The Longest Days, Chapter 3: “The Right Stuff”

Previously: Having all but annihilated our “schedule” the medical caravan arrived in Touba in the witching hours of the morning, allowing an initial encounter with the throbbing ambience and surreal beauty of the Grand Mosque. I rested with my new colleagues:

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Saturday, 1 day until Magal: …for two and a half hours. When I awoke I could hear singing. It was dark outside, but from the rooftop I could tell that thousands of voices were already joining together in chorus at the mosque, dispersing their holy songs of Koranic verses and the writings of Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba (a.k.a. Serigne Touba) like seeds in the wind from the glowing towers. I felt like I was looking down the yellow brick road at the Emerald City, unsure of what to expect.

Several hours later we had eaten breakfast, including drinking our Café Touba, and were preparing for the day. I watched a group of men slaughter a large bull to provide meat for the next few meals. The sheer volume of blood made the Tabaski sheep sacrifice pale in comparison. Soon thereafter I hopped into the ambulance with several others and we began making visits around the city to greet friends of the leading doctors of our group. We stopped at pharmacies, a hospital, mechanical shops, and in the middle of the street.

Navigation was slow and arduous. Literally millions of people had arrived or were arriving for the Magal, and the streets were filling. Thousands of bulls, sheep, and camels were being herded through the city, and carts drawn by horses or donkeys, the drivers of which had little regard for pedestrians or vehicles, including the ambulance, were transporting pilgrims from point A to B around Touba. This was the situation in the less-crowded part of the city, far away from the main markets and the mosque.

As we entered the central markets the ambulance struggled to plough the streets flooded with standstill traffic and anonymous faces in every direction. I feared that we would actually begin running people over, and then have to run more people over in order to take our victims to the hospital. By an improbable stroke of luck equitable with winning Powerball, or perhaps only by divine intervention, we avoided hitting any people, cars, or horses. The ambulance driver honked the horn and revved the engine to clear pedestrians from our path. Nonetheless, it was still necessary for Seck to walk in front of the ambulance every few minutes to bang on the windows of cars and shout at horse drivers so that we could continue moving, if only at a snail’s pace.

I spent much of the morning driving around the city observing various medical sites and the work going on there. We had one tent set up outside our host house, as well as three others in other areas of Touba outside the homes of other important community members. The Red Cross was also stationed right outside the Grand Mosque to provide immediate assistance to those in trouble among the crowds. Our tents boiled in the sun, but teams of doctors and nurses toiled through the day, using our divvied up drugs and tools as best as they could. Lines of patients stretched out into the streets.

We visited one house where people prepared large bowls of meat with pounds of onions and other ingredients. We took off our shoes and entered the salon. An older man of obvious importance sat on the couch. I watched the other doctors get on their knees and crawl over, bowing their heads as they shook his hand. I did the same. The room filled with about thirty tightly packed people, and we sat on the floor as the man delivered a radio address by cell phone. I sat in reverent silence as a short prayer took place, and then we quietly exited. As we put on our shoes one of the doctors whispered to me: That was the grand imam of the Grand Mosque of Touba. I exhaled.

At another site the religious leader of the neighborhood, a marabout, sat on a chair outside. Again I crawled over, this time in the sand, and paid respect. There was brief conversation, so I introduced and explained myself in Wolof, and then returned to the ambulance to venture back through the impossible streets, nose and mouth covered by mask, eyes shielded by sunglasses, and head protected by my new formerly white (now a greyish-brown, post-Magal) hat from “Daara SOS Santé,” the medical alliance. Though in retelling this may sound like overkill, many doctors and even people in the street were using masks or cloth to protect their airways. As we drove farther away from the mosque, its minarets appeared to float above the city, their bottoms obscured by the thick layer of dust, smog, and other pleasantries that saturated the barely breathable air.

There were many people in the home across the city when we arrived for lunch and an early afternoon break. The house was actually that of one of Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba’s descendants, himself a religious leader, who helped the doctors of Daara SOS Santé start the program of free consultation in Touba in the early 2000s, but died only a few months ago in a tragic car accident. Still, the house, like most others in Touba, opens to pilgrims during Magal, providing food and shelter for visitors and the surrounding community. We were well taken care of; the food was some of the best I have eaten in Senegal. The scale of this exhibition of teranga is unparalleled, and this was just one of many houses that essentially feed the city for several days.

I happened to eat lunch with a reporter for a radio station in Touba and Dakar, and after a brief Wolof exchange he asked to interview me. I obliged, and sat nervously on the couch as the rest of the room watched us from their places at the food bowls. It turned out that he spoke English, so I answered his increasingly difficult Wolof questions as carefully as I could in my own language, allowing him to translate for the audience. As the discussion turned to politics and religion I picked words like apples from a tree, one by one.

I worked the afternoon in the medical tent outside the house and had conversations with other doctors and pilgrims. Sitting just outside the tent, resting but ready as the flow of patients slowed in the evening, I engaged in extensive dialogue about history and religion entirely in French and Wolof. Conversing, questioning, and explaining about topics ranging from colonialism to the compatibility and meaning of religion, I thought, “we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

After a late dinner I went on one more ambulance call. Driving past the mosque again, I could feel the energy building for the next day. The crowds had grown exponentially over the course of the day, and the markets were filled well past midnight. We returned to the house around 2 am, and the day ended much as it started, with me listening to chanting emanating from the religious center, echoing off the moon.

I opened the door to our room expecting to find a couch. It was filled, not just with our staff, but with other pilgrims as well. The couches were taken as were all floor mats. Even most of the space on the hard floor itself was covered in bodies. I held my breath and tiptoed through the labyrinth of limbs to an empty sliver in between two unidentified human beings. I folded up my jacket into an almost makeshift pillow and let my eyelids fall as gravity pulled my corpse into the tile below the rug.

Up next: The day of reckoning arrives, and I grapple with arduous working conditions. I walk barefoot to find sacred water and dive headfirst ci biir juma ji—into the belly of the mosque.