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Do you believe in God? Do you believe in miracles?

Kavitha meets the Mouride Boys

See and hear the video of the Mouride Boys singing.

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Here in Senegal most people believe in both, as demonstrated by spiritual leader Amadou Bamba's large following. Even young boys leave their homes and dedicate their entire lives to this man who lived a century ago and, according to his followers, performed miracles rather than going to school or work! Amadou Bamba is Senegal's most venerated marabout (read the first sidebar article to learn about marabouts). He lived during the turn of the century and came from an extremely wealthy and powerful family.
Bamba became one of Islam's most influential evangelists in Senegal. By 1887 he had so many believers that he founded the Mouridiya brotherhood. Bamba's followers believed he was a saint with divine powers. He maintained an anti-colonial stance that, combined with his power over the local people, made the French-controlled government very nervous. In an attempt to subdue his influence, the French imprisoned Bamba and exiled him from Senegal.


Orthodox Islam holds that everyone is directly in touch with Allah (God). But in North and West Africa, things work a bit differently. Societies here have traditionally been hierarchical, so religious leaders were assigned to provide a link between God and the common people. These religious leaders became known as marabouts, and they are thought of as saints by their disciples. All the people who follow the teachings of a particular marabout make up what is called a brotherhood. The concept of brotherhoods and marabouts originated in the Sahara around the 16th century and moved down to Senegal by the 19th century.

Today, Marabouts play a very powerful function in Senegalese society and politics. Major political parties like the Parti Socialiste (PS) rely heavily on the marabouts' backing. Especially powerful is the spiritual leader of the Mourides, who has about one quarter of Senegal's population hanging on his every word. The government publicly reinforces the marabouts' power, and discreetly gives them added perks, such as a free hand in the all-important peanut harvest. A democratic, left wing party working in cahoots with a rigid, hierarchical, and conservative religious institution? It seems a bit ironic, but both need each other to maintain their power and privilege!

Many of Bamba's fervent followers have told me endless stories of how the French tried to stop their leader but failed -- for no one could touch his divine powers. "They tried to shoot him, but their bullets could not penetrate him," I've been told. "He was exiled on a ship, and he asked the guards if he could pray on their ship. They told him that he could not pray to his God on their Christian ship, so he merely excused himself and prayed on top of the water!"

Such mystical stories surround everyone's tales of their revered Bamba. What do you think? Do you believe them? What is truth anyway? Is it only actual events? I sometimes think that people's beliefs can be more important than what may or may not have actually happened. There is a social and cultural force created by beliefs that cannot be overlooked or discredited merely by the denial of certain events.

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Abeja and me in Senegal
How Amadou Bamba performed these seemingly magical feats is beyond me, but then again how Jesus walked on water or how Moses parted the Red Sea is too. What I do know is that people here in Senegal believe that their venerated marabout was gifted with divine powers, which explains why the Mouridiya brotherhood now has a following of over two million people -- about one quarter of the country's entire population!

One of Bamba's most loyal followers was Ibra Fall. Fall was a very hard worker and was devoted to Bamba, but he found prayer and study very difficult.
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These are the boys from the marabout in Dakar who came to sing for us at our guesthouse
The main mosque in Touba where Bamba is buried
With Bamba's blessing he founded the Baye Fall sect. To the people of this sect, physical labor is a form of religious observance and a path to spiritual salvation. In fact, Bamba excused Baye Fall disciples from prayer and fasting during Ramadan (one of Islam's most sacred religious observances), so long as they continued to work hard -- especially on one of Bamba's own plantations! This is one of Senegal's many unique spins on conventional Islam, and another of the ways that Marabouts manipulate their followers to their own advantage.

In 1907, the French returned Bamba from exile, accepting their inability to stop his influence in Senegal. He returned to the town of Touba, the sacred center for the Mourides. Every year there is an annual pilgrimage to this northern city in celebration of Bamba's return. Abeja and I went to Touba and were able to see the beautiful mosque that dominates the town. Inside the elaborate, large mosque lies the remains of Amadou Bamba, still Senegal's most popular and influential marabout. Upon his death, his sons continued the lineage, becoming chief marabouts of the Mouridiya brotherhood.

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Look closely and you can see the photo of their marabout around some of the boys' necks
Although the main Mouride marabout is a direct descendant of Amadou Bamba himself, there is a descending hierarchy of marabouts that serve specific locales. Each marabout has a regional following. Many parents send their sons to live with the marabout to receive spiritual training (similar to a monastery), rather than giving them a conventional education. These boys receive Islamic training and are instilled with the doctrine of hard work. All over the country you can see boys walking around with empty cans asking for donations. Though some of the boys are street children begging for their own money, this is also a traditional custom for boys living with the marabout. The local community, wanting to support the marabout, will make donations in the form of food or money. Under the tutelage of the marabout, the boys use this money to make meals and buy household supplies.

The boys often go as a group to the homes of community supporters and sing religious songs. Abeja, Monica, and I were lucky enough to be home when the boys from the local Mouride house came to our guesthouse in Dakar. Six boys between the ages of six and fifteen came with two older guides and sang holy songs for us. This is seen as a blessing from the marabout himself, even though he doesn't actually come in person. The boys, dressed in their colorful patchwork clothes and wearing charms with photographs of their marabout on them, sang above to listen to their song yourself!


p.s. - Please e-mail me at


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Making a Difference - Abeja gets M.A.D. -- She's Making a Difference

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