In 1884, on a beach located near my sister-in-law’s home in Dakar, Senegal, an itinerate fisherman named Seydina Limamou Laye discovered what he called the light of Mohammed buried in the sand, and declared himself reincarnated as the prophet. He later informed his followers that his son Issa was Jesus returned to earth. Slightly spooky black-and-white paintings of Issa dot the long whitewashed wall behind my sister-in-law’s home. The Atlantic Ocean crashes into the rocks a hundred yards below.
The brotherhood that Sheikh Laye founded is one of four Sufi sects that dominate the spiritual life of Senegal, and much of its economy. Unlike Islamic traditions that emphasize a personal relationship with God, the mystic Sufis in Senegal follow their own prophets, called marabouts. The largest sect, the Mourides, owns most of the “cars rapides” that are ubiquitous on Senegal’s highways and streets. These rusted, hand-me-down buses are painted in brilliant colors, stuffed with passengers, and piled high with goods. Each has the word Alhamdulillah—all praise to Allah—painted on the front, and quite often a two-foot-high decal of Madonna (the near-naked singer, not the virgin) affixed to the back window.
This admixture of sacred and secular, of an Islam suffused with tribal animism and French colonial Christianity, of the medieval and the postmodern, is characteristic of Senegal. There are, for example, the women. The Senegalese are easily one of the most fashion conscious people on earth. In this conservative Moslem culture, you will not see women and men touching or kissing in public, but the majority of the women, even in the villages, are coiffed and madeup and beautifully dressed. They wear both Western clothing and boubous, a shoulder-to-ankle gown with matching head wrap made from cotton, sometimes embroidered, or a damask, hand-dyed in Mali, called tchoup. It is common to see roadside groups of wonderfully-turned-out women stepping past the piles of trash and burning garbage that litter every block.
Or consider the justly famed West African music and dance, which combine bluesy rhythms with inspired vocal riffs and athletic, possessed, almost jointless spasms of movement. In this land of Moslem mystics, an unpredictable spirit lurks inside life’s steady drumbeat, making way for the truly surprising, even the miraculous.
Environmental science professor Vince Resh came by my office shortly after I’d returned from Senegal last January to help me interpret my experiences there. Resh had lived in West Africa for a dozen years, working with the World Health Organization to eradicate the waterborne parasite that causes river blindness. He was soon to return as leader of a Bear Trek to explore its rivers and river societies. While I’d gone to Senegal curious but culturally ignorant, Resh was a fount of knowledge about Senegalese Sufism and polygamy and a dozen other topics. But for all his knowledge, it’s something ineffable that draws him back. He said he feels himself more fully there than in Berkeley.
One afternoon in Dakar, which was improbably lit up with Christmas decorations, my wife, her sister, and I ran the gauntlet of merchants and hawkers downtown. On streets lined with shops and pedestrians as dense as a Manhattan block, at least half of the people were selling something. Their sidewalk tables or their arms were overloaded with cell phones and telephone cards; cashews, dates, small oranges, and carved coconuts; towels, belts, socks, and tee shirts with Cubs logos; plastic and cloth dolls with pink or brown skin and handmade wooden dollhouses; watches, necklaces, ankle chains, earrings, and bracelets; indigo and tie-dyed cloth stacked on heads; gilded frame photos of marabouts; and refrigerator magnets in the shape of Christmas trees decorated with the stars and stripes.
The sidewalk sometimes disappeared, forcing us into the street, or it turned into a sand path, only to reappear again. Instead of stopping, drivers honked. After rushing across one street and nearly stumbling, I looked down to check my feet and saw a man planted on the pavement. Incredibly, he appeared to be chopped off just below the rib cage, like a museum bust. He wore a white skullcap, and sat on a board with wheels that he moved with his arms. He smiled up at me, beatifically, before I was propelled forward by pedestrians behind me.
Dazed and hot from the desert sun, we pushed ahead, scrambling around sidewalk tables and mumbling “non, merci” to hawkers until suddenly we were in front of a dust-covered glass door. Pushing it open, we entered an oasis—a café of dark wood, Parisian Art Deco mirrors, and fabulous ice cream sundaes. After settling in, I asked my wife, who is a physician, if she’d seen the man on the street. In all her medical training, she said, she couldn’t understand how he could exist, how he could sustain life.
On another day, we took a boat to Gorée Island, an infamous departure point for slaves shipped to the Americas. Resh told me that, no matter how many times he visited Gorée, he could not remain unmoved when he stared out at the Atlantic from the rooms, still intact, where slaves were held. But Gorée is also beautiful, with its colonial buildings painted in ochre and red, its children playing soccer in the dust, and its open air cafés. In a home adjacent to the slave museum, we met Marie José Crespin, a former Senegalese Supreme Court judge who gave up law to become an artist. Walking through her home, which is a museum of remarkable artifacts, she retold with obvious delight the story that had made her famous in Senegal. When President Bush visited the island in 2003 (Senegal has become a strategically important ally in the battle against al Qaeda), the Secret Service cleared the village and held all its residents under armed guard. Marie José had refused to go. Senegalese officials were sent to entreat her, but still she would not leave. Finally, it was agreed that two agents would guard her and her young grandson in her own home.
For Christmas, we traveled south to a massive delta, where the Sine and Saloum rivers meet the sea. Dakar sits on a peninsula, the westernmost point of the African continent. The one road out is used by every manner of vehicle, including donkey carts. On one section of the road, not far from the massive soccer stadium donated by the Chinese government, miles of nursery plants in multicolored pots were piled on mounds of construction dirt. In another section, there were radial tires lined up behind putrid ditches full of lime green antifreeze, and in another, stacks of mattresses in Sgt. Pepper colors. Between them were Internet cafés, often in dust-covered shops. As always, many people lined the road. So did hundreds of sheep and goats, tended by village herders living in lean-tos. Some of the animals, which are sold and eaten for the Islamic holiday of Eid, grazed in the shade of Marlboro billboards that peppered the roadside with American cowboys.
In Sine-Saloum, the villages, many with grass-roofed huts, grew sparse. We passed the occasional boy driving a horse cart, Ben-Hur style, laden with goods or people. When we reached the delta’s vast salt flats, eagles, parrots, and scissor-tailed bee-catchers appeared in the baobob trees. White pelicans, flamingos, and ibises waded or cruised the shallow delta water.
Our eco-resort was run by an elfin, Jesuit-trained French hippie—who soon regaled us with his four-part theory of creativity—and his wife, who was more solidly built and grave of manner. They had elaborately staged a Christmas Eve surprise, which began with a jaw-clenching car-rapide ride over a washboard gravel road to a local beach. There, we waded out to a waiting pirogue, a long wooden boat painted in bright colors. And then, for a sunset hour, we glided through smooth delta waters. The air was warm and soothing to breathe. The boat sliced silently through the river, past the mangrove trees whose roots were encrusted with oysters, past lizards and egrets and an owl beginning the evening hunt.
As the light faded, we arrived at a second beach, where a group of horse carts carried us, like hayriders, through the dusky salt flats to a nearby village. The villagers had formed a large circle at the crossroads. Invited to sit in green plastic lawn chairs, we were immediately surrounded by children who touched my hands with theirs. A series of dancers took the floor, thumping out the drummers’ syncopated rhythms in the dust. But not 15 minutes into the dancing, another car rapide full of people, and piled precariously high with lumber, pulled up behind us. The driver angrily yelled at us to move off the road. The villagers yelled back. Defiantly, the women dancers lined up in front of the bus and, after a short standoff, the driver, whipped, awkwardly turned his car rapide around.
The village erupted. For the next hour, the dancing, stomping, drumming, and singing carried on. Inside our planned Christmas Eve surprise, we’d received another, Senegalese one. And for not the last time, I thought that the unexpected gifts that spring from an unfamiliar land—our own lights in the sand—were exactly what we’d come so far to find.
From the March April 2006 Can We Know Everything issue of California.