“We walked slowly so as not to disturb the peace of the wild sanctuary with which we were now communing.” First Impressions of ‘Ndem…
Ndem does not seem real. I sometimes feel as if I could close my eyes, reopen them and see only desert. It exists though-an oasis in the heart of rural Senegal. I first arrived about a week ago, and did not quite know what to make of it. I felt as though time had ceased to exist, and everyone was caught in a sort of dream-like state. There seemed to be a certain faraway look in their eyes, as if they were here only in body-everything else on a different spiritual plane. It almost made me long for the dirt, the smells and the noise of Dakar-simply for the very “realness” of it.
On the other hand, the natural beauty of ‘Ndem is stunning. The trees and plant life is lush and colorful-benefitting greatly from this year’s generous rainy season. Still, I was somewhat shocked at the number of Europeans who come here and never leave. The first day here, I met three women who had come to ‘Ndem by chance-and are now here indefinitely. And apparently there would be more arriving later in the week.
“The thing is,” Fatou (an American ex-pat, now permanent ‘Ndem resident) explained, “No one really ends up in ‘Ndem by chance. We are all here as part of journey towards something greater.” My first inclination was to protest. I am just here to teach, write and maybe learn a thing or two. I wanted everyone to know, right off the bat, that I am not on a spiritual quest of any kind, and that I already had a return ticket to the States. But, I didn’t bother… I just smiled, nodded and attempted my best “faraway” look.
See, ‘Ndem is a “Daara.” It is run by the Baye Fall Muslims, a sub-group of the Mouride brotherhood. Mouridism is an Islamic Sufi order, practiced predominantly in Senegal and The Gambia. The Baye Fall sub-group follows the teachings of a former Bamba, Ibra Fall. Fall believed that hard work and dedication to their Maribout (regional spiritual leaders) could replace prayer and fasting. This created a culture of work within Mouridism, and consequently led to the formation of Daaras. A Daara is basically a collective based on agriculture and education-usually with a strong allegiance to a particular Maribout.
The Baye Falls also have a very distinct way of dressing. Their hair is usually dreaded. They wear colorful, often ragged, baggy clothes. And they accessorize with jewelry and scarves. The Europeans, who now call ‘Ndem home, dress in a similar fashion. I, for one, am holding out.
At first, everything about ‘Ndem was overwhelming-from the manner of dress, the devotion to the Maribout, (Serigne Babacar M’bow), the seeming lack of order or schedule, to the lack of access to the outside world. Everything. And when, after two days in ‘Ndem, I had the opportunity to go back to Dakar for a few days, I jumped at it.
I am back now though, and ready to accept that this is going to be my life for a while. I’ve realized that, in order for this whole thing to work, I need to let go of everything that I am used to, and start fresh. It is almost as if I have to take all of the acceptable “social norms” that I’ve learned in the US and turn them upside down…And that’s just a small step. First and foremost, I need to acknowledge that acclimating here will be a process, and it will take patience (not my strong suit) and time…In the meantime, I am going to embrace the natural beauty and peacefulness of my surroundings.