2014 June

Weeks 25 & 26: Ceddo Ci Touba

Dear Internet,

A few notes before I officially begin this letter; 1) Ceddo Ci Touba means ‘Non-Believer In Touba’; this is about 99% of everything know about religious life in Senegal and is thereby colored by my own biases and ignorance; 2) I’d like to thank Khadim Diouf for taking a large part in writing this piece; and 3) unless it is a caption, emphasis or another language, all text that appears in italics has been translated by yours truly.


A Car Rapide, a form of public transportation, with the word “Touba” on the front

The blackness is thick at 1 am in front of my new apartment building. I don’t know he’s there until he grabs my arm, which is when I realize that he can see me. He pulls me towards the main road, towards the light, as we tread through the sandy alley.

KD: Well, he was someone who was very close to god. A disciple of god… He fought against the whites for Islam and the culture of our ancestors, well certain parts of the culture. He also did a lot for the spirit of Senegalese people. He said that you must always believe in something. He wrote many things in his khassaides, which are like poems. Many of them were written about God, Mohammed, other prophets, and sahaba, people who were close to the prophet Mohamed. He wrote more than 7,500 tons of books.

AS: 7,500 tons? What do you mean?

KD: We’ve never counted exactly how many books, but that’s what is said. It was seen. He also threw some of his books in the ocean and others were burried.

AS: And all the books were composed of khassaides?

KD: Mhm, and prayers….

We approach the main road, the congested intersection. Boubous hang off the others waiting, glistening in the hot, sickly orange city night. There is an of air anxiety as one of maybe three buses back away from the small crowd. As we emerge from the shadows, Khadim releases my arm, to traverse through the others with our friend Boga.

He was important because… There was a marabout [spiritual leader], a well-known marabout in Senegal named Serigne Mbaye Sarr. He had children and some wives, more than 3 wives, 4. And when there was a drought, he didn’t have anything to eat or drink. So he wrote a letter to God and buried it in the ground. When he buried it, there was no one but him and God. And at the moment that he buried it, and a little more than one day after, when he got up, he saw that there was dust coming from the North towards him. As it came closer, he saw that it was horses and camels with food for years to come. It was this that he had demanded from God. The day after he put the letter in the ground, Serigne Touba was the one that sent the horses and the camels. When they asked who had given him this, he said it was Serigne Touba that gave him this. It was at this moment that one began to say that Serigne Touba was God. There was no one there when he buried the letter, how could Serigne Touba have known? It was this moment that he said that Serigne Touba was God. You know that, also, it was this moment that Serigne Mbaye Sarr became one of his disciples. He said that he didn’t want to stay there, that he needed to see the man that had done this. He had written a letter to God and it was a man that responded. He had to see this man. Serigne Touba gave him a house in Touba and some talibe, to learn the Qur’an there.

The bus reproaches the crowd and Khadim pushes me on. It is nearly packed to the brim with giant Senegalese men and their wives cradling one, two, sometimes even three or four children. I quickly take note that I am the only non-African on the bus, though no one seems to take note of me. I will have this moment repeatedly over then next 3 days, but I don’t know it yet. In the aisles, as is the case with most buses in Senegal, there are little benches, no more than a square foot in size, bridging each row of seats. They are mounted with axles such that they can be lifted up. There are only two spots that remain. I lift up one to sit in the other, only to turn around and see that neither Khadim nor Boga are behind me. They don’t seem to be in front of the crowd that’s trying to get on the bus either. I breathe in the shared anxiety, but feel impossibly isolated as I breathe out. “Altéa kaay.” (‘Althea come.’) I pop right up from the bench and walk back to the front of the bus where Khadim has mysteriously appeared once again.

There was someone else named Serigne Abdourahim Deme, who was also a master of the Qur’an. He said that he knew the Qur’an better than anyone else. He travelled around Senegal to see if there was someone who knew more about the Qur’an than him. Before he came to Diourbel, it was said that there was a grand marabout named Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba Khadim Rassoul — Serigne Touba — who was there. So he went there to see Serigne Touba, and test his capacity with the Qur’an. For two days, after he got to Diourbel, he did not see Serigne Touba. The third day, when he saw Serigne Touba, he could no longer recite the Qur’an. Serigne Touba said ‘Ah, Abdourahim, you know that the Qur’an is in me. I have the key to the Qur’an.’ It was at this moment that Abdourahim became a disciple of Serigne Touba because he had never encountered someone more knowledgable about the Qur’an than him.

Khadim regains his grip on my bicep, pulls me off the first bus and pushes me onto a njaag njaay he has managed to flag down that happened to be headed to Touba. I am surprised to see each row holding 7 or 8 people in a space made for no more than 5 when the bus is going to a town about 4 hours away from Dakar at 1 in the morning. Then Khadim tells me that it’s a maggal, or the celebration of a religious leader in Senegal, tomorrow. The maggal of Cheikh Ibrahim Fall, specifically. My anxiety, already heightened by a budding claustrophobia found on this bus, immediately doubled. The grand maggal, that of Serigne Touba, attracts millions of people from all over the world. I don’t like to be in crowds, especially crowds of people speaking foreign languages, no more crowds of religious people. This is why I have avoided traveling every other maggal that’s passed while I’ve been in Senegal. I feel lucky that Khadim managed to install me next to a window, and try to breathe in the cold night air to release the tension. However, with my fatigue, all the people, and the lack of space, I begin to panic. I half fall asleep for a brief moment before a surge of tension flows through my entire body, propping me upright, over and over again for the next 5 hours.

Serigne Touba did things that the Senegalese, everyone not just the Senegalese, had never seen. It was because of Cheikh Ibrahim Fall that we know of Serigne Touba. He was the first disciple of Serigne Touba who exposed us to everything about Serigne Touba.


a portrait of Ibra Fall and his followers found in a friend’s home

After 5 hours, we finally arrive in Diourbel. Diourbel is defined as a city by Senegalese, but would be a village by any American’s standards. Nonetheless, I am very impressed by the passing of buses and cabs traveling to Dakar on the main road – making the economic center of Senegal just a short walk away at any time of day or night, at least during the maggal. Khadim, Boga and I hop off the back of the bus half in motion and walk about 100 meters to Khadim’s home. He scales the large barrier, wakes his 70-something-year-old grandmother and retrieves the keys. A few other members of the household, all men, wake up and greet us. I reach out my hand to them, as I always do, only to have it slapped out of sight by Khadim. ‘Great, all that stress to arrive in a place where men won’t touch me,’ I think.

He was important because he got rid of the white people. He sent disciples to fight the white people sometimes. When the white people came here, they didn’t want Islam to develop. There were a lot of missionaries for Christianity. When they got here, there were a lot of non-believers. It was the non-believers who had slaves, who sold the slaves. The biggest non-believers were kings. They didn’t believe in God. It’s for this reason that they sold their brothers and their friends, people of the same blood.

The next day, after a bit of sleep and endless amounts of food, Khadim, Boga and I travel to Touba. Touba is essentially the Mecca of Senegal. It was founded by Aamadu Bàmba Mbàkke (1853-1927), or Serigne Touba (“the Holy man of Touba”). It is said that he founded Touba after experiencing a cosmic vision of light under a large tree. In Arabic, tūba means “felicity” or “bliss” and, in the Qur’an, it is the name of the tree of paradise. It represents an aspiration for spiritual perfection and closeness to God in Sufism.

Touba in the daytime (pictures taken in 2011 – it has since changed):


Khadim’s cousin, more like a sister, gives me something modest to wear: essentially a full-sized, beautifully printed chiffon bag with a matching scarf to cover my hair. We catch another njaag njaay at the main road. And, as we approach Touba, the streets become more and more congested with people in their best clothes. The women are particularly striking, sparkling with rhinestones and glitter from their eye shadow to their shoes.



The Great Mosque, originally conceived by Serigne Touba but completed 40 years after his death, has been the cause of Touba’s growth from under 5,000 people in 1963 to 529,000 in 2007. It was built on the money raised by individual Mourides, many of which were peanut farmers who later began traveling outside of Senegal in search of business. It is quite an achievement that such a small population should create one of the continent’s biggest mosques. The last time I visited the Great Mosque in Touba was almost exactly three years ago, and, like three years ago – from the fountain spurting up from some 10 foot tall sparkling arabic letters to the ironically European marble that adorns the mosque’s walls and archways – I find it to be like a theme park for the religious. For me, a non-believer, it is not dissimilar to mega-churches in the United States.



We finally enter the mosque with our shoes in our hands. It is beautiful and crowded. There is a long line of women. ‘Men are on the other side.‘ Khadim tells me. He takes me by the hand and starts talking to a guard, negotiating how to get me in, to see what, I don’t know. The guard leads him to a place where it is easier to enter the line. As we approach, there is another guard hitting a woman with a belt to get her to behave on line. ‘I really don’t have to go in – I can stay and wait for you somewhere.’No, you’re going in. Don’t worry.‘ A very kind lady lets me in front of her. She squishes against me into the next person as we walk past the guard in a singular line. Once we are past that check point, there are volunteers with trays, handing out Cafe Touba.



Cafe Touba is made from a somewhat mysterious powder of coffee beans ground with djar, an African black pepper said to have stomach-settling and aphrodisiacal qualities. It is nicely spicy, though ridiculously sweet and rarely contains milk. It was created by Serigne Touba, who was said to make the mix for medicinal purposes. A plastic cup about the size of a double shot, littered throughout Senegal, costs 10 cents. The Cafe Touba in Touba is particularly syropy, with a little je-ne-sais-quoi. Khadim tells me later that the reason Cafe Touba is so sweet is because the water is salty in Touba.

Next someone comes from the right side of the line, blindsiding me with perfume that they were spraying on each person on line. Last, another from the left, hands me a little sponge cake. The guards were kind to me while I waited. Both encouraging and laughing at my attempts to speak wolof despite being so bewildered by the scene transpiring around me. I finally entered the mausoleum, the mausoleum of Serigne Touba. The guard hustled me into a little spot. Women throw in money and get on their knees, putting their hands on a large, opaque plexiglass box, much larger than that of a coffin. Between them and the box is a set of bars, like those that keep out sacce, or thieves, from the surrounding homes. They adorn the space beautifully, but further obscure what is inside. I put my hand on the box and kneel, attempt to meditate for a brief moment. I then stand up to make room for other women. I walk towards the back, where, separated by another set of bars, you can see the men’s side. They are all standing, toppling over one another, yelling/singing prayers and throwing money. I feel lucky to be with the women, sitting on the floor quietly praying. I sit back down, against the wall, and take it in. I unhitch my mind from my spine such that it can float directly above my open, surrendering hands.

The last story of white people and Serigne Touba is called Bureau Baccal Ndar, or the abandonned office of St. Louis. The French government wrote letters to 94 marabouts. Serigne Touba was the 4th. When the 94 marabouts came for the convocation of the governor in St. Louis, they called the 3 marabouts before Serigne Touba. They all accepted the proposition of the governor that they would no longer have the daaras of Islam. They threatened them with bloody knives. If they did not agree, they threatened to kill them. So all three accepted. After them, it was number 4 – Serigne Touba.

When he came and the white people demanded that he no longer teach disciples nor continue to practice Islam, Cheikh Ibra Fall, at the side of Serigne Touba, took a kaftan, put water on his hands and dispersed it on the desk, the office of the governor. To make ablution in the room, so that one could pray there. After that, Serigne Touba took out his prayer rug and he did two deraka. After that, he returned to his place before the governor. Serigne Touba presented the Qur’an to the governor. The governor told him you must no longer believe in God, because God does not exist, there is no God. Serigne Touba responded that God does exist, there is only one God, and his name is holho-walla-ahaad-alaahoo-samad-lam-yarid-wallam-yoorad-wallam-yakkul-loxo-kufu-am-ahad [please excuse me for my terrible phonetic spelling]. “So you, you do not want stop. So we will bring you where no one has ever returned. You will see that God does not exist there.”


‘allaahoo’ found in a friend’s home

When the white people brought Serigne Touba to the sea, Cheikh Ibrahim Fall, you can write Ibra, and Maam Thierno Birahim Mbacke, Serigne Touba’s brother, were there. They were the ones that guarded the other disciples, the daara. Serigne Touba left them to guard his family, saying that he would come back soon. Ibra cried at this moment. Ibra told Mbacke that he did not want to see Serigne Touba leave with the white people alone like that. He asked Mbacke to let him drink all of the sea, because he didn’t want the whites to take Serigne Touba to the sea. Mbacke responded that it’s God who has made this happen for all to be in peace, for Islam, the belief, to stay here in Senegal. When Serigne Touba got on the boat, the boat cried that Serigne Touba is going to help us all. They left with Serigne Touba and tried everything they could to kill him for 5 years. They brought him to a place called Wiri-Wiri in Gabon. It was on an island. There was a not a ghost, but a genie, a yax [a devil], who was there and ate all the people that they brought there. The people never returned. Serigne Touba prayed for all the skeletons, all the people who were already dead there. Maam Diarra Bousso, the mother of Serigne Touba, and Serigne Abdu Khadre, a marabout, the son, well not the real son, of Seydina Mouhamed, the prophet mohamed — a Moor – they appeared in front of him there. They said that they would help him with the mission God had given him. He told them that no, it is work that God has given him, and that it was him that must complete this mission alone.

When the boat left Serigne Touba on the island, they left him with another Senegalese man named Samba Laobe. He was the one that spoke ill of Serigne Touba and told the white people about him, told them to get him. The French had grown distrustful of, well angry with the man and left him there with Serigne Touba to die. When they got off the boat, Samba Laobe told Serigne Touba that it was only him that could save him from this island. Serigne Touba pardonned him for every bad thing he said to the white people. ‘You must stay behind me,’ Serigne Touba told him. ‘Close your eyes, when I tell you to open them, you may open them.’ When Serigne Touba told him this, the genie came out of the sea. Samba Laobe had only closed one eye and as soon as the genie came out of the water, Samba could no longer see. When everything was done, Samba told Serigne Touba that he could no longer see. Serigne Touba told him that his curiosity was to blame. Serigne Touba spent several days there. Cheikh Fall sent food and reparations by putting it on the sea and hitting it in such a way that it would go directly to Serigne Touba. Others saw it and were impressed, so he stopped. He began to give it to the white people with boats to give it to Serigne Touba.


portrait of Serigne Touba found in a friend’s home

I exit and look around for Khadim. There are lots of little boys in circles singing pentatonic chants from memory in arabic. I finally decide to just stay in one place, thinking Khadim will eventually find me. And he does. ‘I was so worried! I couldn’t find you!‘ he exclaims. ‘Yes, I figured, but then I figured that you would just ask someone where the only toubab [light-skinned person] in this place is.’ I say. Khadim laughs.

We situated ourselves to wait for Boga, looking up at the mosque from the cool, reflective tiles. I ask Khadim about the contradictory nature of things in this grand mosque; the way the women are dressed, for example, conservative, and yet so flashy – or how about the guards hitting people on line? Aren’t these things contradictory behavior to Islam? He says, ‘sure, but this is Senegal. Serigne Touba was a Senegalese man.

Khadim Mbacke, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Dakar, and a Mouride himself, said in a nytimes article that, more than other Muslims in Africa, the brotherhoods in Senegal have adapted Islam to African culture. They follow a strong leader, in keeping with African tradition, and leadership is passed down through sons. There are three prominent brotherhoods in Senegal, composed largely of Wolof, Fular, and Tukulor people: the Xaadir, the oldest; the Tijaniyyah, the largest; and the Mourides, the richest and most active. Of the three, the Mourides are the only ones whose founder is from Senegal, or even West Africa; Serigne Touba.

When the white people returned to the island, they saw that the genie was dead. They said no, it can’t be true. They brought Serigne Touba and Samba Laobe to another part of Gabon. They brought them to a colonial base, a military base. They kept them there. The white people gave Serigne Touba 15 francs each week and 5 little biscuits to eat. He returned the biscuits and buried the money in the ground. He took the leaves from the trees. He drank the liquid of the leaves and ate the leaves. He did not want to eat something that the white people gave him. The biggest bank in Gabon is now where Serigne Touba buried the money. People in Gabon don’t eat chickens because there were chickens there and Serigne Touba gave them food, he didn’t eat them. No one ever saw him eat. It’s kind of like the Buddha who did not eat. Well maybe his mother saw him, but he wrote all the time and he prayed all the time and no one ever saw him eat. No one saw him sleep either. It’s a mystery. You know that big house in Diourbel? There are more than 275 rooms there. In each room, there was a sahaba, or a follower of the prophet that stayed there. Even the prophet Mohammed stayed there for 15 days. That’s the reason why Serigne stayed there for 15 years. In fact, that’s why Serigne Touba never stayed anywhere for more than 15 years.

The Mourides, or yoonu murit in wolof, engage in practices denounced by traditional Islamic scholars, like prayer facing the Atlantic Ocean, away from Mecca, a tradition that began with Serigne Touba’s exile to Gabon. Serigne Touba’s messages were also sometimes a departure from conventional Islamic teachings. He placed great emphasis on the Prophet Mohammed’s saying “work as if you were going to live forever, and pray as if you were going to die tomorrow.” Salvation, Serigne Touba said, comes through submission to the marabout and hard work. Some draw parallels between this and the protestant work ethic, which leads to conclusions about why Senegal is more open to the West.

However, though the Mouride doctrine of hard work did serve French economic interests during the colonial era, those perhaps the most molded by said doctrine are some of the furthest culturally from westerners, in my opinion. Specifically I am speaking of Baay Falls, who are particularly present running through the streets of Touba. Baay Falls are easy to spot: they have strikingly vibrant, though ragged, clothing and majestic dreads. The dreads are called ndiange, ‘strong hair’, and are often decorated by homemade beads, wire or string. Baay Falls (meaning ‘Father Falls’) are disciples of Ibra Fall, or Lamp Fall (“Lamp” referring to the light of Mouridism). I later find out that the guards at the mosque are all Baay Falls and that, during the grand maggal of Serigne Touba, they carry clubs instead of belts. There are also Yaay Falls (meaning ‘Mother Fall’) who drape themselves in large amounts of fabric and often wear striking jewelry handmade from natural or household things.


Cheikh Lo, a prominent musician and Baay Fall in Senegal

Ibra Fall considered work a form of adoration of God. He created the Baay Fall sub-group of Mourides, many of whom substitute hard labor and dedication to their marabouts for prayer and fasting. However, the term Baay Fall has become much more flexible with time. For a long time I thought of them as muslim rastas. Many musicians I know, including perhaps my favorite Senegalese musician of all time, Cheikh Lo, refer to themselves as Baay Falls. Instead of manual labor, more and more Baay Falls have taken to begging in the streets, not unlike talibe, which are sort of like a younger version of Baay Falls.


portrait of Ibra Fall found in Dakar

Talibe means disciples and are young boys sent to the Daaras, or the Senegalese Qur’anic schools run by Senegalese marabouts. The concept of Dieuf Dieul (‘you reap what you sow’), created by Ibra Fall, is deeply instilled in the talibe working for their marabouts. The many reasons a parent may send their child to a Daara includes the need for de facto fostering because of financial difficulties, the want to build a relationship with the brotherhood to which the marabout belongs, or to prepare the child for a career as a marabout. However, particularly as more parents send their kids to the Arab-style Madrasas, the talibes have begun to resemble child slaves begging in the streets for their marabouts, particularly in the eyes of human rights organizations abroad.

There was a Gabon woman who worked where Serigne Touba was and cried often for Serigne Touba. She gave Serigne Touba water for his ablutions, to drink, etc. because he did not want to touch anything the white people gave him. This woman had no sons or daughters. Serigne Touba prayed for her and she immediately became pregnant with her husband.

The white people put Serigne Touba in a plane with bombs to kill him, but when they came back, they found him alive. They could not understand what had happened. They put him back on the boat. There, they put him in a room with a starving lion. The lion hadn’t eaten for 10 days. When they came back, the lion was beside Serigne Touba and he was writing. The white people were impressed and open the cage. The lion attacked them and they cried to Serigne Touba to make the lion stop. Serigne Touba called the lion and it returned to his feet. The lion told Serigne Touba to ask God to give him the life of a human. This is the reason why one of Serigne Touba’s sons is named Serigne Cheikh Gayande Fatma, Gayande in wolof means lion.

Boga finally rejoins us and we leave the mosque. Outside there is a market full of framed portraits of the different marabouts, incense, Qur’ans, religious caps for men, more glittering arabic letters, mangoes, cold water, cola nuts… ‘Touba has the second biggest economy to Dakar,’ Khadim says, ‘Some call it the second capital of Senegal.’ We walked pass the vendors and the buses. I tell them I have to go to the bathroom, at which point I see the biggest cockroach I’ve ever seen in my life; easily the length of my hand. We keep walking to the house of Serigne Fallou where his son, also a marabout of course, is speaking. I am far too short to see him in this Senegalese crowd.


portrait of Serigne Fallou found in a cab


portrait of Serigne Fallou found in Dakar

Pulled into, between, and from groups of Baay Falls, little boys, little girls accompanied by their mothers, older religious men, Khadim and Boga bring me finally to a less crowded place where there is a tent set up in the shadows. The smell of weed is pretty obvious, which stuns me. Forbidden in this holy city are supposed to be all illicit and frivolous pursuits, such as the consumption of alcohol and tobacco, and thereby certainly weed. The playing of games, music and dancing is also forbidden, but I suppose I’ve already seen those things in Touba as well.

At this point its about 3’o’clock in the morning and I’m beginning to fall asleep, so Khadim says goodbye to his friends and we begin the trek home. Things have quieted down quite a bit, and I finally get to take a real look at the town of Touba itself. ‘Nobody owns the land in Touba. You can’t buy it either. It must be given to you.’ Khadim tells me. In my later research, I find out that the Mouride order maintains absolute control over its capital, completely independent of the state. Land tenure and real estate development in Touba is managed autonomously, along with education, health care, supply of drinking water, public works, and administration of markets. It’s actually kind of like the Mecca and the Vatican of Senegal.

The rules are set by the grand caliph, currently Serigne Sidi Maxtar Mbacké, Serigne Touba’s grandson. There are no french schools. When the World Bank financed the first public school, it was rejected by the grand caliph. “The caliph did not want strange habits to be imported here,” said Abdoulahat Mbacké, the director of the Qur’anic school that took over the unused public school, another grandson of Serigne Touba. He is also known for banning Sabar in Touba, which is a Serer drumming tradition that can be found all over Senegal.


Portrait of Serigne Sallou, Serigne Touba’s son, found on a motorcycle

In the schools in Touba, the boys and girls primarily speak in Wolof while learning the Qur’an by rote. Khadim went to a school like this. A boarding school. I was shocked when he first told me that he quit the public school at 13 and spent 2 years at the boarding school. ‘It was nice because you ate well, you behaved well. You learned nothing but the Qur’an. You didn’t watch television. You didn’t play games, well most games. You could play spiritual games, only your head, you know?

‘There were only 4 rooms. Each room had at least 20 young boys. Next door to our school, there was a Qur’anic school for the girls. You woke up at 4 am for the prayers, and then studied the Qur’an until 9 am. If you recited well, you would get your breakfast. If you did not recite well, you had to wait until 1 pm before you could eat. Then, if you were one of the good ones, you got a pause until 3 pm. You then continue to read and learn the Qur’an until 6 pm. There’s a break for prayers from 6-7 pm and then you go back to studying the Qur’an until 10 pm, with a break for dinner at 8 pm. If you recited well again, you went to sleep. If you did not recite well, you had to rest in the salon. There were no mattresses there, only plastic mats. We had days off, Wednesdays and Sundays. We would go to the beach often on Sundays. And Fridays we went out to the mosque.’



When Khadim returned home at 15, he could no longer keep up with the French at his public school. He learned to do metal work to support himself, going on to be a motorcycle mechanic and businessman. He is one of many friends here that has a close relationship to Serigne Touba.

For me, an American non-believer, Serigne is the equivalent of a Martin Luther King Jr. figure to Senegal. They are both icons that a lot of graffiti could be attributed to. One could argue that Serigne Touba had a much more profoundly spiritual influence, but Martin Luther King was a pastor. They both practiced and preached non-violence where others could not, and how can you deny the parallelism between the fight for civil rights in the United States and that against colonialism in Africa? The primary difference I can note is that Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered, while Serigne Touba was not.


a portrait of Serigne Touba – an iconic image that can be found all over Senegal


poster for a religious event with prominent marabouts at a soccer stadium

The white people could no more try to kill Serigne Touba, so they returned him to Dakar. They decided afterwards to go to other countries to ask the marabouts to do things to harm Serigne Touba. Cheikh Fall, among others, were there to meet him. The white people got off the boat for 10 or 15 minutes before they saw Serigne Touba, and Cheikh Fall thought that maybe he was not there. When Serigne Touba appeared, Cheikh Fall was so happy that he carried Serigne Touba on his back. Yalla kudul Yalla menul ko bot. No one but God can carry God, is what they say. So it was that day that they said Cheikh Fall was God as well. You know teranga [a Senegalese form of hospitality]? Yes, well he showed Serigne Touba a lot of teranga that day at the palace, which the french had sold to Cheikh Fall. It was also Cheikh Fall who organized the papers for Serigne Touba to return to Senegal. He gave these very good, rich vegetables to a colonial man named Terponde who did not know where to buy them. It was him who helped him get the papers to have Serigne Touba return.

Serigne Touba, Khadim’s namesake, died in the house next door to where Khadim grew up in Diourbel. ‘In the house where he died, you open 7 doors before you enter the room. At each door, he put a letter for his oldest living son, Moussapha. They told him to take care of things well and quickly before the whites came looking.’

Until next time,

Much Love,


Beautiful footage of the grand maggal: http://vimeo.com/92521980



Weeks 19-24: Korist Ku Jigeen

Dear Internet,

althea vieilles pirogues

photo credit: Louis Dominique Faye

‘No that can’t possibly be the bus…’ I say to Khadim as we approach Sahad’s apartment building. This is where the Natal Patchwork convenes before a concert date outside of Dakar. As usual, no one is there at the declared time. Unusually, however, there is a large, plush-looking bus parked outside instead of a rickety, squished njaag njaay. ‘But look – there are drums packed up top. It must be your bus.’ Khadim responds. I furrow my brow. ‘But we’re Sahad & the Natal Patchwork!’ Khadim lets out a little laugh and shrugs. We install ourselves on a cement block on the side of the road and wait.

Sahad, Pape Sy (our sound engineer), and Brahim (the lead guitarist) finally show up. They throw some baggage inside the bus, some instruments up top. The other members of the band gradually appear. Then, Alibeta, Sahad’s older brother, and his band show up. Next, members from L’Orchestre National. Finally, Pape Niang and his players. I wave goodbye to Khadim as he races off with my bike and the bus starts up. We are headed to the St. Louis Jazz Festival; 5 days of music on nearly every stage, restaurant and bar in the cidevant capital of (colonial) francophone West Africa. I am the only woman, the only non-African. I nearly have to pinch myself sitting beside these Senegalese music legends.

But there is someone there to do it for me; one of the bus organizers pulls down the bench that bridges the gap between the rows of seats beside me and begins to pinch/rub my thigh, calling me his “toubab xarit” or ‘whitey friend‘. At first, I’m simply stunned. I don’t know what to say. I know others can see it and I’m embarrassed. He reaches for something and I’m freed, but not for long. The hand returns, this time closer to where my legs meet. I first joke with him “Ey – defal ko ag Pape Sy,” (Hey – do that to Pape Sy,’) who is sitting at the other side of him. The comment is meant to be a reminder that he’s misled to treat me any differently from anyone else on the bus, but he pretends not to hear it. I make a fairly strong statement in wolof – “baay ma,” (‘leave me alone,’) – though quietly, as I push his hand off. But it quickly returns. “Arrete, s’il-te-plait” (‘Please stop‘) I plead, trying not to make a scene. He turns to look at me – he must be in his late thirties, but the drinking and smoking has rendered his face that of someone in their early fifties. “Ey – fais attention,” (‘Ey, be careful,‘) he says, pointing his skinny, crooked finger in my face. His breath stinks through the few browned teeth he has left.

The bus comes to a stop at a restaurant and I quickly hop of the back. “Ey – viens! Questce-que tu cherches?” (‘Ey – come! What are you looking for?) he says, running after me. “Laisse moi tranquil, s’il-te-plait.” (‘Leave me be, please.) I tell him, and he retreats, a bit. When I get back on the bus, I sit next to Tass, the drummer in Sahad & The Natal Patchwork. He quickly seems to turn bitter and covertly lashes out at me – pulling my hair painfully, punching me as though it were in accident – though the bruises on my right arm tell the true story. I ignore it and carry on as though it’s not happening. In New York, I would have gladly taken the chance to loudly make his harassment known and embarrass him. But here, where I have received repeated lectures on why women are to ‘stay in the shadows,’ I know that such an act would inflict more conflict and difficulty upon myself than my harrasser.

I was niave to think that my status as a musician would relieve me from my status as a woman. A few months ago, my kora teacher said to me, ‘Ah – you have another gig? Well, yea, you’re a woman, and a toubab [light-skinned] at that so…’, rationalizing why I would be getting opportunities to play here so quickly. He was right, but it still hurt. People, often musicians he works with, talk about me to him, saying how great it is that one of his students – the toubab korist(!) – is mounting stages all over Dakar, and actually plays well! I’ve seen him lower his gaze and nod at a comment like this, as if embarrassed. It’s a response that’s very difficult for me to interpret, particularly because it comes from the person whose opinion means most to me, musically. My current conclusion is that he knows that the hype is only due me being a woman and a toubab, which is probably disappointing, and maybe even frustrating, for someone of his stature.

But no one needs to tell me that I’m only hired because I’m a light-skinned woman. I know that. I know that the only way I came to even learn the kora is because I’m a foreigner; families in Senegal aren’t often capable of investing in musical education for their children, particularly if they come from outside the tradition and particularly if their children are girls. It is for this reason that it is striking to see a light-skinned woman playing the kora. I can see it in the eyes of skeptical spectators every time I mount a stage. It used to be motivating. But, after a time, I came to feel that that motivation was often in vain each time someone would ask me, for example, if I was a dancer or singer while I was holding my instrument, an instrument I crafted myself, in plain sight. Now, the skeptical gaze, the harassment, the fact that some people will never see me as a respectable musician no matter how good I get, is just the norm. Frankly, sexual harassment for women, particularly in the music industry, is typical, and not particularly in Senegal. Senegal is simply more difficult because I’m alone here; I have little community. Furthermore, I don’t always understand the culture, the language. But, no matter what, come nightfall, the concerts will start with or without me, and, like the mosquitoes, so will the men descend.

At some point on the bus to St. Louis, after going to the bathroom, I pull out hand sanitizer to clean a little cut I have on the inside of my palm. The man pokes his head through the seats, pulling at my hair again, and says to Tass, in wolof, The toubab will always think us Africans are dirty while she takes advantage of our country. Never forget that,’thinking I don’t understand. “Ey sama xaritu benn bakkan la.” (Ey that’s one of my best friends) Tass says mildly. Tass was the only one directly involved, but lots of the men could see what was going on; at least 30 men on this bus and not one said a word. It’s scary. I’ve played with most of them – would I even be on this bus if they didn’t think I was descent player?

Perhaps not. Ever since I’ve started singing back-up vocals in Sahad’s band, I’ve begun to be treated differently. It seems I’ve begun to fill a space to the side that only women seem to occupy and it devalues my place as an instrumentalist. It’s all parallel to the place women occupy in the larger society. When the sound of my kora doesn’t work, “c’est pas grave” (‘it doesn’t matter’) Sahad says. When there is enough amplification to go around, “c’est pas grave – Althea tu joues pas se soir” (‘it doesn’t matter – Althea you don’t play tonight’). And, yet, like the rest of group, I have to make sacrifices, sometimes play for no money and rehearse for long hours. And I do it. I’m on time. I’m professional. I am loyal to Sahad, but is he loyal to me?

There is another American, a blond guy from Nashville named David with a fancy electronic piano. He plays mostly with Sahad’s brother and with us from time to time. He is never at rehearsals and yet always gets paid. One night during the festival in St. Louis Sahad told me there wasn’t enough room for me while David was invited to play. “Yea, it’s completely unfair, I know. I don’t know why he does it this way. Yea, no, you could never make demands [such as always getting paid] like that,” David says to me one night. American musicians are very highly regarded, we both know, but not American women.

So why do I do it? “It’s bigger than you,” Mo Fia, one of my closest friends and a well-known sound engineer, and Edou, my kora teacher, have both said to me. It’s bigger than me. I love the music and the music pushes me to persevere. The music pushes me to become better, to make space for women. In my first blog entry of this trip, which I wrote in the airport, I wrote:

It became clear to me very early on in my studies that simply having the agency to study music is hard to come by for most Senegalese citizens. In most cases, it stipulates that one be a man, that his family be open to the idea and be able to afford to give him the education without much expectation of a return, among other things.

I want to change this. But I can’t change what I don’t know. I must know what women go through here. I must endure it. I must be strong. I must come out on top. If I can do that, and provide the opportunity for more girls, if only a numbered few, to mount stages like I have, then it will all be worth it. And I’m on my way. When I get frustrated, I think of my guitar students. I’ve racked up 6 young girls, ages 8 -16, all enthused, appreciative, and hard-working. I teach them all for free because I know their parents can’t afford it. Every time I think about going home, I remember that their music education will stop where I’ve left them. My skill set is far better used empowering them, then behind a desk in New York.

But these thoughts don’t always make it easier. At first, sexual harassment can feel flattering, but after awhile, it breaks you down. Every time a strange man asks for my number before my name, calls me “ah sama guitarist” (“ah my guitarist!”) without even looking at the instrument on my back, or tells me I look sexy when I come off stage after working incredibly hard musically, they can’t possibly know the hacking on my spirit in which they are taking part.

On Friday morning, the morning after the 7 hour bus ride to St. Louis, my breakfast tastes salty, soaked with tears, as I mentally break down. I miss my mom, my language, my home.

But who is first to come to my aid? The men in the band; hugging me, telling me it would be okay and asking if there is anything I needed. I mustn’t forget this, nor the kindness of Sahad’s 14-year-old nephew when they wake him up at 4 in the morning to give me his bed such that I am comfortable. Nor my friend Khadim, who has continued to make me feel safe by changing locks, fixing windows and helping me with my aggressive landlord in my new apartment, often without me asking. I can not forget Edou, my kora teacher, who has spent hours upon hours training me to be a better korist, sometimes without pay. Or Mo Fia, who controlled a violently drunk man when he threatened one of my few fellow female musician friends.

“Ah – c’est une kora au derriere, eh?” (‘Ah that’s a kora on your back, huh?’), Ablaye Cissoko, the best korist in Senegal, says to me at L’Institut Francais in St. Louis after coming off stage. “C’est rare, une femme avec un kora. Bon courage. Prends mon numero” (It’s rare, a woman with a kora. I wish you courage. Take my number.) I quickly pull out my phone and save his number. Send me a text letting me know who are so I remember you,’ he tells me before other fans approach him.

Asalaamalekum. Althea SullyCole laa tudd, korist bu jigeen ki nga gisoon ci institut francais laa. Enchantee franchement, jerejeff bu baax.

Peace be unto you. My name is Althea SullyCole, I am the female korist you saw at the French Institute. It’s a pleasure to meet you, truely, thank you so much. 

Being the only female korist in Senegal does have its advantages.

Until next time,

Much love,