Senegal’s late poet-president, Léopold Sédar Senghor, first proposed the establishment of a Museum of Black Civilisations over fifty years ago. It wasn’t until 2018 that his dream came to posthumous fruition in the form of a proud and confident circular building in Dakar, a design inspired by traditional homes in Southern Senegal. In the same year a report commissioned by French president Emmanuel Macron recommended that artefacts and treasures looted from Africa during the colonial era should be returned to their country of origin. This was particularly poignant for Senegal, which has suffered the indignity of seeing many of its most important relics on display in museums abroad.
Despite continued intellectual pillaging, there are some relics in Senegal that cannot be ripped out and carried off. The mystic beauty of Senegal is the hidden treasure of this breathtaking part of West Africa and growing up in its capital Dakar, I was always enchanted by the various tales one would encounter wandering through the rumbling busy city. Fom the islands of Gorée known for their important role in the slave trade, the almost untouched islands of the Madeleine where a powerful Djinn ruled, and the holy site of Popenguine, where Senegalese Catholics flock, Dakar is steeped in history. However, it is one yearly event celebrating the rich cultural history of the region, that remains etched in my memory.
The pilgrimage of Senegalese Muslims to West Africa’s largest mosque, Touba, fascinated me during my childhood. I was twelve years old when I moved to Senegal, and was quickly adopted by my sprawling Senegalese family, descendants of my grandfather’s Saotomean cousins that had moved to Dakar in search of better opportunities. Over the years they had married amongst Senegalese and Beninese people and had maintained their strong Christian roots while espousing Islamic influences. In some of the smaller families, children were given both a Bible and Qur’an, raised knowing Christian values and Islamic pillars and celebrating Christmas and Tabaski. Every year I would excitedly anticipate some of my cousins setting off with the adults in the family to undertake the much talked about Grand Magal of Touba.