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Changing Lifestyles : A Glimpse of Senegal : This struggling African nation practices a more easy-going version of Islam than many societies. But there are efforts to promote more strictness.

January 17, 1995|JOHN BALZAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TIVOUANE, Senegal — A good Muslim prays five times a day.

For the good Muslims of Senegal, that leaves time for all kinds of other activities. Like dancing. African drums ring out, and girls and young women leap forward one by one. They hike their brightly colored skirts and churn up the back-yard dust in a furious Senegalese dance.

Across town, French-speaking high school students in the English-language club meet to perform "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" and to recite poetry, quoting the likes of William Blake.

And on hard-bottom stools in a quiet salon, senior religious leaders of the community gather and contemplate serious matters of moral decay--and, not incidentally, economic development.

"Time," the Senegalese will tell you, "is money."

Or, if you should happen to be suffering nightmares, the Senegalese might also tell you where there is a good baobab tree under which to sacrifice a live chicken.

Fun-loving, pragmatic, devout and flavored in African style: Thus Islam can be glimpsed in the city of Tivouane, where breathtakingly modern high-rise mosques pierce the sky and streets still rattle with the clip-clop of faded old horse carts.

From ancient roots, Islam is powerfully ingrained in this former French colony on the westernmost edge of Africa. Nine of 10 Senegalese follow the teachings of Mohammed. But the Senegalese know that the success of their tolerant brand of Islam--in the path of fundamentalism advancing on the African continent--depends on the country's economic progress.

"Most programs failed in Africa because the leaders were corrupt. We believe we have trained enough people in the ways of Islam--and now is the time to use them as agents of development," said Cheikh M'Backe Sene, a Muslim activist, high school teacher and former Fulbright scholar in the United States. "What we have is a new kind of spirit and attitude.

"We recognize there is a moral crisis in Africa. It's a poverty-related crisis. What we have to do as Muslims is channel our energy into nation-building from an economic point of view."

Although religious comparisons are usually flawed and can be offensive, Westerners nonetheless try to explain the mainstream Islamic brotherhoods of Senegal as something like the Protestant Reformation of Christianity. The core belief--adherence to the holy Koran--remains intact, but spiritual energy is progressive and doctrine restrained.

Other analysts say simply that Africa has changed Islam more than Islam has changed Africa.

At prayer time, typical Senegalese Muslims do not stop, wash and automatically bow toward Mecca. They continue with their labor, if they are lucky enough to have work in this struggling economy. There will be time for prayer later.

"Work is like pride," said Assan Gueye, a 23-year-old Muslim. "It does good for your heart. Have to make hay while the sun shines, isn't that what you say?"

In the capital of Dakar, 60 miles to the south, Penthouse magazine is openly displayed on a newsstand, a rarity in any African nation, let alone a Muslim one.

Bars flourish in urban Senegal, though not here in Tivouane, one of the nation's two centers of Islamic spiritualism. Where alcohol is sold, Muslims with their sodas and coffee mix freely with those drinking a local beer.

Even in remote areas, it is possible for a group of visiting men to dine, privately, with unattached women without male supervision and without anyone raising their eyebrows.

At Christmas, Senegalese Muslims string holiday lights in their cities, exchange wrapped gifts and plan elaborate parties, which typically begin at 1 a.m. and last until dawn.

Animist traditions also do well in the shadow of the mosque. High school teacher Sene recalled that he recently was having troubling dreams. So he went to market and picked out a proper hen, which he sacrificed at a tree that his family regards as sacred.

"Of course it worked," Sene said, smiling. "We still have our background that we cannot throw away, despite our Islam."

The Senegalese describe their Islamic sects as brotherhoods. The most numerous are the Mouride, who make up 40% to 45% of the Muslim population. Young men in urban areas are particularly drawn to the Mouride, and they make up the high-growth group in a country where the median age is 17.

Thirty percent of the Muslim population is from the Tidjane brotherhood. The remainder of Senegal's Muslims belong to a dozen or more smaller sects, including some of distinctly conservative bent.

In this nation where one political party--the Socialists--has held power since independence, the brotherhoods and their marabout , or leaders, form the closest thing to a social and political counterweight. The balance has made Senegal among the most stable of African nations, and one with a distinctly friendly attitude toward the United States.

But Senegal's easygoing Islam is under pressure.

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