- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 13, 2005

TOUBA, Senegal - The assault on the senses during the Muslim pilgrimage to Senegal’s sacred city Touba begins with sound, from the ceaseless chanting to the dust-covered shuffle of hundreds of thousands of pairs of plastic shoes to the clatter of alms as they fall into beggars’ bowls.

Ignoring threats of cholera, which has infected about 20 people daily since December, disciples of the Mouride brotherhood spent the fourth week of March in Touba as part of the annual Magal, commemorating the 110th anniversary of the departure into exile of their spiritual guide, Sheik Ahmadou Bamba Mbacke.

“We heard about the cholera, and were weighing whether to come,” said Aida Faye, who came from Paris for her first pilgrimage in 15 years, joining four generations of her female family members in line to enter the mosque before the Magal ended officially on Tuesday last week.

“But we came, for our parents, for our family and for him, our prophet, our guide. To show him our love.” Feared by West Africa’s French colonial government, Sheik Bamba was ordered out of Senegal to Gabon in 1895. His exile did nothing to diminish his fame as a traditional healer and a religious teacher, and he has been accorded near-saint status by his legions of disciples.

“Each person has two hearts: one that pumps blood to keep you alive and one that feeds your soul. The teachings of Sheik Bamba, blessed be his name, have helped us see our second heart, so we revere him,” explained Mame Sheik, his dreadlocks bobbing in time to the shake of his calabash beggar’s bowl.

Sheik Bamba is also big business for the Mouride, the largest ethnic group in mostly Muslim Senegal. The group counts President Abdoulaye Wade among the sheik’s followers.

His image is plastered on everything from T-shirts to amulets to calendars and bars of soap — and in his name, disciples such as Mame Sheik collect tens of thousands of dollars annually for their teachers or the upkeep of the mosque.

The pilgrimage is also a much-needed source of revenue for merchants here, who count on the annual hordes of the devout for sales of mountains of foam mattresses, strings of prayer beads and gallons of bottled water.

“For the past 36 hours, I have been doing nothing, just making bread,” Modou Ndiaye said, stifling a yawn as he surveyed tray after tray of fresh loaves at the Touba bakery.

“Last Tuesday, we made maybe 1,000 baguettes. But we have not stopped since Sunday. I will not even have time to go to the mosque. It’s all bread, bread, bread.” Such commercialism has evoked grumbling among the devout that the religious aspect of the Magal is being compromised, pointing to young people clad in T-shirts instead of traditional robes as evidence of the need for a return to basics.

“It’s not the Magal I knew when I was a boy,” sniffed one man, clutching his prayer book in one hand, his beads in the other.

State funds also are poured into Touba, which at 1 million people is Senegal’s second-largest city even without the pilgrims.

In a bid to contain the cholera threat, water and sanitation expenditures for the district reached 1 billion CFA francs ($2 million) this year, which paid to open old pumps, power new generators and send 70 tanker trucks rumbling through the dusty streets of the desert city.

“We are an important city for Senegal. We bring in a lot of money, and this is a sacred place,” said Mamadou Gueye of the national public works department. “The government sees this and helps us with what we need. If Touba is happy, I think the country is happy.”

But for all the fears of cholera, the biggest problem for pilgrims was the scorching heat and crush of bodies at every turn, as well as the trip in and out of Touba past the mangled wrecks of vehicles caught in accidents that killed at least 14 persons in the run-up to Magal.

Young children were held tightly by the hand and women moved through the crowds clutching the veils of their mothers, sisters and aunts, bobbing like ribbons on a kite string.

“We are 11 who have come from Mauritania, as we do every year to pay tribute to our sheik,” said a smiling Mariam Ba, her eyes bright beneath a gaily patterned filmy scarf, an array of family members behind her.

“We get to see friends and family, and to sing. I feel there is a lot of love here.”

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