16 March 2007

A Madrassa in the City

I had long promised to visit my friend Bubacarr, who works as an Ustas (Koranic teacher) at a dara/madrassa in Thies, Senegal's second city, during the dry season. Bubacarr comes home to Njau to farm during the rainy season, so that's how I know him. So it was that, after the Magal and a stopover in Dakar, I came to visit Thies.

I expected that some parents in Njau and other villages had left their sons in Bubacarr’s tutelage. I was surprised to discover, though, that all of his talibes/students were from around Njau, having moved 300 kilometres away to Thies. It seemed to me counterintuitive that Bubacarr, an Njau native, and his talibes would leave their homes and families for an expensive, unfamiliar city in another country. As it turns out, the rationale is economic.

If Bubacarr’s madrassa were in Njau, parents would not be able to pay him for his services. There are rural madrassas where children toil in their Ustas’s fields (see my July 18 2006 post on this), but Bubacarr lacks the land for this to be a viable option.

Moving to Thies proved feasible, though. The talibes’ parents still don’t have any money, and there’s no subsistence work available, but one can get by thanks to the West African and Islamic values of hospitality and zakat (alms giving), respectively.

Bubacarr rents a compound where he and his 40 or so students live and study. With water fees (there’s a tap in the compound), rent comes to 12,000 CFA (about $22) a month – a heady sum when your students have no money, nor food. This is where the aforementioned kindness of strangers, prescribed by social and religious norms, comes in.

The talibes spend a couple of hours every morning out with old tomate paste cans (for taking collections), offering prayers to people kind enough to make a contribution. A similar thing happens at lunch and dinner. The children return home with extra rice from compound food bowls and divvy it up at meal times. Bubacarr, too, has a couple of neighbours that provide him with meals, out of respect for the work he does teaching children the Koran and Islamic values.

The talibes study for a few hours before and after lunch, and for another hour or so at night. Older students teach the younger boys, with Bubacarr there to teach the older guys and to answer questions that come up. Bubacarr likened his role to that of my headmaster at Njau’s primary school.

So Bubacarr’s dara relies solely on charity to operate. At first this seemed unrealistic, but if every kid collects 25-50 CFA a day that works out to 1000-2000 CFA. Bubacarr had enough to splurge 2500 CFA on dinner for us (leaving me feeling a little sheepish), and is even contemplating renting a slightly nicer room. The funds also supported his two wives (now three as he has married his brother’s widow) and children at home in Njau.

So the urban dara system, in this case, works quite well financially. On the other hand, living quarters are cramped, the diet’s not great (but on a par with Njau), and Bubacarr and his talibes are far from home. Also, one boy is there simply because he ran out of money to attend government school, and Bubacarr has poached a few other kids from Njau’s primary school. It would be nice if more children simply took the two track approach – about 30 Njau LBS students pay for extra Koranic classes with the school’s Ustas – rather than making it an either/or proposition, but the money’s simply not there to support a madrassa in Njau.

Addendum: I did a brief Internet search on talibes, and most posts deplored the living conditions of dara students. Although the living conditions are difficult, I saw a generally happy atmosphere at Bubacarr’s school, and the talibes seemed to be treated reasonably well.

15 March 2007

The Magal pilgrimage in Touba!

On 6 March 2007 I traveled from Njau for the Magal/annual pilgrimage to Touba, Senegal. Assembled here are some random notes from letters I’ve been writing to friends.

The Magal is celebrated by followers of the Mouride sect, and commemorates the founder’s return from 20 years’ French-imposed exile in 1907. So this city gets up to two million visitors during the Magal (to put that in perspective, I think Saudi Arabia allots passes for two million pilgrims for the Hadj). About half of Senegal’s 11-12 million people are Mourides and a fair amount of Gambian Wolofs are too (and some Mauritanians). I traveled there with Njau’s imam, an old pa (Baay Pateh) from Njau who’s keeping an eye on me, and a few other people from Njau and the surrounding villages (we hired a gelegele/minibus, which went off the beaten track, heading north from Njau). Quite a few other people from the Njau area are here; I bumped into the gelegele driver from our Grade 6 class trip last May, among others. The first afternoon we were there, I visited the mosque with Baay Pateh. It’s very large and ornate, and there are several adjunct shrines/mausoleums dedicated to past leaders of the Mourides. Every main street branching out from the mosque is filled with shops and sidewalk stalls (I think we passed over 100 cell phone stores). Many of the Senegalese working overseas are Mourides, and there’s a lot of trade back and forth. A major characteristic of this and other Muslim brotherhoods in the region is their reverence of their Serignes/marabouts/leaders, and their belief that these leaders can be conduits of messages or prayers to Allah. A lot of other Muslims might consider this elevation of leaders to be un-Islamic, but it dovetails nicely with local traditions of consulting wizened men for help with health, family, or financial problems or needs.

Besides checking out the market/city, we spent our time hanging out in three compounds that our imam and Pateh know (we are among hundreds of people sleeping in their courtyards), chatting with various pilgrims curious about my presence here, going on expeditions to places to take a bath (Baay Pateh knows a couple of compounds about 30 minutes’ walk from us that had pretty reasonable bathing places, plus we didn’t have to fetch water – one time Pateh simply pulled rank and used his seniority to annex one unfortunate young man’s bucket of water and place in line), eating, and resting.

So that’s about all I can tell you about Touba. Most of my information may not be completely accurate, and I use some terms interchangeably that may not be completely correct. Still, it gives you a small idea of what the trip was like, along with this little ‘survival guide’ which I’ve put together for prospective Peace Corps travelers to the Magal.

Magal Survival Guide

Although this won’t match the attention to detail in Tina and Nate’s Mauritania brief (“The pit latrine in the Atar PCV house issues a pleasant report when you drop a solid stool…”), I will do my best to be helpful. I highly recommend the trip to anyone who is curious (some command of Wolof or French is vital – or a companion with those qualities).

Try to leave a couple of days before the Magal, as traffic and accommodation both get really tight.

Travel with Gambian or Senegalese friends

If your village/town has a fair amount of Wolof compounds, there’s a decent chance there are Mourides among them (some Mauritanians are Mourides too). Travelling with locals should mean that logistics (transport, accommodation) are taken care of.

Bring your own water?

This was the suggestion of my host father, who claims cholera is widespread in Touba during the Magal. To be sure the taps end up surrounded by cesspools, and the water tastes awful. I brought along a 20 liter bidong for myself and the old pa whose fare I sponsored, but this only lasted two days as the less-prepared members of our party helped themselves. Bottled/shrink-wrapped water can be bought, but it sold out the day of the Magal.


This could be a battle. You could borrow someone’s bucket, or bring your own. On the plus side, the taps always run. I lucked out as my old pa is a Magal old hand, and found us some good bathing places, although they were a half hour’s walk away.


Plan on sleeping in what you wear. You may want to bring extra layers, and socks, as it was quite chilly and you’ll likely be exposed to the elements. You’ll need a mat or something to roll out over the sand. Mats can be bought in Touba at the usual rates. Sleeping will be cramped; the last night we squeezed our mat between a compound wall and a taxi.

Visiting the Grand Mosque

This can be a bit tricky (although they apparently give tours during quieter periods), but it you dress the part, speak some Wolof (a little Arabic would probably completely flummox and quieten interrogators), and have someone who can vouch for you (Baay Pateh banged on about how I fasted over Ramadan and was generally living as they do), you should be fine.


The crowds are overwhelming, so try to stash somewhere on your person any valuables you don’t need at hand. I found my khaftaan quite handy as it covered the items in my trousers. I left my clothes and such where my people were ensconced and nothing was taken. Basically, the usual precautions apply.


The standard pit latrines, just count on sharing it with a few hundred people.


There are plenty of street vendors to buy food from, and tones of bitiks. If your host is a Serigne, or Mouride spiritual leader, he’ll want to make a good show of taking care of his acolytes. Breakfast was tea and bread; lunch was benichin with vegetables and beef(!); dinner was cous with sauce and more beef. It was kind of like Tobaski, except cows were slaughtered instead of rams or goats.


Roundtrip fare from CRD-North: 5000 CFA / D 250 / $9
Large mat: 4000 CFA / D 200 / $7.50
Drinks: 300 CFA / D 15 per person per day / $0.50

Embargoed for Release – My Mauritanian Travels Revealed

In August 2006 I set off to Mauritania with my friend Fatou Jallow. She had visitors who were leaving from Dakar, so we met there. We spent a night in St. Louis, a very nice colonial town (the oldest French settlement in West Africa, I believe) on the coast (with the old part of town on an island) which was the colonial capital of Senegal and Mauritania. With independence St. Louis ended up in Senegal (though Dakar is now the capital) so Nouakchott (Mauritania’s capital) was an ad hoc creation. It’s now grown to a population of over a million, but it’s a dusty place without much to see. I think Kombo (the region outside Banjul) is somewhat livelier, and it has more amenities and places to go out to. Both have their well-heeled expat classes, but Gambia has tourists to cater to as well.

After a couple of days in Nouakchott we headed inland (though only 5kms from the sea NKTT is basically desert). There we based ourselves in Atar (relying on the hospitality of a PCV-Mauritania) and went on trips to Terjit (an oasis enveloped by small mountains) and Chinguetti (apparently the 7th holiest city in Islam, although I couldn’t say why). Terjit was really nice, as there was a little rock swimming pool in the stream, we could do a little hiking in the cooler hours (I use the word ‘hiking’ lightly but it was a different landscape after a year in a country that never rises more than 300 metres above sea level), we could engage in some people watching (Mauritanian families came for day trips and picnics), and one of the workers gave us free food from the other customers’ orders. Chinguetti was pretty too, and we went on a short camel ride and spent the night camping in the desert.

After that we shared the back of a pickup truck with ten other people and their luggage and headed north to Choum. Once there we hung out with our fellow passengers, drinking ataaya (the green tea with sugar that is ubiquitous throughout the region), eating dates, and chatting. Mauritanian transit towns have little rooms or covered areas where people can lay about on mats or mattresses, resting, chatting, drinking tea, or eating. After it cooled down a bit, some of the young men went out to play petanque/bocce ball. I had a few gos, but didn’t do very well. I can blame the heavy metal balls, grassless pitch, and the claim made by my companions that Mauritania is the 7th best nation in the world when it comes to petanque.

Several hours later, after 9 o’clock that night, the longest train in the world pulled into Choum. There is no station to speak of but, as this is the only northern route west to Nouadhibou, it stops there to pick up passengers. There is a passenger car in the back, but we and most other travelers opted for the tops of the other cars, where you pay no fare. After scrambling on top (with some of our companions from the truck), we set to work leveling the iron ore dust and settled down for the night. The ride was nice, though cold and (iron ore) dusty, and there wasn’t much to do besides look at the stars and desert and listen to the train rumble along the tracks.

After 13 hours and 400-500 kms (not a bad pace by Gambian south bank highway standards) we disembarked outside Nouadhibou. The train was quite an impressive sight in daylight (it’s said to be some 2.3 kms long), although the same could not be said for us. It took an hour-long shower to get myself reasonable clean, and I was still discovering pockets of iron ore dust a couple of weeks on.

Nouadhibou, Mauritania’s second city, was an interesting place, although we only had a day there. It’s right on the ocean, so it’s a bit cooler than NKTT, and you aren’t buffeted by dust from all sides – just three directions. It’s a big fishing port, one of the main industries in Mauritania. Most fishermen are black Africans (as opposed to fairer skinned, Arabic-looking Maurs), and some are from other countries, Senegal in particular. As a result, Nouadhibou is quite a diverse city, with lots of Wolofs and others around. Another, less positive, reason the city is a magnet for West Africans is that it is the prime launching point for boats of migrants aiming for Spain’s Canary Islands. From there we headed back to NKTT (which does have a nice market and okay museum) and then onwards to Senegal.

Overall I had a grand time in Mauritania. Language wasn’t too difficult, as I remembered French from some pre-Peace Corps courses I took in DC, plus we occasionally found Wolof speakers. A lot of Mauritanians travel to Senegal and Gambia for work (they run much of the fabric trade and many general stores in The Gambia), and Wolof is the lingua franca of trade in both places (to the chagrin of Mandinkas in Gambia).

Mauritanians on the whole treated us very well, and we experienced no problems in a country that is more conservative than SeneGambia. Before I traveled, a lot of Gambians warned me that “Naars” (Mauritanians of North African extraction) were wicked. I experienced nothing of this but I think that is because, as a visitor, I was no privy to the sometimes strained relations between more Arabic-orientated Mauritanians and black African Mauritanians, most of whom are from the southern area around the Senegal River, where there is some farming land. There have been race riots in the past, and black Mauritanians sometimes feel a bit marginalized economically and politically. Still, I saw generally friendly interactions between Mauritanians of all stripes. As for in The Gambia, the degree to which Mauritanians get along with Gambians varies from person to person. The same, of course, is true of PCVs in Gambia.

One potentially confounding way of life is the Mauritanian style of dress. Virtually all of the men wear either blue or white khaftaan tops, with no sleeves (the fabric does spill over the arms but is folded up), and with similar gold embroidery. In Gambia I use the (slight) variation in clothing as a crutch that helps me remember names. Black Eminem t-shirt – Eliman; blue Italy football shirt – Abdoulie; black halter top/tube top under shredded shirt – a boy named Samba; etc. I would not be afforded this luxury in Mauritania, with its uniform, albeit beautiful, national dress.