The Longest Days, Chapter 2: “Waiting For Godot”

Gus Ruchman - Senegal


February 24, 2011

Previously: I prepared to travel to Touba, the center of Mauridism, in order to provide free medical support for the millions of people making pilgrimage, taking heed of the many warnings against a variety of dangers I might face there. I stood on the brink of the unknown:

The Grand Mosque and the surrounding markets were a wonder at night. We wandered with caution.

Friday, 2 days until Magal: I was up at 7 am to leave the Poste de Santé at 8 to leave Rufisque by 9 so that we would have plenty of time to get to Touba. Or at least that was the plan. At the road, residents of Sangalkam shoved and fought to fling open the doors of taxis, cars, and buses, desperate for a ride to Rufisque to depart for the Magal. Because any vehicle seemed fair game, cars with no desire for extra passengers would floor the gas pedal and drive on the opposite side of the road as they entered town. A bit after 9 Seck, Dieynaba (a night guard at the Poste), and myself piled into a taxi and were on our way.

Similar signs were taped onto the windshields of the car and the pickup truck. These helped us convince police of our humanitarian mission.

Seck got off at Youssou Mbargane Diop Hospital at the outskirts of Rufisque in order to meet up with some other doctors and get our ambulance running, while Dieynaba and I continued to Rufisque to rendezvous Fatou Bintu, a nurse at the Poste, and wait with the rest of the group. In Rufisque I watched bus after bus after bus fill and head for Touba. Like potion in a magic goblet, the crowd never diminished no matter how many people departed.

There was a problem at Youssou Mbargane. I believe it was some combination of a dead ambulance battery, “Senegalese time,” and other issues. Whatever it was, I waited for hours. And then I waited some more. We looked like an odd team, many of the young women dressed in beautiful traditional clothing, some of the Red Cross men looking like paramilitary, and me sporting my high school cross country team jacket. The ambulance and the rest of the doctors

arrived, but for some reason that did not mean that we were leaving. We ultimately set out in a caravan of ambulance, pickup truck, and car sometime between 4 and 5 in the afternoon, only seven or eight hours behind schedule.

Two coworkers pose on the balcony of the house with the minarets of the Grand Mosque lighting the city sky. Voices soared in song from miles away.

Traffic was at a standstill. Through every city, town, village, and stretch of nowhere, vehicles were bumper to bumper. Vendors of oranges, peanuts, and small cookies swarmed passengers’ windows to profit from the endless stream of the tired and hungry. One young boy came to the window selling a cup of hot spiced coffee: Aywa! Café Touba! Seck replied with wit: Déedéet. “Café Tenge” laa naan. (Unfortunately this joke does not really translate, but is humor for any potential Wolof speakers out there in cyberspace.)

It was dark when I was able to stretch my cramped legs and relieve a bursting bladder. We stopped at the house of family of one of the medical workers in order to eat “lunch” (at dinnertime) and sort through boxes of medical supplies donated by the hospital. Though I believed that finishing inventory and organization and reloading the ambulance meant we would hit the road once more, I forgot that many of the group’s women are avid watchers of the soap opera India: A Love Story, and so we had to wait for the evening’s dubbed over melodrama to terminate before we could push the pickup truck to start it and continue on.

As we inched closer to Touba the unbearable traffic only got worse. Some cars pulled off the road and drove through the wilderness a few hundred feet to the right. After stopping for us to fix the broken down pickup, the ambulance turned on its emergency lights, and we drove behind it in the car on the wrong side of the road to bypass the line that stretched for miles and miles. We were not the only people trying to do this, and there were some cars traveling in the opposite direction, so this decision was often frightening as we jockeyed for position and tried to avoid accidents. There were police at regular intervals along the way, none of whom were particularly happy with our blatant disregard for traffic laws, but who were powerless to do much other than whistle and scold.

Things were not quite as serene in the medical tent outside. Foreground: supplies on the “pharmacy” table. Background: “Salle de Soin”

I saw the tallest minaret of the Grand Mosque before I even realized that Touba was near. From miles away it appeared as an ethereal tower of light above the landscape. A chill went up my spine and I gazed in fascination. My eyes remained fixed on it as we entered the city and drove through the markets. It was well past midnight, but the streets were alive. We encountered a barricade as we approached the front of the mosque, but explained to the police that we were a medical vehicle, gesturing to the hand-written piece of paper we had taped to the windshield of the car (it was a very convincing sign). To my surprise we were allowed through, and drove around the perimeter of the mosque.

I do not exaggerate when I write that the Grand Mosque of Touba may be the most beautiful building on this side of the continent. Entirely lit up at night, its marble glimmers and five minarets emerge from the earth like the legs of giants standing guard over the city. Even at our late hour pilgrims in their finest fabrics lined up, shoes off, to enter its gates. I craned my neck to watch it as long as I could as we drove away.

We ate “dinner” sometime in the morning, perhaps around 3 am, and went to bed around 4:30. Since many of the pilgrims that would be staying in our house had yet to arrive, most of the men in the medical team passed out on couches or floor mats while the women shared beds in other rooms. I slept well…

Up next: The ambulance attempts to negotiate un-negotiable streets. I breathe air as saturated with dust and other particles as the city is with people and animals. I kneel before imams and sleep among pilgrims.

Gus Ruchman