Some African Muslims spend a lifetime saving to make the hajj pilgrimage. With the downsizing of this year’s hajj due to the coronavirus pandemic, they regret the missed chance and worry about getting a refund.

Nasser Younes Solebarmo, a Nigerian living in Saudi Arabia, is one of the lucky few. He has been accepted for this year’s hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia that all able-bodied Muslims are expected to undertake once in a lifetime.

The hajj has drawn around 2 to 2.5 million Muslims in the past few years, with roughly 10% of these journeying from sub-Sahara Africa.

This year, to stop the spread of the coronavirus, Saudi Arabia is only allowing at most 10,000 Saudis and foreigners residing in the kingdom to perform the pilgrimage, which started on Wednesday.

“I have won the golden ticket to be among the pilgrims,” Solebarmo told AFP news agency. “This feeling can’t be described. Being given the hajj is the most precious thing I’ve ever been given in my life. This has been my wish for a very long time.”

‘Journey of a lifetime’ on hold

To control the numbers of pilgrims flocking to Mecca, Saudi Arabia runs a strict hajj quota system for each country with a Muslim population. In sub-Saharan Africa, Nigeria normally sends by far the largest contingent with a quota of 95,000, followed by Sudan with 35,000, and Niger with 13,000.

Last year, 187,814 African Muslims undertook the hajj. Before the event was scaled back because of the COVID-19 pandemic, a similar number was expected this year.

“For a lot of African Muslims, the hajj is a journey of a lifetime. To go to Mecca is really symbolic,” said Bakary Sambe, Executive Director of the Timbuktu Institute, a think tank based in Senegal.

Now, many of those who had secured accreditation are “regretting not being able to go” because they might not get another chance, he said in a phone interview from Dakar.

With so many of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims trying to make it to Mecca, some have to wait decades before they gain hajj accreditation. In 2019, South Africa has 23,000 first-time hajj applicants for 3,500 quota places, and it can take years before people move up the waiting list to get a spot.

For older people especially, forgoing this year’s hajj weighs heavily.

“There are African Muslims who save all their life to go to Mecca. They think: ‘I was supposed to go this year but I don’t know what the future might hold for me, economically, in the health aspect, what God will decide for me,” Sambe said.

Hajj disruptions not new

The hajj has never been canceled since Saudi Arabia was founded in 1932. It has been disrupted though for political or health concerns.

In 2012 and 2013, Saudia Arabia warned the elderly and infirm from making the pilgrimage amid concerns over the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS.

In 2014, because of public health fears surrounding Ebola, Saudi Arabia temporarily stopped granting visas to citizens of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone and in 2019 it banned pilgrims from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

This year, Africans are experiencing “frustration” that they can’t attend 2020 hajj but understand it’s “an exceptional situation,” said Abdoulaye Sounaye, Senior Research Fellow at Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient, a German-based research institute focusing predominantly on Islamic studies.

“And there is also hope that next year they can go again,” he told DW in a telephone interview.

Saudi Arabia has one of the Middle East’s largest coronavirus outbreaks with 272,590 reported infections, with virus-related deaths 2,816 as of Wednesday.

Refund worries

As well as worrying whether they will get another chance to go, people are also concerned about getting refunds, Sounaye said.

The cost of the hajj pilgrimage for West Africans lies between $3,600 and $5,400 (3,000 to 4,500 Euro), Sounaye says — a large sum in a region where the average wage is $1,580.

“The concept of a cheap hajj does not exist,” Sounaye said.

The Saudi government has said it will pay back accommodation fees and other services like the Hajj fee of $80 that it had introduced earlier this year, Sounaye said, adding this had already happened in some cases.

Getting money back from travel agencies and intermediaries could prove more “problematic,” he said.

“In some cases, local travel agencies have already used and spent the money. People usually don’t pay them a big amount of money at once, but some agencies offer that people pay every month until they reach the amount for hajj.”

Hajj associations in Nigeria and Ghana have promised to help pilgrims get their money back.

Fasting in communion all over Africa