Postcolonial Urbanisms in Senegal: Jan 17th – Religion in Senegal

Professor Ndiouga Benga delivered the lecture this morning on religion in Senegal. Senegal is predominantly Muslim, with about 94% of the population self-identifying as Muslim. There are also Christians, Catholics, agnostics and atheists in the country, but interestingly enough it is not socially polite to admit that you are agnostic or atheistic. It is better to tell a “white lie” (we had a whole orientation about how white lies are culturally permissible) and say that you belong to some religion, no matter what religion it is, because people are very religiously tolerant in Senegal. For example, my host family is Catholic and I told them that I am Christian, even though I actually was Christian for a period in my life and now consider myself completely atheist. Benga talked about the current religious tension in the country right now – hardly perceptible at the surface level and perhaps more of an ideological tension at the moment. Senegal is an Islamist society but has a laïque government – perhaps a legacy of the French colonizers. I am always struck by how intensely aware and proud of laïcity the French are, and I think most Senegalese would also agree with and be proud of their laïque government. Most Senegalese belong to Sufi Islam, which is a very moderate branch of Islam. They do follow the principles of the Cor’an but do not interpret certain things literally, for example, being required to pray five times a day and wear certain types of clothing all of the time. However, there is also a community of people in Senegal who consider themselves Reformists. Reformist Muslims take the Cor’an much more seriously and consider the Sufis too lax and perhaps even morally questionable. Reformists would like to see a more theocratic government, although they are not outrightly campaigning for one at the moment. Benga said that for the moment, an Islamist government in Senegal is inconceivable. There is more or less religious harmony in the country and no one is ready to see religion playing a major state role. Already, the second largest city in the country, Touba, is a holy Muslim city and its local government is heavily influenced by the Mouride brotherhoods who control all of the land and resources inside Touba. This lecture was very interesting to me as I’ve attended several conferences focusing on inter-religious dialogue and development, and Senegal seems to be a model for that. It also made me very excited to visit Touba on Saturday.

We had the rest of the day free, and I went to a salon with Constance for much needed pampering. I also had my hair cut for probably the first time in a year – it was about time! The lady who received us was very gracious, and when I complimented her on her dress, she gave me her mother’s number and told me that she worked at marché HLM, one of Dakar’s largest and best markets for anything. It is definitely not a touristic market – it is a bit outside of Dakar and it is so immense that it could be a city or a labyrinth. I wandered around for a bit by myself and bought a couple of dresses, and some cocoa butter. I was completely overwhelmed by all the fabrics and the process to custom make an outfit, so I decided against it. The next time. I was also struck by how useless French was in the majority of my interactions with the vendors. Once they heard me speak French, I am sure that they multiplied their prices by 10. Moreover, most did not speak any French and only knew basic French numbers. Most people tried to speak to me in Wolof. I am sure that virtually only locals make it marché HLM.

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I went to the French Cultural Centre for dinner afterwards with the others, and I was really impressed by the beautiful place. Their security was also very intense – I have never been patted down to enter a cultural center in another place. We had a lovely dinner that unfortunately took so long to arrive that we missed half of the festival that we had tickets to. When we finally finished, we caught the tail end of a collaboration between Senegalese and international artists that included musicians, contemporary dancers, and singers. I was pretty intrigued by the crowd at the French Cultural Centre – there were lots of French and foreigners the Centre, and then very fancily dressed and dapper looking Senegalese. As with many other countries that I have visited, the crowd at the French Cultural Centre or the Alliance Française always seems to among the upper class. What is it about the French culture that they have managed the occupy the echelon of high culture for so long and continue to do so?

Question: 1. Do the reformist Muslims in Senegal have media visibility? Do they have politicians who are currently active and sympathetic to their cause?

2. Marché HLM was like a mini-city. Who are the vendors there and how is the size of the market contained?

3. Last question in last paragraph.

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