Being

Maximilian Chen - Senegal


April 11, 2014

This, the second of three blog posts about the author’s trip to Touba, details the events of a typical day in Touba during the Grand Magal and recounts a venture into the interior of Touba.

I have been in the Senegalese holy city of Touba for five days and am no clearer as to the actual nature of Magal than I was on my first day in Touba. Most Senegalese social events I’ve attended have been frustratingly similar from an outsider’s viewpoint. The same social groups are engaged in largely the same activities – the older men seated in various bunches, the women chatting at exhausting paces while furiously preparing ingredients for the night’s meal, the children roughhousing and begging their parents for money –and here in Touba they merely occur on a larger scale. It seems that each hour brings another party of relatives to the already-full compound. I am assaulted on all sides by the sight of newcomers being greeted, the scent of what is hopefully ginaar (chicken) cooking, and the sounds of my younger cousins pleading for me to indulge them in various games played with stones or to sing them the United States national anthem for the fortieth time.

Most of the action is inside my family’s compound. If I leave the house it is to accompany my host brothers to the corner store, or to follow my younger cousins as they point out the resplendent residences of the marabouts scattered around the city. One is even located next to a makeshift zoo of sorts, where an enormous specimen of an ox is tied to a laughably unstable stake in the sand. Three paces across from the ox is a small enclosure containing a visibly annoyed ostrich. I try my best to act as astounded by these animals as are my young companions.

Ultimately it is time to see what all the fuss is about, and I am whisked away by my older brothers to see inner Touba for myself. My half-hearted research on Touba tells me that our destinations are the Grand Mosque and the large market that lies adjacent to it. Right away I notice two things. First, there are more people lining every street and alley of Touba than I have seen anywhere else in Senegal, downtown Dakar included. Touba is the second-largest city in Senegal by population after Dakar; it feels safe to imagine that a sizable portion of Dakar residents are currently in Touba. Walking through inner Touba induces a claustrophobic sensation one might feel in Tokyo, not in an inner West African city. My second observation is an unfortunate one, a direct result of the first – I am suffocating slowly and painfully. Everywhere I turn dust is being cast into the air and into my lungs. I try to use my shirt as a filter, but unfortunately the vinyl-like fabric of my Senegalese apparel does me no favors. We are forty-some minutes away from the compound on foot, but somehow I am managing.

While the outdoor markets in Dakar and Ngaye are piled full with various wares to an almost chaotic degree, their counterpart in Touba is remarkably tidy by comparison. Despite the size of the crowd browsing the market, we are able to move along surprisingly efficiently. The market itself seems to span a much greater area than any other I’ve seen here. While Touba is a site of religious significance for the Mouride brotherhood, it also serves as a tourist site of sorts for the pilgrims. I can look to my left and see another Toubab haggling with a vendor for a shirt featuring Sheikh Amadou Bamba Mbacké (the founder of the city and more or less a celebrity among the Mourides), then walk another few paces and see a Senegalese looking to purchase the same merchandise.

Instances in which I been made keenly aware of my race while in Senegal are numerous and occur on an almost daily basis. Because of the historical French presence, Caucasian people greatly outnumber those of Asian descent—a fact which seems inherently obvious—and while I’ve been in Ngaye long enough to meet people who are willing to get to know me on a personal basis, the novelty of my Asian-ness is renewed in Touba. In Ngaye I am not immune to passing shouts or jeers from schoolchildren or teenagers, but I’ve long learned to contextualize the bluntness of remarks about my race to a point where I’m able to react without emotion playing a part, or not react at all. I’ve met enough genuinely good people to understand that Senegal, like my own country, is not without its vocal minorities, and that this is not reflective in any way of the majority of people I’ve encountered in my experience here or even of those I’ve yet to meet. But for now Touba is the busiest city in West Africa, and the vocal minority that appears visibly disturbed by my presence has only become more vocal. Interestingly, it’s my younger cousins that are usually more ready and willing to jump to my defense, so much so that in one instance the previous day, I thought that a physical altercation might break out between my 5-year-old cousin Lamine and the group of schoolboys jabbering at me in their mocking perversion of Chinese. That my throat and mouth are now caked with dust is not improving my mood. I am all but ready to beg my brothers to turn back when we burst out of the market into a bustling square, the center of which houses the Grand Mosque of Touba.

The experience of seeing a building for the first time and the sensation of being punched squarely in the face are rarely compared to each other (and for good literary reason), yet my opinion is that the Grand Mosque in Touba warrants an exception. The Mosque is, on paper, nowhere near as impressive as other grand architectural feats of human engineering, but the fact that I knew so little about it before seeing it renders its impression on me much more striking. Portions of it are under renovation, and my view is partly obscured by the people surrounding me on all sides, but the Mosque cuts such a grand figure amidst the backdrop of the otherwise crowded and dusty streets that it’s hard to complain so long as any part of it is visible. As I gaze upon it, I forget the heat, the fatigue, the constant sensation of choking, the frustration at being singled out because of my race, the blistering on the soles of my feet, everything—I am taking in the greatest sight that exists in the city, and its splendor does not care for my discomfort or weariness or the fact that I have no real cultural reference for what this Thing is and what it means, only that it is great and that it is beautiful beyond anything I have witnessed in this country.

My fixation is broken by a sudden collective realization from the crowd that a camera crew from RTS, a major Senegalese television network has arrived to document the scene at the mosque. This is, to my brothers, a cue to evacuate, and we begin to retrace our steps hoping to avoid the spectacle soon to take place at the mosque now that national media is involved.

Ultimately I am relieved to return to the shelter of my host family after another miserable saunter from the city center, which is beginning to resemble what those in the military might refer to as a Charlie Foxtrot. I am plunged into the crowd of toddlers and adults that comprise my extended host family and am forced to maintain an energy level comparable to theirs. Like most days here, sleep is easy to come by but hard to come around to, and I know that the endless chanting of the griots from some indeterminate distance will prevent me from getting the rest I so desperately desire. In a vacuum, I am in a miserable physical state. I have returned from a mentally grueling journey, the spoils of which are an incredibly sore throat, egregious volumes of output from my sweat glands, and a general cloudiness that was only briefly interrupted by the Grand Mosque. I am involuntarily slumped against the wall of the courtyard as I watch my cousin Lamine grapple with his siblings; my uncles pass by every few minutes, making jokes at my fatigued state, and every once in a while an aunt or cousin will come by offering me water. I have just enough energy to produce the minimal response of a nod, a smile, a thank you. I remain physically inert and the sun has set long before I am finally coaxed out of my sitting position to come have dinner, and return right back to my spot after I have eaten my fill.

Most days aren’t as eventful as this one, but many are just as taxing. Even in Ngaye, it is a combination of the climate, the long days, the sheer volume of human interaction required of me that reduces me to an exhausted shell of myself come evening. Yet in Touba, back against the wall in the dark of night, watching my cousins vie for my attention, listening to my brothers hold back laughter as they relate to my mother how difficult I was to supervise in the city, I have slowly become surer of a notion that has been tossed around my mind all day—that here in this country, where I spend my days and what I spend them doing and how many days I spend doing them are effectively inconsequential, dwarfed by the much more significant question of the people I am spending my days with. And for the time being, I am with family.

Maximilian Chen