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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 June 2006, 23:23 GMT 00:23 UK
Spiritual work bears fruit in Senegal
By Rose Skelton
BBC, Ndem

In Senegal's semi-desert region of Diourbel, 120km from the capital, Dakar, lies a vibrant Muslim community that has bucked the trend of rural decline to export fashionable clothing.

women dyeing cloth, Ndem, Senegal
The clothes made and dyed in Ndem are sold all over the world

Ndem's inhabitants are all followers of the Baay Fall faith, one of the Islamic brotherhoods of Senegal, who believe that hard work, not prayer or fasting, is a form of devotion.

All around this small community, men and women in coloured patchwork robes go about their work.

Their local spiritual leader is Serigne Babacar, who can usually be found sitting on a woven mat surrounded by his disciples.

Keeping their heads bowed as a mark of respect, his followers take force from the spiritual grace he claims to be able to transmit.

"You must understand 'work' in its deepest sense, in its spiritual sense. Work should not be a constraint; it should be a daily act which comes form the heart and is a form of prayer," explains Serigne Babacar.

"We don't devote work to the outside life, to the earthly life, but we devote it to God. That is the mysticism of work."


This predilection for hard work has had dramatic results at Ndem. Desertification has meant that in the past, much of the population has left the land to search for work in the cities.

A boy weaves fabric in Ndem, Senegal
Due to its success I started to recruit weavers. Now we are 117 in total
Weaver Mbissan Diop

But with the creation of Maama Samba, a company employing 365 locals and specialising in hand-made cotton clothes that are sold in fashionable boutiques all across the world, people are staying at home.

Its crafts centre, not far from the religious community, is a compound containing 17 workshops where goods are made before being exported to Europe.

Nogaye Kebe works in the dyeing area, where a technique known as bogolan is used.

Mud, clay, ash and herbs create natural fabric and ecological dyes, traditionally used throughout West Africa.

Before the company started production, Nogaye, like many of her co-workers, did not have any work.

"There are lots of good things about this work, because it enables us to feed our kids, help our husbands, our families and when there are activities in the village it means we can participate."

Mbissan Diop, a weaver who used to travel all over the country selling his cloth, hand-woven on looms that stretch 30m across the ground, says he has also benefited.

"Because of Serigne Babacar and the beliefs we have in common, I have had a lot of output ever since I started to collaborate with the craft centre of Ndem," he says.

"Due to its success I started to recruit weavers. Now we are 117 in total."


The company invests its profits in services for the 15 villages in the region of Serigne Babacar's spiritual community.

Serigne Babacar
Our era is characterised by exodus. We have tried to find another way of living to let us continue to live on our land. It wasn't easy but everyone is united
Serigne Babacar

Before Maama Samba started production 16 years ago, there were no schools, very little water, and no health centres.

Now there are two French schools with eight teachers, an Arabic school, a health post and maternity clinic that look after as many as 9,000 people, and a bank with a micro-credit facility.

As well as the reforestation programme, there are also two boreholes that provide enough water for the organic vegetable and cotton farming which the community aims to start in the near future.

The community began when Serigne Babacar had a revelation during a period of solitary meditation in France. This drove him to return to his father's village in Senegal.

As in many rural areas of Africa, he found the region had been all but deserted by men and women who had gone in search of work in the cities.

"Our era is characterised by exodus, a waiting to leave for overseas. For 20 years here at Ndem we have tried to respond in our way, to try to create alternative activities, like crafts, gardening, raising animals, to find another way of living to let us continue to live on our land," he says.

"It wasn't easy but with perseverance, determination, unity, respect, consideration... everyone is united and going in the same direction, men and women."


One of those who has been attracted by the lifestyle at Ndem is Mathioro Ndiaye.

A Maam Samba taylor at work

He studied for his master's degree at the Sorbonne in Paris and spent nine years working in France, now he is one of Serigne Babacar's most faithful followers.

"What is special is that he left everything behind in Europe, returned here, and put in place a structure for community development... so we have seen that he is capable," he says.

"It is something for the potential of our country but also for the emergence of Senegal and for the politics of community development and for sustainable development."

As night falls on the peaceful village of Ndem, Serigne Babacar's followers sing songs late into the night that praise the leader of the Baay Fall brotherhood, Cheikh Ibra Fall.

And as a new day begins, aid organisations from around the world are flocking to see this incredible development programme in action.

Senegal's powerful brotherhoods
22 Sep 05 |  Africa
In pictures: Senegal pilgrimage
30 Mar 05 |  In Pictures
Country profile: Senegal
26 May 06 |  Country profiles


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