This article was first published in the July 2018 International edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

As Muslims around the world make the final arrangements for their hajj pilgrimage to the city of Mecca – a journey that many may have waited a lifetime for – a significant proportion will be setting out from the African continent.

In the ancient past, land and sea pilgrimage routes from East, West and North Africa provided channels for cultural and spiritual exchange between African and Middle Eastern Muslims, and facilitated religious exchanges, spurring the growth of the religion further on the continent. Islam is widespread today across most of North and West Africa, and many parts of East and South Africa.

The Saudi Press Agency reported that of the 1,584,269 million pilgrims who travelled to Mecca for hajj in 2017, Africa contributed more than 15% (see also page 41). Meanwhile, according to US-based Pew Research Center, 17% of Muslims polled in North Africa and the Middle East, and 13% from sub-Saharan Africa, said they had attended the hajj, compared to just 3% from southern-eastern Europe.

But with the average income of the vast majority of people in Africa amounting to less than US$2 a day, how can they even hope to achieve this seemingly unreachable goal, which every Muslim is expected to complete in the course of their life?

The cost of the once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage ‘package’ – which includes flights, hotels, food, vaccinations and visas –  is prohibitive for many. It varies hugely depending on the class of accommodation and the air travel chosen, but in South Africa, for example, the average cost is around US$5,700.

The visa cost alone is US$800 – in itself a prohibitive amount for the vast majority of African Muslims. And the penalties for illegal entry to the kingdom are severe, including deportation and a fine of 50,000 Saudi riyals (more than US$13,000). Some who cannot afford the official cost are still willing to take the chance however; last year the Saudi government turned back 95,400 illegal pilgrims. 

While many African Muslims opt to save their pennies for decades, waiting for the opportunity to go on the pilgrimage, a few are lucky enough to get sponsorship from wealthy individuals or companies governed by Islamic faith. Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni sponsored over a hundred pilgrims in 2016, for example, and MTN (a major mobile phone operator across the continent) has reportedly sponsored pilgrims regularly as well.

But many Muslim scholars argue that the pilgrimage should only be undertaken by the faithful who can afford it from their own resources. In 2012 India’s federal government voted to phase out the country’s hajj subsidy over 10 years, after nearly 80 years
of operation.

Undertaking the hajj may be one of the five pillars of Islam, but the argument that it should only be undertaken by those who can afford it seems to me a pragmatic approach. 

Alnoor Amlani FCCA is a director with the CFOO Centre in Nairobi, Kenya