This year’s winter intercession corresponds rather well with the Touba’s Grand Magal (18 Safar 1433) and the lead up to it. It was my good fortune to have been invited to contribute to the event in an academic capacity.
This year, for the first time, the Organizing Committee of the Grand Magal decided to internationalize the event and to strengthen its intellectual dimension. It organized an itinerant conference that met first in Milano (3 Dec.), then in Montréal (10 Dec.) before moving on to Dakar (23-25 Dec.). The theme of the Dakar conference, to which I was invited, was “The Response of Sufism to the Global Crisis.” The conference, presided over by Sëriñ Bassirou Mbacké Abdoul Khadre, the Khalif-General’s official spokesperson, convened at the very swank Hôtel Méridien Président.
Among the international participants were Islamic scholars from Egypt, Syria and Morocco, and academics from the United States and France. I presented a paper, in French, on Touba, Sufism and modernity in city-building. To access the conference program, follow this link. For the full conference proceedings (very efficiently published by the conference organizers in December 2012), click here.
On the 26th of December the participants were taken to Touba for the closing session and were received by the Khalif-General, Cheikh Sidy Mokhtar Mbacké. This being the academic intercession, and having a few weeks of free time, I decided to stay on in Touba to conduct some field work. It turned out, however, that the timing was not appropriate. 26 December corresponded to 1 Safar, the official kick-off of the city’s preparations for the Grand Magal. Everyone from the top sheikhs down was busy with tasks. Proper field work such as site visits and interviews would have constituted an added burden on people, so I opted for discrete observation instead, trying very hard to keep out of everybody’s way. That said, I did manage an informal interview with Mouhamadou Tafsir Guèye, Director of the Greater Touba urban planning division, and I did undertake a side trip to Khourou Mbacké, where Ahmadu Bamba lived as a child and where many members of his immediate family are buried (subject of this future post).
Being in Touba in the weeks leading up to the Grand Magal allowed me, for the first time, to observe how the city is readied for the event. Given the general low level of mechanization, much of the work is labor intensive. Taalibes and Baye Fall, women as well as men, contribute to the effort with great enthusiasm.
First, there is the physical clean up of the city. Mounds of garbage that have accumulated on certain streets and in empty lots are loaded onto trucks and taken to dumps outside the city. Much of the rest of the work is less visible, but it relates to both public spaces as well as private homes.
Public health is a major issue during the Grand Magal as the city of about 600 000 inhabitants swells with well over a million pilgrims. Cholera in particular is of major concern. Past Magals have experienced serious outbreaks of the disease—incidents of cholera were already being recorded in the area around Touba two weeks prior to this year’s event. The Ministry of Health works closely with Murid officials to implement preventative measures. One of these measures consists of emptying all the city’s septic tanks prior to the arrival of pilgrims. Touba has no sewers. Houses are equipped with septic tanks instead. Though, as it is destined to continue to grow, Touba will eventually have to install sewer mains, the septic tank system works fairly well in normal times. The soil beneath the city is very sandy and therefore quite permeable. However, having upwards of two million people generate liquid waste over a period of a few days stretches this system beyond its limits. All the tanks are therefore emptied in advance to create the necessary capacity (I will spare readers of the blog post pictures of this particular activity). Moreover, rows of mobile toilet booths are set up near the main shrines, where crowds are greatest during the Magal.
The provision of clean safe drinking water is the second pillar of the cholera prevention strategy. Touba’s water distribution network is barely sufficient to cover ordinary needs. Water pressure in the mains is very low. In order for water to reach the upper floors of buildings, it has to either be pumped up (electric or diesel pumps) or carried up in buckets (girls are assigned this heavy work). During the Grand Magal the city’s water pipes simply run dry most of the day. Houses are therefore equipped with reservoirs (concrete chambers in the basement or plastic containers on the roof). All of these need to be filled prior to the Magal. And before this is done they are all emptied and disinfected. Again, all this work is done by hand. Furthermore, large plastic water reservoirs, replenished by tanker trucks, are set up at many points near the main shrines and along the main thoroughfares.
Another aspect of preparation for the Grand Magal, though less official in nature, is the rush to complete construction projects. Many houses in Touba are more-or-less in a perpetual state of construction. People add rooms and floors to their houses as finances allow, and as families grow in size. There are no hotels or hostels in Touba. During the Grand Magal, most pilgrims stay with family members who live in the holy city, though many wealthier Murids who live elsewhere build a second home in Touba especially for this purpose. Every available bed, sofa, foam mattress and plastic floor mat is needed. Tents are erected in courtyards and in the streets to accommodate the overflow from houses. Home-owners are therefore anxious to complete any on-going construction ahead of the Magal. Masons, plumbers and electricians are in high demand. Many come from other cities to work in Touba a month or so prior to the event.
There is an official side to the Grand Magal which cannot be ignored. Hundreds of dignitaries are invited to the event. These include: representatives of other Sufi orders from across Senegal and Mauritania, government officials, senior civil servants, politicians and representatives of political parties (presidential elections are scheduled for February 2012), as well as ambassadors from numerous Muslim countries. They all have to be hosted by the Khalif-General. The Kër Sëriñ Touba facing the Great Mosque, erected in the 1970s especially for this purpose, is now far too small to accommodate all these guests. A new Kër Sëriñ Touba is currently being built in Darou Marnane, at the main entrance to the city, parts of which may be completed in time for this year’s Grand Magal.
As you might expect, many hundreds of thousands of motor vehicles flooding into the city from elsewhere creates something of a traffic problem. Touba’s urban planners have always taken the Grand Magal into account, and even at the height of the Grand Magal the traffic in Touba is nowhere nearly as congested as it is on even an ordinary day in Dakar. Nonetheless, efforts are still being made to improve the holy city’s street network. Many secondary streets have been paved over the past four years, a policy initiated by El-Hadj Bara Mbacké during his brief caliphate.
Also, and importantly, Touba now has a public transit system. Tata minibuses (of Indian manufacture) now ply the city’s main avenues, stopping at designated bus stops.
Most passenger transportation however still relies on taxis (more expensive), private back-loading minibuses (less expensive), and donkey carts (cheapest of all).
I will not actually be in Touba the day of the Grand Magal (18 Safar=12 January) as I have to return to Morocco. I wish everyone a successful event, after all this hard work!