Travel Writing Awards Entry

By Daniela Martines

It was four in the morning and the sky was still glistening with stars as we set off on the road that would lead us to Porokhane., southern Senegal. Someone handed me a headscarf saying, “Put it on, Sokhna Diarra, today is the holy day of Mame Diarra Bousso, today is your day.”

Sufism has long been accepted as the major religious practice in Senegal. You will find different schools of Islam, separate cults and powerful sheikhs all over the country and each offering eternal salvation. Religion, politics and even agriculture interact throughout the land in a unique paradigm of faith facilitated legislation, helping the state to survive and develop in the post-colonial years.

During my five months spent in Senegal, I had been adopted by the Mourid brotherhood and, having been given the honorary name, Mame Diarra Bousso (the mother of this particular cult), it was imperative that I participate in her annual pilgrimage to Porokhane.

Porokhane is a village, about as far south as you can get before reaching the Gambian border, where the mother of Sheikh Ahmadou Bamba – the founder of Mouridism – lived until her death in the mid-nineteenth century. Every year, thousands of pilgrims descend to partake in her holy day of singing, feasting and praying.

By 10 am, the place was pulsing with excitement and activity. The streets – a haze of rich violets, pale blues and bottle greens of the traditional Mourid dress – were throbbing with vendors and worshipers while the ruthless West African sun beat down upon the already baked earth. Anything from prayer mats to live goats was being unloaded from the surrounding vehicles.

As I clambered out of the car, I couldn’t help feeling slightly alien in my traditional dress which, despite being several sizes too large, still prohibited any manifestation of traditional movement. With wide-eyed passers by gawping at the toubab (translated, white master, from the Wolof), I made my way to the plot of land we had rented for the day from a local marabout.

Mame Diarra Bousso is the mother of Mourid mysticism. Widely thought to be the Virgin Mary reincarnate, her holy day, or magal, is an opportunity to pray for the fulfilment of distant dreams and desires.

 It is believed that anything requested of Mame Diarra will be rewarded ten times over and many women travel miles to visit her sacred well and tomb with prayers for marriage, family and fertility. I, myself, had travelled from Northern St. Louis to arrive in time for the magal, but many will span the entire stretch and breadth of the country; the harder the journey and the more costly the sacrifice, the greater the recompense of Mame Diarra Bousso.

Thus, great emphasis is laid upon the parting with money. There is the road cost, the price of cattle to be slaughtered, the fee to be paid to the local holy men and then an additional sum if you should wish them to say prayers for you. Before entering the sacred mosque wherein lies the divine mausoleum, one must first be ritually cleansed, then tackle the pitch of scrumming market sellers and be ready to fight the field of Baayfalls (a separatist Mourid fraternity, who beg for money to brew spiritual coffee) on the other side.

Unsurprisingly, the women spent most of the day in the kitchen. Sitting in the shadow of a make-shift gazebo, the best part of three hours was passed slicing, dicing, peeling and chopping all manner of vegetables. Even in the shade, it was sweltering.

Surrounded by blazing fires and giant iron pots propped up on stilts, I felt like something out of Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen, as smoke, sweat and sliced onion stung at my eyes and skin. Still, there was something gratifying in the final product when everybody came together for a banquet.

At the heart of the calamity, however, there is a quiet. Rich and poor, old and young, European and African kept each other company that day. You could even find men doing such things as pounding millet – a rare sight in the patriarchal Senegalese society – in honour of womanhood.  As the sun slowly sank lower into the sky, I sat drinking tea and listening to the low undulating murmur of the Arabic choir, while pilgrims prepared for the evening prayer.

“You see”, a new friend said, smiling, “the road to Porokhane is not easy.” I thought about the journey, the cooking and even that all too-restrictive skirt. “Here, we have no money; we have no money, but there is peace.” As I looked on at the columns of pilgrims bowing eastwards, their backs facing the setting sun, I thought to myself that he was probably just about right.