Taizé meets Dakar
Last weekend, I made the bumpy 5 hour trek to Dakar, squished up in a 7 seater rickety car. I was making the journey for several reasons; primarily I was to battle against the big scary Nigerian men at the embassy to obtain my visa. Some of you may be aware that I will be travelling with my Dad to Nigeria next month. There are many things about my visit to Africa which are turning out to be a voyage of self discovery, lessons about my ethnicity and heritage. However, the big imposing balding Nigerian man at the embassy was about as close as I was willing to get by the time came round for the administrative tasks! After being toyed and teased, I was finally given my visa, however for those of you who have had some experiences of embassies; they are far from friendly places.
But the story of my manic escapade to the embassy; racing between various bureaucratic institutions, hopping from bus to taxi (not forgetting bargaining my fare with the driver) is perhaps another story for another time. But what I must emphasise is that I wasn’t alone on this mini adventure. I was blessed enough to be helped along the way by the friends that I met in Taizé. And it is the time that I spent with these friends which I want to share with you all.
For those of you who are not aware, Taizé is a Christian community in the Northern French hill-side mountains. It was founded by Brother Roger and ever since has grown into a huge oasis of worship, prayer and tranquillity. Each year, the community attracts up to 4,000 young people from over 52 different nations in just one week.
For the past 15 years or so, there have been 4 Taizé brothers living in the centre of Dakar’s manic, chaotic and bustling streets. I finally made my way to the brother’s house where I was to discover a house of simple means; a place to pray, work, worship and share in fellowship. Like in Taizé, there is a prayer three times a day however on a much smaller scale to the Taizé community in France. I counted there to be twelve of us singing and praying together. The verses started off in French but melted into Wolof which was such a beautiful juxtaposition. Meanwhile, I could make out the call to prayer from a nearby mosque as it approached 7pm. I could just picture our Muslim friends preparing themselves for their evening prayer. Several children had wandered off the streets out of simple curiosity; something that Senegalese children are renowned for doing! Later I was to discover that some of these children were in fact Muslim but they often make their way to the house to seek refuge from whatever hardships they may be facing. Or perhaps they just want to escape the craziness of city life and traffic. Who knows?
The brothers do an amazing job in the community and I feel that I will fail to do them justice in this article. There are only 4 brothers in total but they strive to integrate in a fiercely Islamic community. The brothers are renowned for visiting some of the poorest families in the neighbouring quartiers; large families with many children who are living on very little and in austere conditions.
It is very apparent that the house is open to everyone; both Christian and Muslim and there are young boys who lodge at the house. I met a Senegalese boy of my age living at the house. I had been talking to him for maybe 30 minutes and it wasn’t until he went to fetch his prayer mat that I realised he was Muslim.
The house also offers a place for women to learn how to sew. I met a Christian Senegalese woman who was making a quilt out of recycled pieces of material. Meanwhile, there is a large emphasis placed on activities for children. There are books which are used by children who come to study after school and there are various young Senegalese volunteers who run a range of activities for the local children.
The name Ak Benn translates as “1 plus” and is the name given to the centre for children which is linked to the Taizé community. Similar to the centre where I work, it is a place where children can come to be cared for and treated, to learn, play or simply find peace and security.
I was lucky enough to stay with the family of one of the Ak Benn team members who happened to be a friend I made in Taizé. He studies in Dakar but in his spare time he is busy running activities for the children, praying with the Taizé community in Dakar and simply trying to work out where he fits in Senegalese society. He is definitely a fantastic example of somebody who has continued to cultivate at home what he has learned in Taizé.
My time in Dakar was relatively short however I will be visiting the people that welcomed me so humbly. Upon stepping out of the Taizé house and back into the noisy mayhem of they city, it reminded me of the Taizé prayer in King Cross, London. Over the Summer, I went to a church in King’s Cross with my Mum where they were holding a Taizé prayer. I remember commenting on the contrast of stepping out from the quietness of the church and right into the bustling traffic. I felt something similar this time however it was an even more noticeable contrast. This time, I was stepping back into Islamic society. Everywhere you look, there is a reminder that you are living in an Islamic country. The shop signs, taxis, brightly painted buses with names of Muslim figures and Arabic jubilations, people chanting verses from the Koran at you, fruit stall vendors crouched down on their prayer mats, megaphones blasting out verses from the Koran.
Of course, these are the kinds of things I have been seeing every day for the past 5 months but suddenly it was as if I was being confronted with it for the very first time. Senegal is the first Islamic country I have visited but it is a country which imposes religion in a very aggressive manner. I am still learning how to live as a minority in this community but my time with the Taizé community has proved to be a great source of solace.
If anyone would like more information on the Taizé house in Dakar or “Ak Benn”, please visit the following site:
I would also like to take this opportunity to thank everybody who came to support the coffee morning. The money that you have raised continues to be put in action and is making an incredible difference to the lives of these children. I will be writing another “Charity Allarba” update shortly.
Until then, with you all in thoughts and prayers.
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