumba, in the heart of the humid, tsetse-fly infested tropical rain forest where no one sent into exile before returned alive. Writing in one of his famous khassiades (epic poems) called Asirou Mahal Abrari about his time in Mayumba, the sheikh wrote: ‘The only thing more painful was death’ but, he added: ‘They thought I was their prisoner, but in my journey I was with the virtuous (the disciples of Prophet Muhammad).

” In all the years of his exile, Bamba refused the fifty Franc exile allowance and even the food the French gave him. He scrounged for himself and spent his days praying, reading and meditating. Among his writings there were what came to be known as the ‘Hidden Khassaides’ which he said he would never, ever, be published.
There in the Congolese jungle, according to the lore of the Mourides, as his followers came to be known, the first miracle of the sheikh occurred. During a period of high tide, the French took him with Samba Laobé Fall, King of Jollof , who was also exile, in their boat to the rocky islet of Wir-Wir where no life exist and dumped them there, but on returning to Mayumba, from where they were transferred, the French found the sheikh and the king there. In another incident, the French, at their wit’s end at what to do with the sheikh, stood him before a firing squad but the soldiers who were asked to kill him refused claiming that when they point their guns at him, they saw angels on white horses. Writing in one of his khassaides, Ahmad Bamba said what the soldiers saw were the Companions of the Prophet who came to provide him solace.

There, Mourides believe, Ahmad Bamba reached the hierarchy of saints called Rijalullah or Quth Ezzaman at aged thirty nine years, nine months whereas other Muslim saints like Abd Qadri Jillani and Sidi Ahmed Rifai were said to have reached this distinction in their eighties. Ahmad Bamba himself wrote that it was during his sojourn at Mayumba that he was purified and accepted as a ‘Servant of the Prophet’ (Khadimou Rassoul) to him the most distinguished honour. After five years in Mayumba, the French transferred him to Lambarene where he spent another two years before returning him to Senegal on 11 November 1902 on the boat La Ville de Macceio.

But Bamba’s spirit , like the singer Youssou’N’Dour would sing a hundred years later in his classic Bamba, was not broken and the French, considering him too dangerous, accused him of stockpiling weapons for a planned uprising, and sent him into exile again. This time in Mauritania. It was in the desert of Sarsara that Mourides believe Ahmad Bamba got his special wird (invocations) from Prophet Muhammad.
… To be continued

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