Two days after we celebrated Thanksgiving, our Muslim neighbors celebrated Tabaski or Eid al-Adha (“Greater Eid”). Like Korite or Eid al-Fitr (“Smaller Eid”), which celebrates the end of Ramadan and a month of fasting and prayer by feasting on certain foods (which we celebrated with Senegalese/American friends in their home), so too does Tabaski or the Festival of Sacrifice, which commemorates the willingness of Abraham/Ibrahim to sacrifice his son to obey God/Allah’s command. In Senegal, Tabaski is organized around feasting on freshly killed sheep.
Tradition requires that the male head of household provides a mouton for his family – and given the prevalence of polygamy, this means as many sheep as a husband has wives. At street level, this translates into the guy trying to sell a Mont Blanc pen to us as we sit in a traffic jam on our way out of town bending down to Brian’s ear at the driver-side window, to have a man-to-man talk: “I’ll give you a good deal on this pen: I have two wives and need to buy two moutons.”
Dakar friends had told us that we’d see and smell the holiday coming, with herds of sheep roaming all over the usually cosmopolitan Dakar. In the concrete block behemoth that is the Cite Enseignant, the lack of private yards kept our neighbors from tethering their moutons by the door. But friends in more well-heeled neighborhoods, where patches of lawn exist behind privacy walls, reported the regular bleating of sheep. And in less well-heeled neighborhoods in Dakar or out in the country, where we actually spent the holiday, herds that number in the hundreds could be seen as far as the eye could see. One of the main avenues from the university heading east into town, which has a median in the middle that houses the regular market, was transformed into a sheep market last week.
On our way out of Dakar, heading north to St. Louis, we passed very full car rapides with (live) sheep strapped to the rooftop luggage racks; chartered buses (think Greyhound size) with sheep loaded into the luggage holds; and what was at first eye-popping then quickly became de rigueur, sheep being loaded and unloaded into the trunks of yellow taxis. The headline of the newspaper I bought en route (instead of the Mont Blanc pen) reported a new twist on the impact of the financial crisis: Trop de Moutons, Peu de Clients (Too Many Sheep, Not Enough Customers) due to the fact that sheep dealers were charging at least 35,000 cfa per head and hoof (about $75) and local salaries just couldn’t keep up.
On Saturday, our second morning in St. Louis (this trip will be featured in a future posting), Matthew enjoyed a lie-in while Brian and I went on walk-about to experience the holiday unfolding. By mid-morning, as worshippers filed out from the mosques, the streets were filled with men and boys in boubous of every hue (brilliant oranges, deep and powder blues, dark purple, moss and lime greens, rust and chocolate browns) made from a shiny, stiff cotton that takes the place of traditional silk. On their feet were new pointy-toed leather slippers, good for easy off and on at the mosque and at home.
As we made our way to the densely populated fishing village across a bridge from St. Louis proper (which is an island in the middle of the Senegal River), the silence of the moutons began. The slaughter/sacrifice is performed by males, often right in front of the house, sometimes in sand (which is then meticulously picked up with every speck of congealed blood and thrown into or next to the river); other times in holes scooped out of sand or dirt, which are then later filled in; or simply over a bucket.
Then the entire family seemed to play a role in skinning and caring for the hide; gutting the animal and cooking up the organ meat; chopping up the other meat; cleaning parts to be repurposed (like the intestines, which women and small children cleaned in the river); and getting the pot boiling or the grill fire burning, to cook the chopped up meat with onions and rice or potatoes. We saw small children running around one family doorway brandishing sheep legs in their hands as toys. It was a festive moment.
Clearly the sights and smells made a dominant impression, but so too did the interesting conversations en route. One man in the heart of the fishing village narrated what we were seeing at one spot, then asked if we were believers; when told no, he kindly but firmly warned us about being condemned to hell if we didn’t change our ways. Another man yelled at us “You French, don’t criticize our ways,” and when I quietly replied that we were neither French nor criticizing Tabaski’s rites, he backed off and told me how intolerant “those French” are. (I also made the decision to lead in Wolof for the rest of this trip, which was good for my sparse vocabulary and social interactions: sounding like a toddler in a new language was worth all the smiles and handshakes.) While we weren’t a part of one family’s celebration, this morning trip in St. Louis felt like an immersion experience.