Mosques around the world were closed to worshippers wishing to mark the end of Ramadan. Senegal was one of the few countries to re-open mosques.
Dakar, Senegal - Eight months since its official inauguration, the iconic Massalikul Jinan Mosque in Dakar, Senegal celebrated its first major Islamic holiday – Eid al Fitr marking the end of Ramadan 2020.
While this year’s Eid was observed under unprecedented pandemic-related lockdowns across the globe, West Africa’s largest mosque opted for holding congregational Eid prayers that albeit looked a little different from typical religious gatherings in Muslim-majority Senegal.
Streams of worshippers lined up at the mosque’s multiple gates in the early hours of the morning and filled the six-hectare courtyard in a sea of colourful boubous. Men and women clutching prayer mats fiddled with wooden beads and recited Sufi poems.
Street vendors sold framed posters of the country’s revered marabouts (religious teachers), and the voice of the Imam, a direct descendent of the founder of the Mouride spiritual movement (Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba), extended for streets on end in the popular Dakar neighbourhood.
Despite the crowd, it was not religion-as-usual in this part of the world. Under pressure to ease lockdowns, mosques in West Africa had begun reopening only a week before, but on the condition of implementing strict social distancing measures.
As such, masks have become mandatory, shoulder-to-shoulder prayers prohibited, and hands must be sanitised before entry.
On the esplanade of the Massalikul Jinan mosque, markings on the ground indicated to worshippers safe distances to pray, the hand-to-forehead greeting inherent to the Mouride brotherhood were absent from the scene, and brightly coloured face coverings abounded.
While the virus has had a slow start in African countries in comparison to the rest of the world, tackling it has been a monumental concern for both local authorities and international experts alike who fear for the continent’s fragile healthcare systems, food insecurity and the unsustainability of prolonged lockdowns for the workforce.
The World Health Organization warned that as many as 190,000 Africans could die from the coronavirus in the first year of the pandemic, and countless more from other diseases.
Senegal’s ban on public gatherings implemented by closing beaches, schools, restaurants and places of worship have been credited to the early successes in containing the virus, and the government decision on May 11 to loosen the lockdown was met with controversy.
In particular, a return to praying in large numbers is deemed by many to be one of the top risks for increasing cases, and some mosque leaders have taken a firm position against re-opening and continue urging followers to remain at home.
On the same day as Eid al Fitr, Senegal passed 3,000 COVID-19 cases (with a total of 35 deaths) registered in the country.
During a recent address to the nation, Senegal’s President Macky Sall stressed that ‘’we must now learn to live in the presence of the virus, adapting our individual and collective behaviour to the evolution of the pandemic.’’
When it was built, the mosque that broke the record as West Africa’s largest was meant to accommodate an impressive 30,000 people.
But for the time-being, Massalikul Jinan is moulding itself to a new reality - one in which its finest hour is to remain out-distanced by precautionary measures as the coronavirus crisis refuses to go away.