Long before the French came here, the Cap-Vert peninsula – on which Dakar, the capital of Senegal sits – belonged to the Lebu people. The Lebu are a primarily fishing community, whose life has revolved around the Atlantic. While the city has grown in most parts of the peninsula, to this day many Lebu still live in coastal settlements dating back hundreds of years, such as Camberene and Yoff. At the western extremity of the peninsula is Almadies, a neighbourhood of Dakar which is home to a holy cave frequented by those belonging to a predominantly Lebu Islamic sect. It has been named in homage to Seydina Limamou Laye, who in the nineteenth century claimed to be the Mahdi, the redeemer of Islam expected towards the end of time. After drawing a large following, he made a second claim: that his son was the second coming of Jesus – a ‘Black Jesus’ as some here call him.
In more recent times, however, Almadies has become one of Africa’s most exclusive addresses: Swollen white mansions, a strip of upmarket beachside restaurants, a cumbersome American embassy, and a golf course.But it is also the continent’s last address. For beyond the ruins of an abandoned hotel, next to a row of palm trees whose withered leaves are permanently pinned back by the wind, is a narrow strip of sand which marks the westernmost point, not just of Senegal, but the whole of Africa, and of the entire Old World altogether.
Its significance goes unnoticed by those who live here. Accessing the Almadies point usually involves an attempt at bribing a security guard, or sneaking in early before he gets to work. Since I moved to Senegal from London two years ago, coming to this point has become a rare pilgrimage of sorts. By standing here at the westernmost point of the Old World, that ancient place where Egyptians built pyramids, Genghis Khan swept down from the Mongol Steppe, and from where Christopher Columbus set sail, that old landmass which my ancestors used to call home, before they were captured, put in chains and forced into the hellish hold of a slave ship, I was standing – symbolically at least – at the closest point to the New World. 5,839km to Port au Prince, Haiti, a wooden arrow sign near the land’s edge indicates: Kingston, Jamaica – 6,312km.
My parents came to London via various islands in the Caribbean, including St Vincent, Tobago, Trinidad and Aruba. My mother, a community leader and teacher, arrived as part of the Windrush generation. My late father was a writer and publisher. Both were Pan-Africanists, and by this I mean that they were active in movements advocating for the political unity of Africans and people of African descent, wherever they happened to be.
Pan-Africanism is nowhere near the national agenda today as it was in the 1950s and 1960s, when it was perceived as a necessary bulwark against colonialism, racism and capitalist exploitation. It’s probably about time they thought about it again because those evils still exist. I’ve seen them in the Andes, in the calloused hands of Hector Pinedo, a peasant farmer who is the king of the Afro-Bolivianos community in Bolivia; in the ramshackle wooden tents of Black Mauritanian refugees, victims of ethnic cleansing; and in the coarse banknotes of the colonial currency I use to buy mangoes at market here in Senegal.
I have had little choice but to revisit Pan-Africanism. In particular, I have been tracking the life of, and writing about, Kwame Ture, formerly Stokely Carmichael. Born in Trinidad before moving to the US, Ture lived in Guinea, Senegal’s southern neighbour for many years. His life serves as a reminder that so many of the major Pan-Africanist figures of the twentieth century were actually from the African diaspora. Thinkers like Henry Sylvester Williams, WEB DuBois, Frantz Fanon, Aime Cesaire and Marcus Garvey were major contributors to the dream of African freedom.
While the diaspora has looked to Africa, the extent to which Africa looks back at us is another question. In 2016, the African Union refused to upgrade Haiti’s membership from observer to associate member because: ‘Only African States can join the African Union’. Not all African states share the same attitude. Ghana has invited people of African descent to return home as part of its Year of Return in 2019. This is in keeping with the spirit of Kwame Nkrumah, its first president, a major Pan-Africanist leader, who was a bridge between the continent and the diaspora. As for Senegal, does it have a political Pan-African consciousness that also embraces the diaspora? A majority Muslim country, Senegal could also be said to be the true site of the Islamic maghrib – the westernmost point of the Muslim world, and a potential bridge to the other side of the Atlantic. Is the country a model for the Black Muslim Atlantic?
Based on my appearance, Senegalese people commonly mistake me for being Senegalese. They will address me in Wolof, the main local language, and even when I make it clear that I do not speak it, they are so adamant that they often continue to speak it anyway. Once they are convinced that I am not from here, things start to get tricky. When I explain that my family are from the Caribbean, I am met with blank stares. They don’t know where it is or how I ended up there. I attempt to explain further, mentioning the trans-Atlantic slave trade. They know that once upon a time slaves were captured and taken to a land far, far away. But for them that’s where the story ends.
Slaves were brought in large numbers to Goree island, which sits just off the coast of Dakar, before being shipped off to the New World. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is the central part of any trip to Dakar, especially for those from the diaspora. Indeed, there appears to be something restorative and defiant in the idea of returning and retracing what might have been your ancestors’ last footsteps towards the land’s end. Given the suffocating conditions of the middle passage and the barbarity with which they were treated on the plantation, our slave forbears weren’t supposed to survive, let alone have descendants. But here we are.
To get to Goree, however, slave descendants are virtually required to renounce all claims to be African. While holders of African passports have a special discount for the short boat trip to the island, slave descendants, whose ancestors were brought to Goree involuntarily, screaming and kicking, pay the same as Chinese or White European holidaymakers. My attempt to explain this absurdity to the port’s employees floundered hopelessly. They looked straight through me as though I was not there. Their faces were blank. Between us was a gulf of language and understanding. Rather than recognise the connection between the slaves, their descendants and the continent, as it ought to have done, this policy only perpetuated the rupture.
Having passed between Portuguese, Dutch, British and French hands, Goree has distinctly colonial architecture that is both charming and haunting. Women sweep the cobblestone streets, which were laid by slaves, brick by brick. Washing is hung out on the balconies of elegant stone houses, formerly occupied by slave traders. Families sit down to eat and sleep in rooms that were once grim slave quarters. One of those former slave holding centres has now been turned into a museum called the House of Slaves. It retains the cramped, airless cells the slaves were kept in and a restored double staircase that leads up to the apartment where, just above their heads, the owner of the house, an Afro-French madame, resided in pomp.
Tour guides are very careful not to offend the sensibilities of the, mainly European, tourists and so avoid informing them that their empires were built on the backs of the Black bodies once held within its walls. Slavery was something of the past with no further consequences. In fact, the last time I was there, a guide offered a revisionist history. He claimed it was Africans and not Europeans who bore the brunt of responsibility for slavery. That European powers established a global system based on fomenting war in Africa, trafficking millions of human beings across the Atlantic Ocean, subjecting what survivors there were to forced labour on plantations, and deriving huge profits, appeared to have been lost on him.
At the far end of the House is the infamous ‘Door of no return’, through which slaves passed before boarding the awaiting ships. While indicating, literally, that no return was or is currently possible, the door’s name also suggests that the door itself marks the end. As the slaves disappear beyond this narrow doorway, they are shut out of history. What then becomes of them is hardly explained. Out of sight out of mind.
Goree’s blindness towards its own past is further exemplified at another museum, which is housed in an old fort on the other side of the island. On the way in, we are greeted by portraits of a number of ‘celebrities’ who once visited the island. It reads like a who’s who of imperial plunder. There is Pedro Alvares Cabral who claimed a large chunk of South America for Portugal, which is now known as Brazil, inaugurating hundreds of years of indigenous slaughter and importation of millions of African slaves. Also starring is Afonso de Albuquerque who conquered Goa in India and the Malacca in Malaysia, and was the first – and certainly not the last – European to raid the Persian Gulf. Outside the museum is the physical centrepiece of the rewriting of Goree’s history: La Place de l’Europe, a plaza restored by the European Union at a cost of £130,000. When it was inaugurated in 2018, the Senegalese appeared to have had enough. Social media users asked whether it would be fitting to have a Hitler street in Israel or a Serbian Square in Srebrenica. Meanwhile a prominent activist was arrested for attempting to sabotage the opening ceremony. The mayor of Goree and former president’s nephew, Augustin Senghor, reassured onlookers that because of its history, Goree was not just a Senegalese island but also in fact ‘a European island’.
But this placing of Goree and Senegal within the mainstream of European history comes at the expense of the diaspora. This isn’t just about me and other slave descendants, this is also about Africans. To neglect the history of slavery is to be oblivious to its consequences, of which the underdevelopment of Africa and the colonisation of the continent are the most important. It is also to ignore the plantation, where the seeds of racism and capitalism were sown, and where African slaves rose up in order to defeat those forces.
A stumped history diminishes the possibility of future action; Senegal continues to linger in the dark shadow of Europe.
A look at the political life of Leopold Senghor, Senegal’s first president, suggests this was not by accident. It was under Senghor that Goree was transformed into a monument to slavery. One of the most significant French poets of the twentieth century, he once described the Cap Vert peninsula, home to Dakar, as ‘an outstretched hand to all Negroes who were scattered throughout the Americas’. Indeed, Senghor knew the diaspora well. While a student in 1920s Paris, he was introduced to the writers of the Harlem Renaissance and soon after co-founded the Negritude movement, along with Martinican poet Aime Cesaire and French Guianan poet Leon Damas. Emerging as a reaction to colonial racism, it promoted a brand of cultural Pan-Africanism, which affirmed the values of Black civilisation. But he was anything but Pan-African when it came to politics. After leading Senegal to Independence in 1960, he became a standard bearer of Françafrique, advocating for France’s continued influence in its former colonies. In the early 60s, as Pan-African unity appeared on the horizon, Senghor headed up a bloc of countries committed to retaining the colonial borders of the newly independent African nations. Called the Monrovia group, it included most former French colonies and Nigeria. On the opposite side were the Casablanca bloc countries, led by Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, Guinea’s Sekou Toure and Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, which shared a grand vision for a united, federated continent, as a way of fostering peace and overcoming colonial domination.
Senghor’s vision won out with the creation of the Organisation of African Unity in 1963, which affirmed independent statehood. While Senegal would go on to achieve relative political stability, colonial borders would wreak havoc up and down the continent. Back in Senegal, meanwhile, Senghor set out to crush his political opponents, many of them Pan-Africanists. Some were tortured, imprisoned and forced to go underground. Omar Blondin Diop, the young radical who had returned to Senegal after participating in the 1968 protests in Paris and had cultivated links with the Black Panther Party, died in suspicious circumstances while imprisoned on Goree island. One of Senghor’s most formidable opponents was Pan-Africanist thinker Cheikh Anta Diop, whose ideas seemed to strike at the very heart of his project. He wanted local languages, not just French taught in schools; to overturn the Eurocentric education system; and for Senegal to do away with France and become a haven for Pan-Africanism. When he emerged as a serious political contender to Senghor, he was imprisoned. When later his ideas gained popularity, he was banned from teaching at the University of Dakar.
In keeping with Negritude, Senghor invested extravagantly in culture and staged high-profile Pan-African festivals, attracting diaspora luminaries such as jazz great Duke Ellington and Barbadian novelist George Lamming. But this appreciation only really applied to the realm of ‘high culture’, Keyti, one of Senegal’s foremost rappers, recently told me over lunch. Senghor would have had little time for hip hop, now one of the dominant cultural forms of the African diaspora. ‘He was out to create the civilised Negro,’ said Keyti, who is nevertheless a fan of his poetry. Frantz Fanon, who had watched with dismay as Senghor sided with France in the Algerian civil war, tore into his policies. ‘“Negro-African” culture grows deeper through the people’s struggle, and not through songs, poems, or folklore,’ he wrote in 1961. In the early 1980s, after twenty years in power, the old poet left Senegal for France where he was to live out the rest of his days, while serving as an ‘immortal’, one of the elected members of the Academie Française, the sacred guardians of the French language. He died in Normandy in 2001. That outstretched hand to the diaspora that Senghor likened Dakar to was, in fact, nothing more than a closed palm.
Yet as influential as this official narrative might be, it is not the only vein that runs through Senegal’s varied society. Cheikh Anta Diop still has an ardent set of followers. Artists are painting a new path. Those associated with pre-colonial kingdoms have their way. And there has been something of a Wolof revival in recent years. Then there are the country’s powerful Muslim Sufi brotherhoods. They operate largely independently of the government, run a parallel Arabic education system, have a legacy of anti-colonial resistance and as a result a competing historical narrative. Do they have a vision of a Black Muslim Atlantic?
Although I may never know whether my own ancestors passed through Goree, I do know that, sometime in the early nineteenth century, a couple of hundred kilometres down the coast, my maternal great-great-great grandmother was forced onto a slave ship bound for the Americas. The ship left from what is today known as The Gambia, a tiny country that sits inside Senegal save for a narrow Atlantic coast, and which shares the same languages and peoples. Sat there shackled in the dark with disease and death and vomit all around her, she would have been terrified, as the ship buckled and tipped on the waves of the Atlantic. But after a couple of months the worst seemed over. The ship had passed Barbados and entered the placid waters of the Caribbean. Then it began to sink. As it went down the slaves were released. Preserving their lives was to preserve a very valuable commodity. Those from the hills were unable to swim and quickly sank, their arms flailing hopelessly. Mothers lost their babies. They were just off Bequia, a tiny island in the Grenadines. Perhaps she thought she would be easily captured and enslaved there because she swam the other way – to St Vincent, some 9 km away. There was no time to rest after she made it to shore. There was slavery there too. She had to run. Of all the places she could have fled to, she settled on the edge of Kingstown, the island’s capital, at the foot of some hills on which was built the island’s main British fortification. I don’t know whether she knew this or not, but I like to think that she did, and had the audacity to live there knowing that she was safely sheltered in the shadow of the bristling cannon that pointed out to sea above her head.
The story has come down to me, thankfully, because of the longevity of the women in my family, formidable individuals who in their own way each seem to embody what little I know about my foremother. Her fortitude was in her daughter Eva, who used to walk tens of miles each day to market and who died at 102 in the 1960s; her defiance in Edna Howard, Eva’s daughter, who by refusing to give up her seat at the front of the Cathedral one Sunday morning, led to its desegregation; her freedom in Norma, Edna’s daughter and my grandmother who died 2019 Christmas Eve aged 95; and her resilience in Yvette, my own mother.
Most were unable to evade the plantation as she did, however. They were the ones who dropped down dead on the sugar cane fields, who were raped and whose kids were carried away in the middle of the night. They were my ancestors, too. Far from being a few fields in the colonial backwaters of the West Indies, the plantation generated the profits that allowed Britannia to rule the waves and expand her empire. It kick-started the capitalist system that has now led us to ecological catastrophe and birthed the structures of racism that today keep so many Black people in US prisons, stuck in Brazilian favelas, or sinking in boats in the Mediterranean. But out of the brutality of the plantation sprung resistance. Some like the slaves of Haiti rose up and burnt the place down. Others, like Harriet Tubman, escaped and then helped others to freedom. The damned of the earth outfoxed and, at times, thrashed the most powerful empires the world had ever seen.
Had I truly understood the significance of slave defiance, including that of my foremother’s, it perhaps would have been much easier as a young Black male growing up in 1990s London. Having a greater grasp on that history might have made it easier to cope with the rite of passage that is dealing with society’s racist expectations. Then the fad was relentlessly depicting Black men and boys as dangerous, their grainy mugshots plastered on tabloid newspapers, on BBC Crimewatch. Maybe I thought that it had nothing to do with me, that I was a respectable negro. A few stop and searches, one for allegedly hijacking a London bus, and the experience of people crossing the road when they saw you coming, quickly put an end to that.
Then there were the fetishists. Apparently, I was supposed to talk a certain way, dip my shoulder a certain way when I walked, because that’s what being Black was for the kids at my majority-white school. The confusion was compounded by the reality that I could see around me, that we as Black people lived in the most deprived neighbourhoods, attended the worst schools, and occupied the most underrated jobs, when we were not unemployed.
Perhaps it was supposed to be this way. If not petty criminals and part-time drug dealers, Black males – especially West Indian boys like me – were destined to be confused, scared and misunderstood. Perhaps this was the curse of the plantation, I began to think. Had those beatings and whippings and hot iron brandings imprinted violence onto your very being?
And what about that void in our family history, where we lost our name, our language and the memory of where we came from – did that portend an empty future? Was the destruction of our past a precursor to our own destruction? Or to put it another way, as Theologian William R. Jones once asked, was God a white racist?
Not for Malcolm X. For nearly every deracinated youth like I was, his autobiography had some bold answers. Malcolm’s politics were firmly rooted in the plantation. In fact, slavery was a subject he came back to again and again as he tried to rouse his audiences. ‘I wish it was possible for me to show you the sea bottom in those days – the Black bodies, the blood, the bones broken by boots and clubs’, he would say. After he had applied this jolt to the system, he would explain that the plantation wasn’t something in the past, it was the current reality for Black people. More than just a site of suffering and pain it was a place of resistance and resilience. He made this allusion by describing himself as a modern-day Field Negro, that unruly slave who had nothing to lose and who would give his master hell.
As those Haitian slaves set out to defeat Napoleon in the most lucrative slave colony the world had ever seen, Malcolm X was out to tear down a global system of racism, capitalism and imperialism and to restore Black dignity, to make us beautiful, powerful and noble. His politics were ‘anti-plantation’ as Tanzeen R. Doha and others have put it.
Malcom X would take this a step further. Writer Ta Nehisi Coates puts the significance of slavery like this. ‘Remember that you and I are brothers,’ he writes to his son in Between the World and Me, ‘are the children of trans-Atlantic rape. Remember the broader consciousness that comes with that. Remember that this consciousness can never ultimately be racial; it must be cosmic’. That consciousness led Malcolm X to Islam. And in time it would lead me there too. I was moved by how he redeemed the plantation past and connected it to the lived realities of Black people today and then onto The Transcendent, the ultimate source of hope and justice.
His vision also attempted to fill that historical void that lies between us and the continent of Africa. To become Muslim was to repair that broken chain, he argued, because so many African slaves had been Muslim. The exact figures are hard to come by, but Sylviane Diouf, author of Servants of Allah proposes that 15–20% of the 15 million slaves brought across the Atlantic were Muslim. Many of us would have had Muslim ancestors.
My maternal great-great-great grandmother could not have imagined that 200 years after she left these shores, that one of her descendants would return to them, let aloneas a Muslim. When that boat sailed away and she saw the waves pounding this coast for the last time, there was no guarantee that she would even make it to the other side. And that wasn’t enough, she then had to swim and then run. ‘You are the result of their Duas [supplications]’, a friend whose ancestors were also taken from these shores once told me.
The universality of Malcolm’s message was just as important as the personal redemption it seemed to provide. As far as I was concerned, any faith worth its salt had to transcend human differences and geographical boundaries. Some of Malcolm’s last footsteps, as he embarked on an ambitious schedule of global travel in the months leading up to his death, took him across two interlocking geographical zones. High profile visits to Africa, including to Ghana to meet President Nkrumah and to Egypt to meet Gamal Abdel Nasser, were an expression of his Pan-Africanism. His Hajj to Mecca, his meeting with Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal and striking up a relationship with Egypt’s Al-Azhar University offered signs of a Pan-Islamic politics.
This was a bold attempt, if there ever was one, to bridge Black solidarity and Islamic brotherhood, and expand the possibilities of third world solidarity. They were shared struggles. The forces of white supremacy that Black people were resisting against at home in the US threatened those in the Muslim world, too. He was also trying to say that the spiritual message of Islam necessitated a struggle against universal injustices outside of the Muslim world, the most important of which were those that stemmed from the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
‘Malcolm did not see religious belief and antiracism as mutually exclusive’, writes Souhail Daulatzai in Black Star, Crescent Moon: The Muslim International and Black Freedom Beyond America. ‘Instead, he saw them as deeply enmeshed, for he saw the struggle of Black peoples in the United States as a responsibility not just for the continent of Africa but claimed that it “must also be the concern and the moral responsibility of the entire Muslim world – if you hope to make the principles of the Qu’ran a living reality”’. Malcom’s worldview, which fused the Old World and the New and ran from Indonesia to Illinois, and from Pretoria to Palestine, was empowering. He saw an invigorating potential when the consciousness that resulted from the Black experience – of slavery, racism, colonisation and resisting white supremacy – was catalysed by the spiritual message of Islam. He was shifting the centre of Islam’s moral vision across both sides of the Atlantic. This was the Black Muslim Atlantic.
As much as this grand vision caught my imagination at the time I embraced Islam, I was being shaped more by real-world events. A few months after I became Muslim, two hijacked planes crashed into New York’s World Trade Centre. I saw overnight how the tabloid front pages changed from Black boys in hoodies to bearded brown Muslim bogeymen. There was no escape.
The West’s obsession with Muslims had begun and so had its War on Terror. It was, and still is, an immensely challenging period: the self-censoring, the scrutiny, the holding your breath every time there’s an ‘incident’, hoping that it wouldn’t be one of us – again – because you know what will follow. I wasn’t directly affected by the War on Terror as much as others, partly, ironically, because of my appearance. I have yet to experience a Schedule 7 airport stop and search or had the Muslim equivalent of MI5 tap me on the shoulder. But I have felt part of a community under attack. The misreporting of Muslims was an important factor in my decision to become a journalist in the first place.
But out of the military interventions, extraordinary rendition, torture and drone strikes came a global consciousness. People in Pakistan, Palestine and Somalia now mattered to me in a way that they hadn’t before. I was now supposedly one of them, a Muslim like them. I soon realised, however, that the idea of a global Muslim community – an ummah – in reality only went so far. The prayers and compassion of Muslims rarely extended as far as Black Africa or to Black Muslims. There was no racism in Islam, we were told, because Prophet Muhammad had a Black companion. Genocide in Darfur hardly prompted an outcry. Gradually, I began to orientate away from an Arab and South Asian-centric geography to one that was more focused on the Black world. Moving to Senegal and revisiting Pan-Africanism cemented this further. But does the Black Muslim Atlantic exist in my new home?
Given their mass appeal, Senegal’s Sufi Muslim brotherhoods are the best place to start.
The largest in Senegal and The Gambia is the Mouride brotherhood, which was founded by Sheikh Ahmadou Bamba, a scholar and saint who led a nonviolent resistance against the French. His exiles to Gabon and Mauritania in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century inspired stories of miraculous escapes and adventures. One such tale involved him jumping off a boat to perform his prayers on a carpet floating on the sea.
His image is ubiquitous across Dakar, painted on walls and on car stickers. His followers, dressed in bell-sleeved robes, can be seen sitting on dusty street corners performing zikr and singing his hymns long into the night. Mouridism is very much the popular faith here. When al-Ghazali said: ‘Ah, to have the faith of the old women of Nishapur!’, that simple, non-intellectual faith that still yields humility and humanity, he could easily have been talking about the Mouride masses, women and men, old and young. The movement runs many of the small daara, the local Qur’anic schools, part of an alternative to the French-language education system. Sometimes consisting of little more than a thatched roof held up with tree branches, little children can be seen hunched over long wooden tablets carefully writing out passages of the Qu’ran. Presidential candidates court the Mouride Caliph, who sits atop a vast hierarchy, wielding powers both spiritual and temporal. Spiritual guides called marabouts can direct their faithful who to vote for and heal them. The Mourides are also rich. Peanut production has been in the palm of their hands for the best part of a century. It is Senegal’s third biggest export today. Their flock work the lucrative fields for they believe it to be an act of worship. Hard work and service are core values.
The biggest symbol of Mouridism is the holy city of Touba. A small village just 60 years ago, it is now the second largest city in Senegal and operates as an independent city state with no governor, no police force and where no one pays tax. At the heart of this modern-day Medina, is one of Africa’s largest mosques, which contains the mausoleum of Bamba. Millions throng there each year to take part in the Grand Magal, a major pilgrimage, the Mouride multitudes circumambulating the grand mosque in a way similar to the hajj in Mecca. The movement has an extensive international network. The Senegalese street vendors you might come across under the Eiffel Tower, outside the Colosseum or on the corner of Las Ramblas in Barcelona are most probably Mourides, as are the ones found on the streets of Harlem in New York.
Mouridism has done much to indigenise and appropriate Islam, opening it up for the Wolof-speaking Senegambian masses. But its vision hardly extends beyond Senegal and the Gambia, let alone the diaspora, making it difficult for outsiders to penetrate. It is undoubtedly an African Islam – but not an Islam for all Africans.
The Tijaniiyyah of Medina Baye, another Sufi brotherhood, are somewhat more worldly. While originating in Algeria, the order spread thanks in part to Elhaj Oumar Tall, a ferocious ethnic Fulani leader who resisted the French and carved out a vast if not short-lived empire in West Africa in the nineteenth century. Tall performed the hajj in Mecca, met Ibrahim Pasha of Egypt in Damascus, and married a granddaughter of Uthman Dan Fodio. But it was under the religious leader Ibrahim Baye Niass that the order flourished. Wandering tirelessly along the dirt tracks and through the remote villages of West Africa he is said to have bought many to Islam during the course of the twentieth century. He would broker links with African leaders, and was an informal advisor to Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president. Today the Tariqah claims to have in excess of a hundred million members across the world, mostly throughout West Africa.
Medina Baye, the seat of the movement, and where Niass is buried, offers a snapshot into an African Islam. Tall Hausa men gracefully stride with gowns that billow about them in the hot wind; brightly-dressed women raise their hands and mutter prayers inside the mausoleum of Niass. Turbaned Mauritanian men gather their sky-blue robes as they solemnly stand in prayer; and local talibes in tatty T-shirts break into worshipful song as they sweep dirt from mosque carpets. In a small room inside the vast compound of Sheikh Mahy Cisse, one of Niass’s grandsons, accents from North London mingle with those from Brooklyn, and a former senior member of the Nation of Islam cracks jokes. Medina Baye attracts an international cast who come in search of spiritual enlightenment and to study under its teachers, some of whom are sent from Al-Azhar in Egypt.
The Tariqah has a strong presence in the US, and, unusually among Sufi orders, teaches that any adherent can experience direct communion with God, not just spiritual elites. You can get by in English there, but it’s better to speak Hausa or Arabic. Fulani and Wolof are also helpful. French doesn’t get you very far, because, I was told, it is perceived to be ‘too European’.
Muhammad Ali, who has been studying Islamic sciences since he arrived from Brooklyn six years ago, said American racism had alienated him. Coming to Africa and studying under a Sufi master, he said, had given him a sense of self-worth. Zakiyyah, his mother, whom I met earlier this year at their Brooklyn apartment, said she had come to Islam through Jamil Al-Amin (H. Rap Brown), who rose to prominence alongside Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael) as part of the Black Power movement and the Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee (SNCC).
I am not a Tijani but I appreciate their spiritual depth and reach. Despite its anti-colonial origins, the movement eschews politics, and so doesn’t embody Malcolm X’s vision of the Black Muslim Atlantic. Nevertheless it has a Pan-African geographical presence, including in the diaspora and appears to be empowering to slave descendants who are a part of its community. It is also possibly one of the largest Black organisations in the world.
My foremother left Africa with a simple, straightforward faith and way of looking at the world. I’ve returned as someone quite different, towing grand ideas. Perhaps they are too bold. But maybe they can only be that way.
As I stand at the Almadies point 200 years after she left, in some ways I haven’t returned at all, because we are still dreaming of freedom.