Dakar, in Senegal, in W. Africa, is a world away, 10 ½ hours flying time from Dubai. Emirates, the supposedly premium airline it many times is not, does not make the trip comfortable. It uses the ancient Airbus 340-300 for the journey, worthy only for countries in Africa, never for destinations in Europe, Asia or the Americas. The flight is uncomfortable, with awkward seats, made more so by the lack of a Wi-Fi connection and an ancient crabby entertainment system. This airline flies from Dubai to Mumbai in India 6 times a day, a less than 3-hour hop with ready Wi-Fi and a snazzy amusement box but this 10-plus hour flight to Dakar gets victimized. I guess Africa is used to this historically racial treatment, no?
Dakar is on heightened security; the government expects an attack attempt by terrorists, especially after the recent Mali and Ivory Coast assaults; entry to the hotel entails a comprehensive inspection. Surprisingly, Dakar is quite chilly, and I shiver at the biting wind blowing in from the Atlantic. After an invigorating 7-mile run at the astonishingly crowded hotel gym where everybody seems to be stone deaf since nobody complains about the Afrobeat pop blaring from speakers, jarring my nerves, I meet up with Murtaza Bhimani, CAI Africa representative who flies in from Dar es Salaam on a Kenya Daladala Airline, 3 hours late.
We head out towards Kolda early the next morning, some 500 miles away. Murtaza, Hussein the guide, Jau the driver, who looks like and has an Eddie Murphy 48-Hours (the movie) attitude and I. Kolda is where CAI is sponsoring a school for poor students who need an opportunity for advancing past elementary stage; we are going to inspect the progress thus far. The change in temperature and terrain between Dakar and Kolda is dramatic and stark. The heat goes up rapidly, and the AC must come on. The landscape outside is baked brown by the sun, much of it now set on deliberate fire by subsistent farmers to make way for re-plowing and planting new seedlings. Much of Senegal is blessed with a very fertile soil, and this is evident in heavily pregnant mango trees that are weighed down by the fruit. This is an incredible sight, and I complain about the mangoes I had to bring down by either a stick or stone as a child. Here, anybody can just walk up to the tree and enjoy.
We arrive at a place of rest some 9 hours later, at Dar ul Hijra village, the birthplace of Mohammed Aydara, the person who is, singlehandedly steering the course of Senegal’s 1 million plus Shia Muslims to a brighter tomorrow through education and tolerance. As head of Mozdahir, Aydara overseas massive social services operations for the poor and destitute in this country. Schools (23 at last count with 27,000 students) and self-empowerment projects are the mainstay focus. The number of students who advanced to university or college education from Mozdahir schools was 84 in 2012, 380 in 2015 and expected to be 3,000 by 2020. Mozdahir is also into publishing, owns a radio station and various other social services for the poor. There is a 40-acre banana plantation, various small-scale vegetable gardens, mango groves – all provide income to run the social services provided by Mozdahir, support for widows and orphans. Aydara commands a lot of respect and benevolence from the ordinary man on the streets, evident by the number of people who flock to him for a quick and impromptu prayer. I have always been charmed to the way the Senegalese greet each other. A salutation that repeats Jamtan, Alhamd’Allah and Bismillah, over and over and over.
We are to rest here in Dar ul Hijra for the night, a place without power and temperatures touching 40C (104F). Inside the concrete home, it feels like an oven, and we start sweating instantly, from everywhere, including rather unholy places. At dusk, the dudus go bananas, gleefully tormenting us by disappearing into every conceivable moist part of our bodies. I can hardly touch dinner due to the exhaustion of the drive and the heat. One of Aydara’s men takes us to observe two groups of children recite the Holy Quraan. Nothing special about this except the light to read comes from a bonfire and pages are wooden slates on which the verses of the holy book are inscribed. The grinding poverty of the place is overwhelming, distressing. The children look malnourished and scruffy, yet eagerly study Arabic. Aydara treats each child with a third of a baguette, says this is much sought after gift by the children. Since I have some sadqa funds, I request Aydara to treat the children with a whole baguette three times a week for four weeks in commemoration of the birthday of Fatema Zahra (A). As we lie sweating on a mattress and wait for temporary death to take over, I hear the murmur of voices and laughter in colloquial French, and Arabic from the people gathered around Aydara, who must listen to their pleas, complaints, and compliments, whether he likes it or not.
The next morning, we use the unlit bathroom carefully, by feel and instinct; it is rather tricky to navigate the scraping of a pretty face with a sharp razor in the dark. A terrified gecko hiding in my toiletries bag darts out and scampers; scaring the hell out of me; I curse it, and it’s ancestors for scaring the pants out of me.
We move on to inspect the CAI school under construction, stopping to inspect the impressive banana plantation and small-scale farms. The income for these not only supports Mozdahir services but also provide ready employment to the poor. The school is coming along well and will insha’Allah be ready for a grand opening November 2016; I am satisfied with the progress.
We stay at a local hotel in Kolda, the only one worth staying, according to Aydara. It has an erratic power supply and even more temperamental AC system, so we still bake. There is a cloud of mosquitos outside my room, making me instantly squeamish about malaria or worse; we hide behind mosquito nets for the night.
We get Moosa, a different driver the next day. Aydara has hijacked the more competent Jau to visit neighboring Burkina Faso where Mozdahir has more projects. Moosa devourers tons of chewing gum and then chomps them with a vengeance, as if he has a personal vengeance to settle with them; he is only trying not to fall asleep, however. Doesn’t work, for I am jerked awake from slumber by the screech of brakes and a thump; Moosa just killed a poor goat. He stops the vehicle and callously inspects it for damage; the animal lies motionless in the middle of the road. Moosa drives away. I am so ashamed, mortified, that I did not insist we move the poor animal to the side of the road; I pray the animal will forgive my shameful crass behavior.
Driving to Dakar is an 11-hour ordeal but made occasionally amusing by the landscape, farming villages, and small towns and its people. Mosques here have assorted structures, not the regular domes I am used to. We pass a densely populated town, crossroad between Senegal, Guinea Bissau and Burkina Faso. The marketplace is packed with people and commerce. My eyes make contact with a highly provocatively dressed overweight woman, her attitude and style making it clear what profession she practices. She gives me a smile, but I simply stare at her, surprised, only because this is the first time I encounter such behavior from a Senegalese. She makes a lewd gesture, to which I start violently. She laughs out aloud at my reaction, exposing very white teeth and a blood red tongue and mouth. Moosa speeds up, and I lose sight of her.
The rest of the way to Dakar is uneventful; only memories I have is of a boy whipping an unresponsive or stubborn donkey to move and the fine red dust from the road covering everything making contact with it. Aydara treats us with a Khus Khus beef stew dinner at his house when we arrive Dakar. We have a day in Dakar, so go sightseeing and bake in the abundant sun; thank Allah it is, at least, 20F cooler than Kolda. Murtaza returns to Dar es Salaam and me to Mumbai where I have tons of work out in the Indian boonies.
A point to ponder
Bilal Muslim Mission of E Africa, with tremendous support of supportive Khojas, has been active since 1960s, I believe. Maximum success – optimistically, about 60,000?
W. Africa, start date - about 1979, approximately. 1 million plus in Senegal alone! Without Khoja or like support.
Possible answer? – West Africa, unlike East Africa, given complete autonomy, unburdened by rituals, have grabbed the opportunity and run with it to a roaring success.