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

No comments: