Monday, May 23, 2011

Animist Islam

So after being here for 10 months now I have come across some bizarre practices in regards to Islam. Now statically speaking, Senegal is around 95% Muslim (with the remaining 5% percent divided between Animists and Catholics/Christians. Yet a self-described Muslim in Senegal is not your topical Muslim. Now I have had the opportunity to see Islamic cultures before in Turkey and Egypt and in contrasting that experience with my current observations in Senegal, a couple of queer and interesting paradoxes arise. They mainly resolve around unaccounted for Animism going on in Senegal. Even though less than 5% percent of the population identify with Animism, the actually percent of people practicing Animism and calling it Islam is probably around 90% (not an actual statistic but a complete and utterly inaccurate assumption).

For example is the tulkura. Now the tulkura comes in many forms and sized and can do many different things. Almost all the children you will notice will have a tulkura which is a generic one for protection called a gri gri. It’s made of leather and has either one or multiple pouches on it. Now in each pouch hold some sort of protection or power. There are many different methods to how you make it but regardless it comes from a marabout-religious teacher/head. The two common ways marabouts imbue these “pouches” with magical powers is either through writing Arabic scripture on a piece of paper and folding it into the pouch or writing Arabic scripture on a chalk board and then washing it off with water and then putting that water in a pouch (another way to protect someone is to do the same but instead of putting into a pouch a person is bathed with that water).

Now these tulkuras can protect you from ANYTHING. All the famous wrestlers in Senegal (called lamba) are covered in tulkuras that do everything from make the fast to the power to never fall down. Interesting to me is the grid lock of one magical tulkura that says a person cannot fall down and another wrestler’s tulkura that states that he can make someone fall down on his first punch. I’ve been explained by reliable sources* (that may or may not be relative), that the wrestler who’s tulkura is made from the more skilled marabout will win. I did not see any holes in this logic so I naturally assumed it as fact and moved on.

Another, though very expensive, tulkura is one that renders your skin impenetrable. You are in theory bullet proof. I’ve been told that after getting this tulkura the marabout will shoot you to prove its quality. I tried to explain that where I’m from, paying someone to shoot you may not be seen as the smartest thing that person has ever done. Yet they were resolved in the power of the tulkura (though to point out I’ve never met anyone had that one). Interesting also about that tulkura is that since it leaves your skin impenetrable, you need to take it off before going to the doctor’s to get a shot otherwise the needle will not be able to pierce your skin.
Another interesting bit about the tulkuras that makes sense is that one doesn’t show off or tell other people about their tulkuras. Because tulkuras give you special protection, first off you don’t want people to know you have that protection because then they use it against you (like with the impenetrable skin, people in my village gave me the example that you could poison them and they could receive the annadoudt because the needle could penetrate their skin-though I feel that if you went through the trouble of getting an impenetrable skin tulkura you obviously have enemies so it might be in your interest to get the full protection package). Also it can be seen as a sign of weakness. The fact that you need a tulkura means that you have a weakness otherwise you wouldn’t need it.

Another interesting bit of Islamic Animism is in regards to toothaches. While people in my village and in Senegal still use traditional medicine and see “witch doctors” or what Senegalese call “African doctors,” marabouts have become the new traditional doctors in many cases in my area of Senegal. A friend of mine in village, if you want to Facebook him his name is Samba Sy, is a practicing marabout. Though he hasn’t achieved the great level and skills required to imbue tulkuras, he employs other Animist-Islam practices to help people in his community. An interesting one that I recently witnessed was in regards to toothaches. It involves him taking a nail and touching the sour tooth with it (yeah I know that is far from sterile). After that he writes some Arabic scripture in the sand floor. Depending on where the tooth hurts he alters the scripture. It’s almost like he is tuning in a radio by placing the nail on the tooth and the patient indicating if it hurts more or less as he moves it around on the tooth. And somehow, not entirely sure, based on those readings he adjusts the scripture to the patient. Then based off the readings and diagnosis, he places the nail somewhere in the scripture and nails it into the ground. After that it is said that the next day their tooth will be healed. Not exactly sure what the premise is as in if the nail is suppose to collect all the bad spirits and then hammering it into the ground traps them or what but it was an interesting look at traditional Animist beliefs colliding with Islam.

It makes for an interesting observation into Islam in Senegal. At one point overwhelmingly Muslim and yet still strong lineage to their Animist past (and present for that matter). And that doesn’t even bring up the point of how a 95% Islamic country can have multiple different beer companies (la gazelle, Flag, Perforth, 33 Export, Castel, etc). Bakel alone, which is in theory one of the more conservative areas of Senegal bordering on the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, has upwards of 7-8 bars. It’s always an interesting experience when your sept plus driver is so conservative he’ll actually stop the vehicle to pray during prayer hours (not common but true story) only to see him that evening at a local watering hole.

Every day is interesting here in its own little way.

Love you all and thanks for not forgetting about me yet.

Peace and Love from Africa,

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