Postcolonial Urbanisms in Senegal: Jan 18th – Touba

Touba is much further than I thought. For a one day trip, I was expecting this city to be one to two hours away from Dakar. Instead, the trip was four to five hours. We picked up Professor Gueye on the way leaving Dakar, and he provided commentary about Touba on the way there. Rosalind told us that she wanted us to spend the weekend in Touba, but there are actually no hotels there. Touba is a holy city, a place of pilgrimage for Muslims in Senegal and outside of Senegal. Apart from being the holy city of Mouridism, it is also the burial place of its founder, Shaikh Aamadu Bàmba Mbàkke. Next to his tomb lies a large mosque, completed in 1963.

There are certain policies that apply to Touba that don’t apply elsewhere. I am not sure if it is a policy that no hotels are allowed in Touba, but Professor Gueye told us that people would never allow such a thing in any case. Charging someone to stay in Touba would be socially frowned upon. People who visit the city can always stay with residents there, since they are considered spiritual pilgrims. Other special things about Touba: residents don’t pay taxes and water is free. Touba is also a very special city in Senegal in that it was planned from its very conception. This has made  a huge difference in its spatial orientation and government politics. The local government is heavily influenced by the Mouride brotherhoods who basically rule in Touba. The brotherhoods own the land and give free lands to their disciples. The downside of this is that they can also claim back the land at any time. The one condition of their generosity is that the new residents construct quickly on these lands – they must build a house or an apartment.

While visiting the mosque, which as beautiful and breathtaking as the other famous mosques I have visited in my life, I was struck by how tolerant the Mourides were. I have never been to a mosque where women did not completely cover their hair. I was actually chastised at a mosque once in India when my scarf slipped a little bit and in Istanbul, the Blue Mosque actually goes through the trouble of making sure that everyone is properly dressed to enter the mosque by providing free, optional, full length cape-like robes to visitors. All of us had hair showing, and I originally had my scarf very tightly wrapped around my entire head, but I eventually loosened up as I realized that it was not an issue in this place.

The most illuminating and also strangest part of our day was visiting the Hizbut Tariqyah’s headquarters, a particularly strong Mouride Brotherhood in Touba. They welcomed us with open arms, and also surprisingly, a video camera that followed us the entire day and zoomed in close into our faces at times. Perhaps we should have guessed that they actually have an international online channel, streaming in English, Wolof, French and Arabic 24/7. They explained their structural operations to us, showed us their complex, and talked about their projects for the future. They plan on moving their headquarters and turning their current headquarters into a school, which seemed like a very good idea to me. Education in Touba is complicated, because they don’t have French schools and most people learn Arabic in order to read the Cor’an. However, they then don’t have the skills to work in most sectors in Senegal, as French, and increasingly English, is required. They are also building more mosques and always working on their television channel, which seemed like an enormously expensive project, but one that they were clearly able to finance. The recording studio was enormous and very modern, filled with state-of-the-art technology. I was disturbed by several things during this visit. One is the comment that one of the leaders made: that in the building dedicated to adult women, they taught them important skills, such as computer skills, sewing, and “how to receive their men at night”. He quickly backtracked and said that husbands often come home grumpy at the end of a long day’s work, but I thought the comment was grossly misappropriate and also illuminating about this particular person’s ideas of gender roles. I was also disturbed at the interview that members of the Mouride brotherhood conducted after our lunch. They asked us to make several comments about what we learned and several of the girls in the class volunteered to say something. We obviously had to be very gracious and thankful, but I wonder how they would present our visit and those comments.

Questions: 1. Water is free but still a challenge in Touba. It is only available through wells and water pressure through pipes is bad. How will Touba address those water issues together?

2. How many viewers does this internet channel receive? What are the demographics of those viewers?

3. This Mouride brotherhood seems very economically self-sufficient. Professor Gueye talked about how the brotherhoods always manage to raise enough money to accomplish certain projects from their disciples. Do Touba residents and the disciples either demand certain things, such as certain classes or a school? How much financial transparency is there in these expenditures?

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