Tuesday, November 25, 2008
The gathering of Senegalese Muslims resembled a west African version of US-style summer camp: dozens of young men and women huddled under tents singing songs to the four-time rhythm of cow-hide drums against an Elysian backdrop of flowering baobab trees.
Answering the call of the "Ndiguel" - the call to work - has become an important fixture for Mourides, a Sufi Islam movement whose doctrine of hard work as a route to paradise has made it a powerful economic and political force in Senegal.
Each year at harvest, thousands of disciples, from bankers to bus drivers, descend upon Khelcom fields, rising at 6am to pick peanuts under a blazing sun. The work is done on behalf of a local marabout - or religious leader - and the proceeds go to support local schools for poor youth.
"I come back here every year to learn humility, to reconnect myself with people in the countryside regardless of their background; it's about solidarity," says Idrissa Lo, a 33-year-old football agent from Dakar.
"Pray as if you will die tomorrow and work as if you will live forever," is one of the oft-quoted teachings of Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba, the Muslim mystic who founded Mouridism in 1883 and whose grainy photograph is plastered on walls across the country.
The marabouts' teachings to go out into the world and bring back wealth to build up the movement has led it to establish a formidable trading network across the globe, from street hawkers in Rome, tomato pickers in Spain and import/export dealers in Hong Kong.
Nothing is more illustrative of the marabouts' expanding influence than the extraordinary growth of the holy Mouride city of Touba, a chaotic urban expanse that rises suddenly out of the Sahelian bush.
With 5,000 inhabitants, Touba was just a village at independence from France in 1960. Today, with a population of more than 500,000, it is at the centre of a global network of street traders, merchants and labourers, whose remittances helped build the biggest mosque in sub-Saharan Africa and a $10m hospital nearby.
Such tangible benefits have been a big factor in the Mourides' recruitment success. It is also a factor in the fierce loyalty of their followers. Despite Senegal's impressive growth rate, those subsisting in the city slums have felt little improvement. While secular loyalty toward politicians has plummeted, Sufi marabouts have filled the gap, mitigating the worst effects of state neglect through the provision of schools and social services as well as preaching peace when political tensions run high.
Traditionally, Senegal's marabouts have acted as a force for inter-religious integration with Christian and animist minorities. The country's much revered first president and poet, Leopold Senghor, was Christian and it is not uncommon to have Muslims and Christians within the same family.
More recently, the marabouts' steady accumulation of political influence has attracted controversy, pitting traditionalists who wish to protect what they see as their religious integrity against ambitious politicians eager for votes.
Although ostensibly aloof from politics, in practise Senegal's four main brotherhoods have always vied for electoral influence, but political leaders were careful to avoid taking sides. Since the election of President Abdoulaye Wade in 2000, there is a perception that this has begun to change.
Upon being elected Mr Wade, himself a Mouride, went on a pilgrimage to Touba and publicly knelt before the Mouride caliph (leader). The president said his visit was purely personal but the message was clear: alliances were shifting and secular state politics were a thing of the past. Since then, Mr Wade has openly cultivated the endorsement of the caliph, who appeared on national TV during the 2007 presidential campaign to assert that Mr Wade, if elected, would complete the modernisation of Touba's infrastructure.
When combined with the personalisation of power around Mr Wade, some analysts allege that the caliph's closeness to the presidency casts him as a type of political consultant to the state.
"In a society where there are no clear boundaries between the religious and civic spheres . . . the ties that bind the nation together are becoming ever looser," says Penda Mbow, professor of history at Cheikh Anta Diop university in Dakar and a former minister of culture.
Occasionally, the lines between politics and religion have blurred, with worrying consequences for Senegal's democracy and its guardians. In the run-up to last year's presidential election, followers of one Dakar-based marabout, mostly jobless young men, attacked the convoy of Idrissa Seck, a presidential rival and former prime minister.
Although many Senegalese dismiss suggestions that marabouts are colluding with politicians, a creeping "politicisation" of the brotherhoods is acknowledged by Cheikh Bethio Thioune, one of the country's most respected Sufi leaders.
But supporters say Mr Wade has merely recognised the growing commercial power of the diaspora and the changing aspirations of the young.
[Picture: The Great Mosque at Touba. Photo from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Touba,_Senegal].