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Marabout face

Religion | A different kind of Islam dominates the West African nation of Senegal, where voodoo is a regular part of life

Issue: "Democrats are all smiles," Aug. 7, 2004

TOUBA, Senegal—Senegal is 94 percent Muslim according to the 2004 CIA Factbook -but what does that mean in practice? Maybe this: On Fridays, the holy day, 10,000 people enter the sacred mosque here barefoot, the men carrying prayer beads and the women wearing head coverings and long skirts. They go to please Allah-but when it's time to pass an exam many practice African magic.

In the mid-19th century, marabouts (Muslim clerics) led violent jihads against the pagan rulers and people in Senegal, but today the marabouts preach "tolerance" and Muslims often secretly practice voodoo. "I say 'I don't believe,' but I practice it secretly. I use potions and powers. And I'm educated," says Haby, a Senegalese woman wearing high heels, who says that it's common for Senegalese to deny they practice magic. On the streets you see Islam, but in the dark you'll find voodoo.

Hailed as "saints" and treated like rock stars, marabouts control public opinion on religion and politics. Bumper stickers, posters, and marabout murals cover taxi dashboards and convenient store fronts, advertising the individual's favorite patron. Sometimes a golden metal tissue box with a mug shot of a famous marabout is on the taxi's dashboard for donations. With their faces shrouded in cloth, you commonly can't see anything of the painted face but their black eyes. They say these mysterious men act as intermediaries between God and the people.

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Marabouts even tolerate Western women in their holy city. I was told marabouts would not answer my questions or look me in the eye, because I am a woman. But they did answer my questions and wore dark sunglasses inside, so I couldn't tell if they avoided my eyes. "We try to be different-we try to show the best face of Islam," observed one marabout leader inside the mosque. But marabouts are also the experts on voodoo potions, charms, and rituals.

What do non-clerics think of the marabouts? They are wary of charlatans: "Avoid the ones that are advertised in the paper," advises Maam Daour Wade, an author of African folk stories and lecturer on Senegalese culture. "Find real ones from friends, someone really good to make charms. Pay them. If you want to succeed at an exam, they can make things for you," Mr. Wade said. For example, the marabout will tell you to get "one chicken and kola nuts: one red, three white. Give the nuts to the old lady, give the chicken to a boy, and throw porridge across the road."

Allah, many Senegalese say, gives voodoo as a gift to Muslims. "It is there-you can use it for good and for evil. It depends how you use it," explained Cedrick and Zak, two students from Benin. Good marabouts go through Allah, they say: Good marabouts may get you to write down your prayers for three nights and sacrifice chickens to Allah, but they don't tell you to use the blood from chickens or sheep. They tell you to wake up at 2 a.m. and pray. Of course, that takes time, and for those facing a time crunch other marabouts have suggestions like putting a chicken and kola nuts in water, writing on your hand a prayer in ink, and washing it with the water.

Some Americans who describe themselves as Christians read horoscopes religiously as a way to avoid bad hair days and worse. Some Sengalese who describe themselves as Muslims also plot out ways to get around evil spirits. Mothers keep their children home at sunset because that's the spirits' rush hour. If children must go out, mothers will give them charcoal for protection. Women wear charms on their arms, around their necks, and hidden in their hair. Taxi drivers dangle charms from their rear-view mirrors. Rings of protection hang above doors, but that subject is "touchy" and people don't talk about it openly. If you touch a charm, it loses its power.

Senegalese Christians often mix in voodoo practices. Wearing a gold cross, Cedrick said, "Even pastors, bishops-it's a tradition to practice voodoo. They tell people to repent Sunday morning, repent and leave the evil ways, come back to the light with Jesus. But in the night they come to practice good voodoo. It's a full game-hypocrisy."

Does orthodox Islam include tolerating African magic? Not according to one Muslim student from Burkina Faso: "Good Christians and Muslims don't practice African magic, because the Quran and the Bible forbid it." But in West Africa, many marabouts practice Muslim utilitarianism: "If it's not for the good of the community, it's not Islam," one marabout said. Muslims who want to get to the heaven promised by the Quran try evening prayer. Muslims who want to get something done on earth often practice voodoo.
-Courtney Russell is a World intern

Courtney Russell
Courtney Russell

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