christmas at the great mosque in touba, senegal

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As I am not much for the gross display of capitalism during the consumer holiday known as Christmas, I like to travel during this time. If possible, I like to travel to countries that do not celebrate this gross capitalism so as to avoid hearing stories of people getting trampled just to get the one cheap Xbox available at Walmart at 4:00am.

This year I found myself in Senegal, in the holy city of Touba. It is a city in central Senegal, the center of Mouridism [Sufi Islam], and the burial place of its founder, Shaikh Aamadu Bàmba Mbàkke. Next to his tomb is a huge mosque. There I was on 25 December.

Touba was founded by Aamadu Bàmba in 1887. The holy site remained an isolated place until Bamba’s death and burial at the site of the Great Mosque 40 years later. This ensured the city being seen as the holy city of Mouridism. Bàmba is Senegal’s most famous Sufi, and was more than a spiritual master. He had a social mission as well, that of rescuing society from colonial alienation and returning it to the “Straight Path” of Islam. In fact, in every town in Senegal can be seen signs and graffiti that read “Merci Bamba” or “Thank you Bamba.” The city of Touba played a major role in Bamba’s life and mission.

Life in Touba is dominated by Muslim practice and Islamic scholarship. A major annual pilgrimage, called the Grand Magal, attracts millions from all over the world. As this year’s Grand Magal was officially on Sunday, 22 December, on the 25th the town was still chaotic with pilgrims. It made getting through the dirt streets to access the mosque as difficult as the most complex video game. Given there were absolutely no western tourists, my travel companions and I were quite the object of fascination, so much so that they were taking photos of us.

According to sources, all “illicit and frivolous pursuits,” such as the consumption of alcohol and tobacco, the playing of games, music and dancing are forbidden here. [It would have been helpful to know that before I began my interpretive dance moves at the mosque]. The Mouride order maintains absolute control over its “capital” to the exclusion of usual state-run civil and administrative services. The city constitutes an administratively autonomous zone with special legal status within Senegal. Every aspect of its city’s life and growth is managed by the order independently of the state, including education, health, the supply of drinking water, public works, administration of markets, land tenure, and real estate development.

As I toured the Great Mosque, one of the largest in Africa, I marveled at its size and the organized chaos within its walls. Completed in 1963, it is currently being renovated. The mosque has five minarets and three large domes. The mosque’s 285 foot [87 meter] high central minaret, called Lamp Fall, is one of Senegal’s most famous monuments. The name Lamp Fall is a reference to Sheikh Ibrahima Fall, one of Bamba’s most influential disciples.

While a journey to Touba is not for the novice traveler, the more seasoned traveler will most certainly take interest in seeing a city that, without touristy trinkets and baubles, represents the daily life of Senegalese Muslims. If you do visit, just be sure to refrain from doing the Lambada or Macarena.

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