In search of coherence

It seems, despite the best efforts to manufacture our nations, that things will be built from the ground up. I have spent the past few months travelling around West Africa and everywhere where people have created enclaves of coherence there is growth and progress.

I went to Touba, in Senegal — a city of nearly a million people. Here anybody of the Mouride movement (and others, I believe) can get a plot of land for almost nothing and not pay for water. There are no council taxes. The religious authorities build roads and supply free water. Welcome to West Africa’s fastest-growing city.

Touba is built on the dreams of one man: Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba, the founder of the Mouride brotherhood. It is he who laid out the idea for a city in the desert; it is he who instigated trade-offs with the French to get them to give him the deed to 40 000 acres for his city. And it is he who demanded complete obedience from his adherents — an idea that scares me more than a little.

I don’t know why it seems that Touba is a more egalitarian city than Dakar, it just does. It may be because the religious obedience demanded has more to do with work — immigrants are united in Touba by a phenomenal work ethic that is part of the movement. Maybe it is because most of the rules and laws that govern the city are tailored to make it work, and to make working and growing there easy. There is little bureaucracy and most things are run by citizen volunteer groups.

Dakar, the city of colonial heritage, has been drowning for decades in fake ambitions. Abdoulaye Wade, the Senegalese President, is keen to impress on the world the utter “world-classness” of his city. As you drive from the airport, monuments rise, groaning and heaving and announcing a new African renaissance. Massive highways are being dug and the new streetlights look cheap, flashy and unlikely to last more than a couple of years. Word has it that Wade is keen to impress representatives of the Islamic countries gathering in the capital sometime in 2008.

Dakar is beautiful in many senses: the live music, the massive wrestling bouts, the croissants and the beautiful people. But Dakar is also the most expensive city I have been to on the continent. It is not clear to me exactly why. I suspect it has something to do with the high cost of needing to import things wholesale from France to maintain its sense of self.

Apart from the towers of the mosque, Touba is a more practical and lucid city. The roads in need of tarring get tarred and there are wells everywhere. In the evenings, women come out and gather at the ends of their streets and clean up. There is no expectation that some city council official will come and deal with anything outside of the gate. I can imagine a small-town person landing in Dakar with $2 000 in savings and soon finding himself on the street, broke and broken. But if he went to Touba he could end up owning a small garage or shop.

Maybe the question here has less to do with religion. In Lagos I met a man who told me he goes to all-night vigil parties at his church to gain the strength to go out on the streets every day and sell goods to people who are likely to insult him. You cannot survive the city without a kind of fever of hope.

I went to a city in the making, on the road to Ibadan, not far from Lagos. Redeemer’s Camp is made up of thousands of hectares of Pentecostal lands that began as another idea for a retreat, with stories about pythons and demons and visions. Today — now that there are roads and Montessori schools and drains and crime-free, middle-class suburbs — church billboards talk less about demons and pythons and more about sexual health in marriage and investing in the stock exchange. One of Nigeria’s biggest banks has announced it will help build a new city there, where land is cheap and dreams seem possible.

Reason is built on harrowed ground.

While Dakar heaves and spins on the same axis, piling bureaucracy upon problem-solving bureaucracy, Touba names the simple things: what to do in the morning, how to do it, why we do it. It defines itself as much through its stated mission as through the daily transactions and interactions of its citizens.

Dakar insists on good manners and form and dictates them on everybody. It is much more fun than Touba, if you can afford it, but it does not make clear what it can do for you, unless you are arriving with French expatriate hardship allowances. Or if, by the people you know or were born into, you find you need no coherence around you to thrive.

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