Tag Archives: misunderstandings

The Other Side of Islam

The mosque of Mbolo Aly Sidy!  Centered in the middle of the village, can be seen from the villages on either side.

The mosque of Mbolo Aly Sidy! Centered in the middle of the village, can be seen from the villages on either side.

This piece is specifically from my view; from my specific experience here in my village of Mbolo Aly Sidy, Dept Podor, Region San Louis, Senegal, West Africa. My view is based on what I have seen and how I have experienced the surrounding culture of which I live. I do not claim that it has any weight anywhere other than outside of my personal experience. I also do not claim to know very much about Islam and please forgive me for any slight misinterpretations or gaps of knowledge. I am reporting everything as honestly and accurately as I have experienced them.

Batane munal fof ko alhamdullilahi – the future of every patience is thanks to God.

If an American student were to be asked to name a pertinent Muslim, they would probably name Osama Bin Ladin, maybe Sadam Hussein, Mouammar Kadhafi, or Jihadi John. These are the ones we see on TV, they are the only Muslim faces and names that are shown to us and without further research into the religion they would be all that we know. This is a terribly one-sided story, however. What do these people have in common? They are misconstruing Islam and the Qur’an. They are using their power, in the name of Allah, to push an understanding of Islam that is not supported by Islamic scholars. The majority of Muslims do not consider these people as practicing in the correct way in which the Qur’an teaches. A piece of literature by some of the most prolific Islamic scholars, (http://www.lettertobaghdadi.com/Open Letter. identifies how, in many ways, these dictators and terror groups have violated some of the deepest teachings and practices of Islam, going against what most Muslims know to be correct. The Islam that we Americans see in the media is an Islam of violence, of hate, and misunderstanding, but the Islam that I have experienced for the past year has been one of peace, love, and generosity.

“Avoid conversations about religioun. Avoid conversations about politics,” said Peace Corps Administration. This seemed like a valid and simple suggestion, as religion and politics are topics I rarely discussed and previously felt I have very little standing to take sides in. However, religion and politics in Senegal (especially Northern Senegal) are so tightly intertwined with daily life that they have become one in the same. Avoiding discussing these things is avoiding daily life: impossible.

Ada julat?’ (Do you pray?) They ask. Answering this is not simple for me. It is hard to say that I was raised Christian, but if I were to define my faith, I would claim Christianity. Religion to us is such a personal matter. It is something that we know or meditate on inside of ourselves, and we know personally where we stand whether or not we openly admit or discuss our beliefs (or lack of). Here, however, I have been forced to look deeper inside of myself to define, in Pulaar, my religious identity. Do I pray? I answer “Yes, I pray like the Christians pray.” This is often quite confusing because typically the view is that Christians don’t pray, or pray much too infrequently (compared to the five times a day prayers of every dutiful Muslim, an opinion which I cannot at all argue). They often then ask for me to recite ‘our’ prayers, which is where I stumble. Should I recite the Hail Mary? Our Father? Or should I say a prayer that I might say in my head? In the end, it all would be English and therefore incomprehensible for the most part. I explain that ‘our’ prayers are not necessarily recited but more of a dialogue with Allah (or God – same thing). They then ask how he responds. Difficulties arise also when the public schools take time off for ‘our’ holidays such as Ascension, which I know nothing about, or when asked why I am not fasting during lent. They’ve got a point: I am ignorant to my own religion, let alone theirs.

Even though religion is a personal matter to those of us in our American culture, the Christian teachings still push us to worship together in a communal place at least once a week. This could really simply be seen as a less extreme form of the Islamic teachings of communal worship. Islamic prayers are done five times a day, if possible, in a communal area, in solidarity and usually in unison. This is obviously speaking specifically from a predominantly Muslim country where public prayers are commonplace and expected. The location is irrelevant; you pray where you are/can.

One of the many LARGE mosques in the very religious city of Tivaouane, Senegal

One of the many LARGE mosques in the very religious city of Tivaouane, Senegal

Side story: I was in a night bus to Dakar and sunset was falling as we drove across the Fouta towards the capitol. We had stopped at one village for longer than seemed necessary and there seemed to be nothing happening, so one man decided to take the opportunity to get out of the bus to pray his evening prayers. He washed his hands, arms, feet, and head and proceeded to pray outside of a closed-up boutique. The bus, on it’s own agenda of course, began to pull out of it’s stop. The man, deep in his prayers, did not at all react, his attention fully upon his meditations. The passengers on the bus, however, all came to his defense and every single one of them was up in arms shouting as soon as the bus began to move. The bus of course stopped and waited for him to finish his prayers, and the passengers began to joke about him. “Oh, he who is praying there? He must be a Ba (last name).” Upon which all of the Diallo’s (joking cousin of the Ba’s) agreed. The Ba’s, however, had different rationalizations. Then the Sy’s/Sow’s/Ly’s/Thiams got into it, placing their own bets against each other until finally the man got back on the bus, his prayers and meditations complete, to the entire bus interrogating him about his last name. He was a Niang. Everybody was disappointed about the lack of ability to tease him about that as well as for making everybody wait for him, but no one was mad. Prayers are acceptable and expected anywhere, anytime.

The communal focus on prayers goes further than that; the communal focus extends to life. Life is better if it is shared with others. Houses are large with many family members. Boys in the family have designated rooms or sometimes houses of their own within compounds where their eventual wives move into to live with their family (hope you like the in-laws!). Everyone eats together and if there are ever guests or even passers-by, they are invited and included as well. Food, no matter how much of it is available, is always better when shared, and there is almost always more than enough to go around. This is one of the most beautiful aspects of the culture – sharing. It is assured that no one is ever in need; no one is lacking something that another may have in excess.

Sharing, in the Islamic context, goes farther than just sharing between families, friends, etc. It extends to giving. Giving to the poor and needy is not just important, but one of the 5 pillars of Islam. The needy, it is said, are obvious. The ones truly in need (those not looking to do bad things or buy drugs with what they are given, etc.) are apparent. There is also a group called Talibe, or students, who begin as young boys, sometimes as young as 4 and 5 years old. They are sent to a Koranic school with an imam, or teacher/professor of the Qua’ran who they live with and learn from for sometimes many years until they either leave or master the Quran. These boys, to learn humility, are sent to beg for alms and sometimes for their meals. This is all very dependent on the conditions of the Dara, or school, and the imam himself. These boys, as seen through the eyes of a Westerner (aka me) seem at first to be a huge problem! A human rights issue! From our eyes it seems horrific that these children would be sent, shoeless, penniless and dirty, out on the streets of often busy, dangerous cities to beg for their breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and alms to bring back to their Maribou/imam. These boys, however, play a large part in the religion and are an important part of the community. They provide an outlet for alms. I have even found myself looking for them at times when I have leftover bread or food that I don’t want, I find myself thinking, “ok, where is a Talibe, I need to give this to them.”

An important Chierno comes to visit our house

An important Chierno comes to visit our house

I realized that religion was something I could have real meaningful discussions about, openly and honestly. My first eye-opening conversation was one I had quite some time ago, when my language skills were not great. A Chierno, or Islamic Imam, came to our house and stayed as a guest. He was a friend of my host father’s and very well educated in the teachings of Islam. I was very intimidated speaking with him. I knew there were similarities between our religions so I ventured to ask him to explain them. I realized that asking questions is not offensive; quite the opposite. I asked him so many questions; we ended up some of the last few awake that night, discussing our religions with complete mutual respect. By admitting my complete lack of knowledge about religion, I have been able to learn so much by being open and nonjudgmental. By humbling myself to the level of a student, or Talibe, I have been able to have so many interesting conversations and gained so much respect though my increasing levels of understanding.

The culture of Islam in Senegal is that of peace. It is that of love. It is that of solidarity. I have found it thousands of times more accepting and inclusive than any culture I have ever experienced (in my limited experiences). I feel accepted, included, and well-fed at all times in this culture. I have yet to see a fight get violent, yet to see anyone get beat or maimed, yet to feel completely disrespected as a woman.

Our local Chierno (left) Samba and my good friend and Pulaar teacher Abda Anne on the right.

Our local Chierno (left) Samba and my good friend and Pulaar teacher Abda Anne on the right.


This is a culture of peace.

Jam tan, santé Allah


New Understandings and Misunderstandings

“When you go to Dakar, we will go together. We will take Abou’s bus and will get off in Tivaouane to visit Baaba Anne. We will spend the night there, going to Mbour (city by the beach) in the morning to visit more relatives. Then, after spending the day there, we will head to Kaolack to visit Penda Anne. Then, the next morning, we will go to Dakar in time for your doctor’s appointment. When you go to the airport, I will go with you until I cannot go any further.”

Coumba Demba Anne, my namesake, godmother, bossy big sister-type, and best friend.

Coumba Demba Anne, my namesake, godmother, bossy big sister-type, and best friend.

Such a wonderful idea! What an endearing plan. The thought of it warmed my heart, but behind the warmth my heart was sinking with the feeling of doom. There was no way this could work out perfectly, there were just too many variables there… Too many opportunities for disaster. Keeping my hopes up, I packed my bags and said my goodbyes. “Yes, I’m leaving for vacation tomorrow, inshallah (God willing),” I told people. Nothing is ever certain in Senegal, and my plans were no exception.

Sure enough, disaster struck early on. Was it my fault I had planned the day of my departure to coincide with the pilgrimage the city of Touba, a religious Mecca for the major Islamic group, the Mourides. ? This happens to also be the major Islamic group of the governing body of public transportation. Not only are most people in the country going to Touba, but also so are all of the drivers of busses, sept place vehicles, and mini cars (that is all the transportation available, with exception to private cars, which also are either traveling there or being rented out to groups). My travel plans placed me traveling towards Dakar on the day in which everybody else had already arrived in Touba and were not leaving for days/weeks, depending. My tokara (namesake/godmother) assured me that, surely, there would be at least a few busses that had not gone to Touba or were planning on bringing stragglers that day. I have faith in this woman, she knows the country much more than I do. She also knows many bus drivers. She called Abou, our friend the bus driver (‘Beese Abou’ – Abou’s Bus).

Abou and I at the naming ceremony of his newborn son. His village only speaks Wolof so it sucks going there... Good thing he's worth visiting

Abou and I at the naming ceremony of his newborn son. His village only speaks Wolof so it sucks going there… Good thing he’s worth visiting

Abou, unfortunately, was planning on leaving much earlier in order to get to Touba, and would not be returning until the event was over. His bus would make a lot of money by increasing the prices and transporting people home from the event. We called his brother Bas, who also owns a bus (‘Beese Bas’- Bas’s bus). He said he could take us on that day, but called back the next day saying he decided to go immediately and was on his way without us. It’s possible a group rented his bus out at the last minute. No driver would pass up that opportunity. We decide to risk it and wait for a bus. “A bus will come,” says Coumba Demba Anne (my namesake), assuredly. “Inshallah (God willing),” I whisper under my breath. 4:30am I wake up… we wait, sitting on the gnarled log in the dark, for a bus, my multitude of baggage piled on itself across the street from us, looking as forlorn and ragged as I felt. The longer I sat, the colder it felt. I have never been so cold in my entire 15 months in Senegal. I wrapped my large scarf around my sweater, pulling on my hood, but still I shivered, my flip-flop toes losing feeling. Checking the weather app on my phone, I scoffed at the mere number 62F staring me in the face yelling ‘Wus!’. A bus passes going the opposite direction and Coumba Demba recognizes it! She explains, that is Asfall (Beese Ass) who is returning from Dakar. He will sleep through the day and then leave again this evening to Dakar.

Busses run from Dakar to Ourossogui along the Fuuta route all day every day.  Most leave their starting points at 4am

Busses run from Dakar to Ourossogui along the Fuuta route all day every day. Most leave their starting points at 4am

No bus came in our direction. We watched the open road until the women of the village began shopping for the day’s lunch. We resign to take Beese Ass later that evening, delaying our plans a day. We would rather not take the night bus (and it is against the rules to do so), but it seems we may have no other choice. The next morning could heed the same results. I dragged my bags home, dejected. Upon entering my compound, I exclaimed, “I’m back from America!! Turns out America is not good, so I’m back now,” to uproarious laughter and curious looks. I put my bags in my room and laid down for a few more winks.

That evening, we return to the side of the road and, sure enough, Beese Ass charges towards us, stops barely long enough for us to get both feet on board, my baggage still being flung on top, the second apprantee catching it and strapping it down as the bus charges on towards Galoya.

We anticipated arriving at Tivaouane around 6am, but we underestimated the fearless speed of Asfall, and we arrive around 3am, again waiting on the side of the road in the dark. Baaba Anne, bleary eyed, trudges towards us, grabbing my bags with hardly a word and we are ushered to his house.

One of the many LARGE mosques in the very religious city of Tivaouane, Senegal

One of the many LARGE mosques in the very religious city of Tivaouane, Senegal

We stay in Tivaouane 3 days. We do not go to Mbour, we do not go to Kaolack. That is just the way things go. We stay in a room in the middle of Baaba Anne’s house. We barely see him the whole time, but his wife tends to our every need and beyond!

Diallo, the woman on the right, was a fabulous hostess.  I am a terrible person for not being able to remember her first name... Coumba kept referring to her only as Diallo

Diallo, the woman on the right, was a fabulous hostess. I am a terrible person for not being able to remember her first name… Coumba kept referring to her only as Diallo

My tokara and I have all the time in the world to chat and bond, lounging in this room in someone else’s house, far away from where we live, free to speak our minds. We talk about everything… mostly boys/men. We have girl talk. This is when I realize; I am having girl talk in a foreign language. Not only in a foreign language, but an African dialect that I have only relatively recently learned. I feel like this moment is so fragile. I embrace it carefully, not wanting to shatter the thin shell of trust I have somehow created. At this moment, everything is perfect. Life, at the moment, is comfortable. Stressless. All that exists is this room, the two of us, and the secrets that pass between us, hang for seconds in the air before disappearing. All that lingers is that understanding smile, the glint of agreement in her eye, my concurring giggle. At this moment, I feel like I understand everything. So many secrets of Senegalese culture have been unveiled for me. So much about this beautifully strong, confident woman has been shown to me, and I love her all the more for it. ‘Enen dendii,’ we (inclusive) are together.

Then, suddenly, all that I thought I understood rushes away. I am caught in a sandstorm of confusion. My tokara asked me where I stay in Dakar. I had been under the impression that we would go to her relatives’ house. “I don’t have any relatives in Dakar,” she said. ‘Shoot,’ I thought, I could stay at the Peace Corps regional house but she wouldn’t be allowed to. Having not spent much time in Dakar, I don’t know many people with whom to stay. Coumba Demba and I parted ways; I went to Thies to visit my friend Ian and she headed to Dakar a day early to meet up with her friend Demba Samba. We agreed to meet up the next day in Dakar. My friend and Senegalese hip-hop star Maxi Krezy had rented us an apartment because his place was not big enough to accommodate three visitors (we had told him it would be me, Coumba Demba, and Demba Samba visiting). She had wanted me to come to where she was to pick her up before going to the apartment, but she was on the complete opposite side of Dakar from where I was, so I figured it would be easier, logistically, for her to meet me there instead of me travelling twice the distance just to meet her and bring her back. This turned out to be the wrong thing to do. She refused to get in a taxi, saying that she didn’t know the area where I was. She demanded I come to her. Unable to do so, she said she would rather stay where she was. When asked where she was, she replied, “at my relative’s house, of course.” Did I misunderstand her pulaar when she said she had no relatives in Dakar? Not wanting to stay at this random apartment alone, I opted to call up a friend last-minute and stay with them. They agreed, thankfully.

I went about my business in Dakar, making it to my dentist appointments and meeting up with friends, but all the while feeling guilty that our meeting up in Dakar hadn’t worked out. I had told her, however, that if she still wanted to see me off at the airport, I would be heading there around 10pm. At 5pm she called saying she was waiting for me at the airport. I was downtown, trying to figure out the bus system to make it back towards the regional house to meet up for dinner with friends, with only 2,000CFA in my pocket. In the end, not able to make it to her, she said she was going home and left, back to her relatives’ house. I left later that evening for America.

How did that go so wrong? That fragile state of understanding broke so quickly. One moment, I had everything figured out, the world made sense to me. The next moment, I had ceased to understand a language, or so it felt.

Nervously, upon return to Senegal, I called her to say hello. She answered, delighted, exclaiming how much she missed me and couldn’t wait to see me! Something Americans can learn from the Senegalese: never hold grudges.

Coumba Demba Anne, the strongest woman I have yet to meet, both in physical strength and in strength of will

Coumba Demba Anne, the strongest woman I have yet to meet, both in physical strength and in strength of will