The following is the first in a series of three blog posts about the author’s trip to Touba for the Grand Magal.
18:00, 19 December
There is a threshold at which long hours of anticipation for an event to occur inevitably transform into long hours of dread. Waiting for a car to take myself and my family to the holy city of Touba, I am crossing that threshold at this very moment, around seven hours after aforementioned vehicle was originally to arrive at my home. Between the wee hours of last night and now, I have been utterly consumed by the pilgrimage to come. Five minutes of superficial Wikipedia research has informed me that Touba, though the second-largest city in Senegal, bears little resemblance to its sister locales. The idea of millions of people from all corners of Senegal journeying to Touba is simply beyond the purview of my mind’s eye. More interesting still is the supposed banning of music, dance, and games in the city. The nature of the Magal itself, the annual festival of the Mouride brotherhood of which my host family is a member, is still not entirely clear to me, yet its sheer magnitude is imposing all the same. This is mind-boggling stuff. Yet over the course of the day, my interest in dwelling upon such things has undergone a swift decay. I am more than ready to see Touba for myself.
I have asked each member of my family at least once to confirm whether the car is coming at all. I receive vaguely worded yeses, all of which I’ve learned to take as signs of uncertainty.
At length, I am greeted by the roar of an engine and faded headlights. It is time.
The car that has come to take me to Touba is rather nice by Senegalese standards. It can’t be more than 9 years old, and sports an intact fender and firmly attached hubcaps, with working brakelights to boot; my family clearly has friends in high places. In typical Senegalese fashion, the vehicle is to carry around twice as many people as are meant to fit in the car, which means that I am sharing three seats with 5 people. I note that this sort of thing has ceased to bother me, at least for the time being. Good. Quantifiable progress is always nice. A multitude of bags and such are strapped precariously to the top of the car, and we are on our way.
It does not take long before I decide that I am really in no shape to be doing any sort of travel at this hour of the day. It doesn’t take long before the length and difficulty of a pilgrimage to Touba become all too clear to me. What bothers me more so than the shortage of space is the fact that everyone besides me seems to be in the highest of spirits, and in my state, their banter more resembles unrestrained shrieking than the usual subdued bellows heard at social gatherings.
Yet all of this suddenly becomes unimportant once I shift my focus to what is unfolding outside the car ride about which I has been griping so incessantly.
I was not alive when the Yukon Gold Rush transformed my hometown of Seattle, Washington into a commercial hub for miners in transit, but if I were, I imagine that it would have looked a lot like the scene before me. Enormous trucks and buses carry all manner of cargo. Some are stacked sky-high with foam mattresses, some stuffed to the very brim with sacks and potatoes, some crammed to an unsettling extent with people. Vendors sit atop them and streetside, offering last-minute commodities for the thousands of pilgrims making their way to Touba with us. As all this passes us by, I am reduced to a drop of water in Hoover Dam, a single bull at Pamplona, one of what is thousands but seems like millions. I have but moments to reflect upon my insignificance before we shoot into the open road among a caravan of like-minded strangers.
00:30, 19 December
Before turning my attention to Touba itself, several observations about the journey so far:
- I have become fairly immune to loud conversations here, but I’ve yet to achieve the same with people conversing on the telephone as if their voices must physically carry the distance between them in order to achieve coherence.
- Perhaps the greatest indication of the diversity of those travelling to Touba is the sheer range of decay on the vehicles we have seen on our journey—some are as stable as our car yet others seem ready to spontaneously combust at any moment.
- We have been on the same road for around five hours. I have not seen a single vehicle heading in the opposite direction.
I have to be told that we are in Touba before I know that we are there. When we arrive, I can barely discern the outline of an impressive arch-shaped structure towering over the lines of vans and trucks slowly inching forward. Upon closer inspection it’s much smaller than I imagined and has the appearance of an obstacle on a miniature golf course. The city by night is deceptive, not only because of the darkness, but because just when I think I have an adequate image of Touba I realize that we have only just passed through the outskirts. I will likely not have a chance to see it for myself until sunrise.
My home for the next few days is to be a large house owned by someone vaguely related to my host family. Walking towards the mattress where I am to spend the night, I carefully avoid countless sleeping figures strewn about on the floor beneath me. This isn’t a family so much as it is a small army of relatives.
The city of Touba and all that lies within is spread before me. This is my fourth month in Senegal, but I suspect that I’ve yet to actually see Senegal at its most raw, its most basic—that comes tomorrow.