So, the Mourides.
I don't really understand the Mourides. But I do understand that they're essential to understanding Senegal. So here's my first, very tentative attempt:
The Mourides stand in roughly the same relation to Islam that Mormons do to mainstream Christianity.
Mourides are pious, hard-working, and clean. They have an internal hierarchy that's distinct from Islam generally. They were founded in the 19th century by a prophet who was persecuted (though, unlike Joseph Smith, he survived; the French co-opted him, and eventually awarded him the Legion d'Honneur). The prophet had a primary disciple who survived him, and who hammered the sect into its modern form. They have a holy city (Touba) which is distinguished by an enormous holy building, the center of the faith. Traditional Muslims find them intense and sincere, but also sometimes a little creepy and off-putting. Traditional Muslim clerics and theologians consider them at best very unorthodox, and at worst blasphemous and heretical.
If you've been to New York City, you've probably met Mourides. Those African guys selling stuff on the sidewalks of Manhattan? Mourides. Most people think of them as just "African", but they're almost all West African, many are Senegalese, and most of those are Mourides. (The Mourides aren't just in Senegal, mind -- they're spread all over the region, like the Mormons across the western US.) In Manhattan many of them live on the upper East Side, around 116th street or so.
How many Mourides are there in Senegal? It's hard to say. The Mourides themselves claim four million, which is unlikely -- that would be almost a third of the country. Senegalese say the Mourides are between ten and twenty percent of the population. The current President is a Mouride, as is the country's most famous international musician, Youssof N'Dour. Paintings and pictures of Mouride leaders are everywhere, adorning businesses and apartment buildings and taxicabs.
En route from St. Louis to Kaolack, we stopped in the holy city of Touba for a few minutes, just to see the great mosque. It's... well, it's a really big mosque. (I never saw a mosque with crenelations before. No idea where they got that.) The central tower, called Lamp Fall, is about 300 feet (90 meters) tall; until pretty recently, it was the tallest structure in Senegal. It's named after Sheikh Bamba's most influential disciple -- think of it as the Brigham Young Tower -- and it's sort of the Senegalese equivalent of the Statue of Liberty or Eiffel Tower. its image is everywhere.
Touba gets over a million pilgrims every year, many of them all at once for the annual holy festival. It's basically a state within a state, run by the Mourides with very little influence from the central government. (Imagine how Salt Lake City would be, if the 19th century US had been a very weak state.) The Mourides run the schools and keep the streets clean, and the representatives of the government... well, they're either Mourides themselves, or they tread really lightly.
There are a couple of things to like about the Mourides, and a couple of things that are, frankly, creepy.
To like: they're incredibly hard workers, they live clean, and they have good manners. (Talking normal Mourides here, not the Baye Fall. The Baye Fall are a dreadlocked sub-sect, very strange.) I spent a few minutes today chatting with a young man who'd spent several years in New York and Detroit; he was well-groomed, gracious, very professional about his field (microfinance), and very interested in new ways to help the rural poor. He just made a very positive impression.
Also: the Mourides work together well. They're organized. Their informal but powerful trade networks stretch across four continents now. If you want to import or export in Senegal, you can go through official channels, but the easier way is to ask the Mourides. They can move stuff from Dakar to New York or Paris very quickly and for just a modest fee. If you're a young Mouride man, they can move you, and set your feet on the path that can lead from street peddler to independent businessman: "If I go to New York, even if it is someone who does not know me, when I say I am a Mouride he will take me as his brother and share with me."
The creepy parts: Mourides have a couple of unusual doctrines. One is salvation through hard work. Another is reverence and obedience to the marabouts -- a self-selecting caste of religious leaders. Mourides believe (I'm told) that a certain amount of spiritual heavy lifting can be, as it were, outsourced to the marabout. He'll do the praying and fasting and intervening with the Lord; you can skip that, as long as you follow his instructions and work. This is pretty alien to most Westerners -- individual salvation is pretty much hardwired into our world view -- but many West Africans find it perfectly congenial.
The thing is, the marabout (rhymes with caribou) is almost completely unsupervised. There's no system of checks and balances. So there are abuses. For instance, Dakar is full of child beggars. Everyone says these are talibes -- students -- belonging to local marabouts. The parents give them to the marabout for a Koranic education. Ideally, they're supposed to learn literacy and the Koran. And some do. But in other cases the marabouts abuse them in various ways, then send them out into the streets to beg. Some say this is a perversion of an original practice where a student would go out and beg strangers for a meal in order to learn humility. In the modern version, alas, the children have to make a quota of money, and if they don't, they may be beaten or worse.
On a much larger scale, Mouride marabouts own a lot of large peanut plantations out in the Peanut Basin. The workers on these plantations are devout Mourides who work for very low wages or none at all. Well, work is virtue and the path to salvation, and as long as the marabout is praying for them -- which, he assures them, he certainly is, up there in the big house -- a long day in the peanut fields is bringing you that much closer to Heaven.
Many Senegalese find the doctrine of obedience to the marabout a bit creepy, too. "If the marabout tells him to do it," one said to me, "a Mouride would shoot the President."
"But isn't the President a Mouride too?"
"Doesn't matter. If the marabout tells you shoot, you shoot."
Well, maybe and maybe not. But certainly the opaque, unaccountable and self-selecting nature of the leadership is a problem. Or so ISTM. As I said at the start, I don't really understand the Mourides.
In any event, the Mourides are here to stay. They're spreading their networks across Europe and North America; Mouride street sellers are popping up from Miami to Chicago now. Right now they're just sending a lot of money back to West Africa. A generation from now... who knows. Should be interesting.