Sitting with the Mourids, for a Time

Across the street from my hotel, there is a load speaker attached to a telephone poll. It looks like part of the communist-era public address system that was in place in the small Czech town where a lived as an exchange student, back in high school. Except that whereas the system in the Czech republic used to spurt out propaganda, and by the time I arrived, merely announced events at the local community centre, the one across the street from my hotel here in Senegal is used for more sacred purposes.

On Thursday at about 8PM, it began screaming a lilting chant, reminiscent of the call to prayer that wakes me briefly each morning, but more melodic. I stopped and asked a passer-by what it was. An evening call to prayer, perhaps? The words of the Koran? “No,” he explained, “it’s very old sacred poetry” particular to Mourdisme, Senegal’s largest and one of its oldest muslim brotherhoods.

The chant was beautiful, but amplified to such an extent that it became distorted and strained. To my ears, frankly, it was, frankly, grating. Irritating. But then, at about 9PM, the power cut out, and the loud speaker was silenced. That’s when I heard the voices, chanting in unison, the same poems that the speaker was broadcasting moments earlier. I headed outside to investigate. About 25 men were seated on several prayer matts pushed together in the middle of an ally, huddled around several candles. At first, I watched from a distance. More men came and joined the group. I stopped one to ask if it was all right that I was listening — it wasn’t disrespectful, or otherwise offensive, was it? “Of course not,” he answered. “In fact, come join us, please!” So I did. I took off my shoes and socks, and took a seat on the mats. More men streamed in, and before long, I was in the middle of a group of at least one hundred people. Only the men in the centre chanted. The rest just sat, listening with me, occasionally snapping their fingers in rhythm to the chant, filling the gaps as the men took a breath. It was a powerful, beautiful experience, and a potent reminder of the important role faith plays in so many people’s lives.

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