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Million Muslim pilgrims flock to Senegal's "Mecca"

TOUBA, Senegal (Reuters) - More than a million Muslim pilgrims packed Senegal’s remote northeastern city of Touba on Thursday as members of the powerful Mouride brotherhood flocked to “Africa’s Mecca” from across the world.

A policeman tries to control throngs of Muslim pilgrims who converged on Senegal's remote city of Touba for an annual Muslim pilgrimage in this March 29, 2005 file photo. More than a million Muslim pilgrims packed Senegal's remote northeastern city of Touba on Thursday as members of the powerful Mouride brotherhood flocked to "Africa's Mecca" from across the world. REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly

Huge crowds moved shoulder to shoulder in the sweltering heat around the marble Great Mosque as devotees from Senegal joined with Mourides returning from overseas to pay homage to the Sufi Islam movement’s founder, Cheikh Amadou Bamba.

The “grand Magal”, or “great pilgrimage” in Senegal’s national tongue Wolof, commemorates Bamba’s exile in 1895 by French colonial authorities, who feared his growing influence.

“This is an extraordinary day. People have come from across Africa, from across the world,” said Abdoulaye Gueye, 39, from Senegal’s southern town of Ziguinchor. “What you have in Mecca, the prophet of Touba recreated here. It is the same thing.”

Lines of pilgrims waited hours in the dust and blistering heat to enter the vast mosque, whose 87-metre (287-foot) tower dominates the skyline of Touba, a holy city controlled by religious authorities where drinking and smoking are forbidden.

Dreadlocked disciples known as Baye Fall dressed in baggy patchwork clothes blew whistles and brandished huge wooden clubs to keep the crowds in order. Many shook silver begging bowls and demanded donations for their religious teachers, or marabouts.

All over town street hawkers sold T-shirts and necklaces bearing the one surviving black-and-white photograph of Bamba, whose doctrine of hard work as a means to reach paradise has made the Mouride order wealthy and powerful in Senegal.

“If you pray here in Touba, God will listen to you,” said Abdou Magib Sow, 64, who has been coming to the Magal since he was 19. “Every year there are more people.”


Tens of thousands of pilgrims arrived throughout the night as traffic jams stretched all the way through the countryside to the capital Dakar, 200 km (125 miles) southeast.

Hotels are forbidden in Touba but residents have a proud tradition of hospitality and provide food and accommodation to pilgrims. Hundreds of beggars and cripples roam the sandy streets around the mosque in search of alms.

“Here I can earn enough to sort myself out, and then I will return next year,” said Abdoulaye, a one-legged cripple bent over his crutches, who had travelled from neighbouring Mali.

Inside the mosque, pilgrims bowed their heads against the mausoleums of Bamba and his four dead sons, slipping coins through the grating. The current Caliph of Touba is Bamba’s last surviving son.

“After the Prophet, Cheikh Mamadou Bamba has been the person who has most influenced Islam,” said Mamadou Sarr, a guardian at the tomb of Bamba’s best-known disciple, Ibra Fall, the founder of the Baye Fall movement.

Around the tomb, Fall’s followers -- who substitute work for their marabout for the five daily prayers of Islam -- wailed the Arabic name of God in a ceaseless chant.

The commercial clout of Mouridism extends far beyond Senegal. Many Senegalese overseas -- including street sellers flogging fake name-brand goods in European capitals and New York -- are industrious Mourides following Bamba’s strictures.

From a tiny village at Bamba’s birth, Touba and neighbouring Mbacke have become the second largest conurbation in Senegal after Dakar, with a population of more than half a million.

Mouridism is also a powerful political force. President Abdoulaye Wade, re-elected last month, is a member of the brotherhood and travelled to Touba the day after he won power in 2000 to thank religious leaders for their support.