A Weekend at a Village

Monday August 11

I have just returned from my last weekend here in Senegal, the best weekend I have had on the trip and one of the most interesting weekends of my life. For the last three days, I accompanied my research assistant, Macodou, to his hometown city, Thiès, and then to his mother’s hometown village, Touba Sane. I soon learned that he is the direct descendant of one of the most important religious figures in Senegal’s history, Sheikh Ibrahima Fall (1855-1930). Fall was one of the first and most illustrious disciples of Aamadu Bàmba Mbàkke, the founder of the Mouride brotherhood, the most prominent Islamic order in Senegal. Fall also founded the Baye Fall movement, a sub-group of the brotherhood, which substituted hard labor for the usual pieties like fasting, catalyzing the Mouride movement. I spent the weekend at the village Touba Sane, where the Baye Fall movement started, to celebrate the people’s biggest annual celebration. On the way, we visited the holy city of Touba, the “Mecca” of Africa if you will, as it hosts the biggest mosque in the continent to which millions migrate annually. After spending two months in a 95% Muslim country, I have witnessed the time and energy that Senegalese people devote to Islam. Dakarians take work breaks several times a day to pray, including my assistant Macodou during our surveying treks. This weekend, I had to honor to experience the origins of these practices with the people who never left their roots.

The city of Thiès is about a 2 hour drive east of Dakar, Touba is 3 hours east of Thiès, and Touba Sane is another hour east of Touba. In other words, Touba Sane is located in no man’s land: 6 hours inland and pivoted in the middle of the central desert region. In general, the travel was very difficult, something that Macodou blatantly warned me about and accommodated for as best as he could. After a morning of surveying, we were set to take the train Friday afternoon but it came two hours late. We arrived at Macodou’s home in Thiès where we ate dinner and where I met his large, welcoming family. Then at midnight, we took a personal “cab” to the city of Touba. I use the word “cab” loosely because this worn-down, average-sized sedan with squeezed eight people and their luggage. While its doors and seats hinged loosely and occasionally flapped open, I endured an uncomfortable, slanted seating position. At about 3 A.M., we stayed at Macodou’s relative’s house but the only available room to sleep in was unbearably hot so we slept on a mattress outside. After getting eaten alive by bugs all night, we woke up at 6 A.M. and I showered with tepid, warm water that frankly spelled like poop. We traveled late in the night and early in the morning like this to ensure that we could enjoy festivities at Touba Sane that day, which was Saturday. We took another “cab” ride from the city of Touba to the village of Touba Sane. This “cab” was even more crowded and dinged since almost no one ever travels to this village. Around 25 people squeezed into a small van: nearly 10 people on the hood, 10 people in the back seating area, a couple people in the front, and a couple people hanging onto the back doors. Since I was a guest, I got to sit in between the driver and passenger.

During my travels, I felt the vast, peaceful charm of the rural area in a visceral way. During the long drive, I saw very few hospitals, schools and stores but rather small enclaves of huts dispersed in the endless fields. Hefty, wild animals led by a sheppard or water gatherer caught my attention about every half hour.


Where I slept my first night
Transport to Touba Sane
Method of local transport in Touba
Rural side
Oxes roaming the streets

One of the most defining features of Senegalese society is its average family size, which reflects the country’s religious roots. As recently as one generation ago, many Muslim Senegalese families practiced polygamy to theoretically help create as many followers of Islam as possible. A typical family comprised at least two wives and up to 15 children. Imagine each of the men and women of that next generation having just as many children. Throughout the weekend, I asked Macodou about his relatives and the varied extent to which he feels close to them. Some of them are the most powerful marabouts, or spiritual leaders, in the country and understandably, they do not keep close contact with him. This weekend at Touba Sane was a huge family reunion, but Macedon remained close to only half of this family.

The Saturday was full of traditional feasts, dance, music and prayer. Macodou and his mom said that I was probably the first American, let alone the first Asian, to visit the village. I have never felt so out of place and so welcomed at the same time, a combination I will probably never feel quite as strongly again. The day started with a large breakfast consisting of lamb and fries, followed by a fruity dessert. In a traditional Senegalese meal, a group of people sit around a communal dish and eat only with his or her right hand. Some of us followed us the meal by taking a food-coma nap under open-air tents, something we needed after much traveling.

Touba Sane
Touba Sane
Huts where most people stayed
Communal hand-eating
Receiving blessings from one of the marabouts (spiritual leader)

From dawn to dusk, Macodou introduced me to his distant relatives throughout the encampment and I met countless people who were excited to have me as a guest. I practiced my Wolof speaking abilities by greeting everyone and engaging in small-talk. I also followed a handshake custom that only members of the Baay Faal practiced in the country. One person puts his palm to his forehead, the other person follows suit, and the first person does it again. People asked a lot of questions about who I was, where I came from, and what I was doing in Senegal. Several of them believed that I was taking Macodou to America and genuinely asked me to bring them with me to America. In huts located throughout the village, I greeted the elder spiritual leaders, or marabouts. Highly revered in Senegalese society, they often have more influence over people’s attitudes and decisions than the most prominent politicians. I felt most out-of-place during these encounters: imagine a hut full of elders dressed in traditional clothing speaking Wolof and a Korean-American in quasi-Senegalese clothing walks in. Like everyone else, I greeted each marabout by kneeling down in front of him, slightly bowing my head, and reaching both of my arms out to shake his hand. I had to make sure to follow certain customs such as not staring at him in the eyes and never shaking his hands with only my left hand. Both of these practices are very disrespectful in Senegalese society. Anyways, these leaders welcomed me kindly, inquired about my stay in Senegal and prayed for me.

Pre-meal ceremony
He loved my camera
New friends
Me with Macodou’s younger brother
The main marabout (spiritual leader)
The tent where hundreds later gathered for night prayer

It seemed as if I had just finished breakfast when it was already lunch time. A large ceremonial gathering commenced the meal: a group of young men chanted songs while older men passed along the plates of food from the main tent towards another area. The rest of the day simply consisted of sitting around, relaxing, greeting people, and enjoying each other’s company. reflecting the relaxed, benevolent nature of Senegalese people and culture. I played outdoor games with kids, laid around in the tent, and enjoyed Café Touba coffee, Senegal’s signature traditional coffee. At dusk, Macodou, his brothers and I took a walk towards the most remote areas of Touba Sane and basked in the striking landscape. After a hectic Northwestern semester and an eventful 7 weeks in Dakar, I had not felt so relaxed in the longest time. We then waited for dinner which was to be served around midnight. Macodou and I accidentally fell asleep and when we woke up at 1 A.M., we found a huge plate of meat and vegetables that was left out in front of us under a brightly shining moon and thousands of stars. Feeling the crisp and cool air, I could not locate a single cloud in the sky. In the distance, I could hear men singing songs of prayer and praise. As I stuffed myself with food and reflected on the serenity of my environment, I felt a certain happiness that can only be attained by living a new, exciting experience.

After finishing our meal, we headed over to the communal tent where at least one hundred villagers were holding a unified prayer session. Well-known, Muslim spiritual singers took turns chanting songs of prayer in the center, while everyone watched and sang along. Having grown up devotedly attending church, I recognized the look of spiritual fulfillment and dedication on people’s faces as they nodded in affirmation to the prayers, closed their eyes and cried in happiness. But I witnessed one phenomenon that I was not as familiar with: young men having out-of-body spiritual experiences. Completely “overcome” or possessed by the spirit, they would violently fidget their bodies and fling their arms. A crowd would quickly surround that person and observe him. When other men would try to calm him down physically, he would violently push them away and tension would escalate. The crowd, particularly the children, would then sprint away from the person in fear and amusement. While screaming, one of these possessed men repeatedly smashed his head in a violent motion against one of the poles that supported the tent before peers forced him away. At church, I observed people possessed by the Holy Spirit, but never had I seen such physically intense and threatening behavior from spiritual ecstasy.

On Sunday morning, the weekend ended with a dance celebration in which mostly young men dance for the marabouts at the center of a village-wide circle. The traditional style of dance consisted of stomping, thrusting and even some break-dancing. I was pleasantly surprised since most of the dancing I had seen in Dakar nightclubs seemed conservative compared to American club dancing. In the least expected place, a remote village, I watched unbridled dancers show off their acrobatic moves in front of a frenzy crowd. As a special guest, I had one of the best seats in the house and sat near the head marabout to whom the dancers addressed their moves. When others invited me to dance, I chickened out which was probably my biggest regret on this trip.

The “thrust” move
Booty shake
Matrix shot

After the dance ceremony, Macodou, his mom, his brothers and I set off on our long journey back home to Thiès. We squeezed into another SUV-sized, white vehicle for a 1 hour ride. When we arrived at the holy city of Touba, the most disturbing incident I have seen in Senegal occurred. The driver of our vehicle and one of the customers furiously disputed over their money exchange and it turned into an brawl. After everyone had exited the vehicle and formed a crowd thirty feet away from it, I stood right next to the car. Suddenly, the customer sprinted towards me to grab a machéte from the driver’s seat and return towards the crowd. Thankfully, other men quickly forced it out of him before he could harm the driver. Senegal is one of the most peaceful countries in the world but every generalization has its exceptions.

Sunday became particularly hot, humid and sunny. Temporarily lost, we aimlessly walked for miles in Touba before finding a bus completely full with people, luggage and crying babies. After a sweaty, noisy bus ride, we arrived back in Thiès, the second biggest city in the country. I enjoyed learning about a city outside of Dakar, particularly because it has grown into a rising political and economic force. I would say Dakar is Senegal’s New York and Thiès is Senegal’s Chicago. Like the first leg of my trip, I ate dinner at Macodou’s house with his entire family. I enjoyed spending time with his dozen brothers and sisters who approached me with a kind and fun-loving spirit. They taught me some African dance moves, showed me all their pictures and told me about their hobbies including basketball and music. Every second, they were laughing and appreciating each other’s company. I was lucky to be a part of it and I want to see them again one day.

Me with Macodou’s younger brother
Me with Macodou’s younger sister
Family Portrait
Dinner prepared by Mama

When I first sought an international travel grant, this weekend was the kind of experience I had in mind. I wanted to escape my suburban upbringing and the Northwestern bubble to live how millions of other people live their lives. There are a hundred other thoughts in my head that I will save for my last post. I cannot believe my time here is nearly coming to an end and I could not have imagined a better way to spend my last weekend in this beautiful country.