The Longest Days, Chapter 1: “Great Expectations”

The Magal 2011 was perhaps my most thrilling, exhausting, and challenging experience in Senegal yet. At the end of January I traveled to Touba, the central holy city of Mauridism, where every year millions of pilgrims (Wikipedia says 1-2 million, but I was told 5+ million) celebrate the return of the founder of the Islamic sect to Senegal after exile by French colonists

Because of security concerns inherent to large crowds, Global Citizen Year did not permit me or other Fellows to accept any invitations to accompany friends on their respective pilgrimages. However, I ultimately traveled with a cohort of doctors and Red Cross Senegal workers from Sangalkam, Rufisque, and Dakar to provide free consultation, treatment, and medication during the Magal, obtaining unique permission from GCY because I was going for my apprenticeship work.

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Wednesday, 4 days until Magal: I did a double take when I got on the bus back from Rufisque, where I had been doing an afternoon consultation with Mansour, because my older host brother, Elhadj, who went to Touba as a pilgrim, was sitting in the back, also heading home to Sangalkam after work. In conversation I mentioned that I was waiting to hear from Dr. Seck, my apprenticeship supervisor and head of the Poste de Santé, about whether or not I would be able to go to work with him. Elhadj’s response gave me pause. The conversation went something like this:

Elhadj: Do not go to Touba. It is not safe.

Me: Well, my program will not let me go with Thierno [a friend who invited me], but if I go with Seck and the other doctors it should be okay.

Elhadj: No, even if you go with Seck, do not go. There are too many people. We are strong and used to the crowds and the tough conditions, but you are weak. It is hot and you will get robbed.

Me: Uh…

Elhadj: If you go to Touba you will get sick and you will die.

Me: [Smile and chuckle] Okay, well—

Elhadj: No, it is not a joke. YOU WILL DIE. Have Anta call us to say that we are not responsible for you.

Me: Okay, I will do that. I have not heard from Seck yet, so I still do not know if I am even going….

Thursday, 3 days until Magal: When I got to work in the morning, Seck told me that I would, in fact, be going to Touba with him. I felt a rush of adrenaline surge through my system. This was, of course, mixed emotion, since I had now been told that I must not leave Senegal without going to the Magal (Thierno) but had also been firmly warned that it would be a fatal decision (Elhadj). Still, I quickly informed all of my friends and colleagues at the Poste to their delight and asked some advice on packing. This essentially amounted to:

Do not bring much—we will be sleeping “like the military.” Remember gloves, antiseptic, a facemask, and head cover. Sterilize between every patient, wash your hands before every meal, and NEVER DRINK THE WATER.

With this in mind I ran from boutique to boutique collecting one of this and some of that for survival of all apocalyptic eventualities. I remember very little of my short lived Boy Scout days, but “be prepared” stuck with me. When I went to bed that night I had a few changes of clothes, a respectable pharmacy, some other medical supplies, and a fair amount of miscellaneous materials locked in my small backpack, and 11.5 liters of filtered water ready to go. In my head I would be landing on Omaha Beach in the morning, except instead of bullets there would be choleric tap water and enormous crowds, and instead of fighting a foreign army I would be battling the unexpected, disease, fatigue, and the greatest cultural immersion challenges I had yet to face in a place far from home.

Up next: We travel to Touba under arduous but humorous circumstances, slowed by malfunctioning vehicles, roadside vendors, and foreign soap operas.