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Tens of thousands attend Senegal pilgrimage despite COVID-19

Posted October 6, 2020 6:43 p.m. EDT
Updated October 6, 2020 6:47 p.m. EDT

In this aerial photo taken with a drone, pilgrims from the Mouride Brotherhood arrive at the Grand Mosque of Touba during the celebrations of the Grand Magal of Touba, in Senegal, Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020. Despite the coronavirus pandemic, thousands of people from the Mouride Brotherhood, an order of Sufi Islam, gather for the annual religious pilgrimage to celebrate the life and teachings of Cheikh Amadou Bamba, the founder of the brotherhood. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

— Tens of thousands of Muslims descended upon Senegal's holy city this week for the annual Grand Magal pilgrimage, a tradition in West Africa that some fear could become a super-spreader event for COVID-19.

The Magal honors the founder of the Mouride Brotherhood, Senegal's most influential religious order. In previous years, as many as 3 million people have traveled to the city of Touba during Magal, with many coming from neighboring Gambia.

With Senegal's land borders still closed, fewer pilgrims attended the main events Tuesday. Closely packed lines queued up to enter the Grand Mosque of Touba, though hand sanitizer and masks were required to enter.

Mam Thierno, 41, has lived in Italy for nearly a decade but chose to travel home to Senegal for Magal even amid the pandemic, calling it a deeply moving experience for him and his family.

“To go a year without Magal would be too much for me,” he said. “With the pandemic there are people who say we shouldn’t hold the Magal in Touba ... I know the disease is here, COVID-19 exists, but I still came.”

Senegal was among the first African countries to report a confirmed COVID-19 case but has avoided the high death tolls seen elsewhere, in large part due to widespread required mask-wearing and restrictions on travel.

The country has had more than 15,000 confirmed cases and 312 confirmed deaths from the coronavirus.

Even with the precautions taken, some are fearful that Touba — once an early virus hotspot — could now see a resurgence of COVID-19 cases in the weeks after Magal. Many people crowded into homes due to limited accommodations in town during the pilgrimage.

The virus also could potentially spread to communities far from Touba via people returning home on public transport. Buses only leave for their destination once completely full.

Sokhna Bousso Diop couldn’t help notice many of the pilgrims were not following the face-covering rules outside the perimeters of the mosque. Still, she turned to her faith for assurance.

“We are confident that Serigne Touba has not forgotten us,” she said, referring to the founder of the Mouride Brotherhood. “Let’s keep on praying. Everything will go smoothly.”

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Associated Press writer Abdoulie John contributed to this report.

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