Pictures from Senegal

Sunday, November 28


The biggest holiday of the Senegalese year has come again. It’s two lunar months after Korite (or about two calendar months plus ten days) and is known here as Tabaski. I’m sure it has a more Arabic name in other Muslim countries, and is celebrate a day or two earlier than we do, though I don’t know anything about it. This day is a fusion of my two of my favorite American holidays Christmas and Thanksgiving, and I’m certain that last year I was too caught up in the “everything is so different” aspect to see the resemblances. Happily, not much escaped me this year. I’m going to make a bold statement; this Tabaski was the best Senegalese holiday I’ve passed in all my time here.

The seemingly most important aspect of the day is sheep. Two days before the event I found myself in Dakar, which had a viable shot at being renamed Field of Sheep. Every single spare corner of land that wasn’t resident to a building or a trash pile was covered in sheep and their vendors (and even some of the piles, unfortunately). That’s a lot of sheep; which is to be expected given that every household takes it upon themselves to kill a sheep for their family. How many houses is that? A better question is where do all the sheep come from? I can’t answer either. I can tell you that the single most important purchase of the holiday is the ram, which can cost anywhere from $100 to $400 per. Now’s the time I remind you that the poverty line is drawn at making less than $1 a day… you do the math.

Also reminiscent of Thanksgiving is the enormous amounts of cooking to be accomplished. The night before my family and I sat down to peel a large sack of potatoes, (luckily I’d had a peeler shipped in which made me quite effective) and another of onions. The morning of I was put in charge of the French fries. I lucked out again as my mom (lover of all cooking appliances, utensils, and short cuts) had a fry cutting shooter gizmo which made the job a million times easier. After that I pitched in with the onions. For hours we sat cutting onions in our hands with a paring knife. These women don’t use cutting boards or large knifes to do their work, but they can accomplish the same volume with their hands as a I could with a cutting board for any given period of time. I on the other hand, having zero practice with this method, fumbled often. I’m proud to say, however, that I’m cut free!

Our Catholic neighbors were kind enough to lend us their daughters. Any girl in her teens was sent to our house and given a knife. In the later hours of the morning, when the onions were finally done, I started in turning the potatoes into French fries. Once again my mom pulled out the appliances and her deep fryer… which is good because as clumsy as I feel around the kitchen these days, I don’t know if I could’ve handled the open gas flame and the flying oil at the same time. So for hours I sat refilling the basket, closing the lit, double checking the color, emptying the basket, fighting off the hungry kids, and repeating. When the older Catholic women arrived, they helped my mom prepare onion sauce and our meat.

Let’s go back. What have the 7 men of my house been doing all day, you ask? Well by 9 am they are dressed in their brand new fancy boubous (which looks like an elderly gentlemen’s silk pajama suit) and at about 9:30a they have a special prier service at the mosque. After returning, they change back out of their nice cloths and get down to business. In less than 2 hours my team of brothers and uncles had killed, gutted, and cleaned not 1, but 2 sheep for our family’s festivities. Impressive speed, no? A neighbor had joined us for five minutes with his very sharp knife for the actual killing, and later another random man came by to collect the skins. I didn’t join them for the actual killing, but I did chuckle a bit when my 2 year old brother came running in the house saying “Mommy, the sheep is bleeding.”

Lunch (aka the most important meal of any Senegalese day- let alone this one) consisted of huge piles of meat, such as liver, ribs, or tenderloin, in a bed of onion sauce surrounded by fries, ate with our fingers and hunks of baguette. I have developed quite the affection for the mustard here, which looks deceptively like boring kind found at home but tastes like wasabi mayo that’s been died the same yellow color. Its heaven and I’m considering buying my family mass quantities of it so as to ensure we never run out. About the third or fourth time I asked my mom for another dollop she warned me not to over eat the mustard and make myself sick. Something I did last year, although it’s been contributed to the vinegar used in onion sauce recipes in other households.

After lunch I showered and put on my best Senegalese outfit. Unfortunately my nice shoes are holed up in Dakar and my flip flops nearly killed my mom with embarrassment. None the less, I grabbed my Catholic neighbor, a female friend of my generation (something I have very few of here), and headed to the booze boutique for a beer. After she wasn’t able to finish the whole bottle, and we donated it to the next client to walk in the door, we walked around our neighborhood greeting her friends. I struck up a conversation about how there are in fact only 50 states in the US (as opposed to the 52 that are taught) and 7 continents (5 of which are recognized here).

By dark I was beginning to feel the ache in my body from hours of peeling and frying, so I headed back home. My mom asked me to help here make a fruit salad for dessert... so there I sat cutting melon, banana, pineapple, and more. Meanwhile, I watched my dad and mom continue to clean the piles of sheep meat littering the house in buckets. They reduced the hunk sizes and packaged them into serving size bags to be stored in the large freeze we borrow across the street. By the time the salad was done, it was after 10pm and I was exhausted. My mom, now having such a great working knowledge of my oddities, handed me my usual serving size of salad and allowed me to skip dinner all together (which I’m told wasn’t served until 1:30am). I fell into bed completely exhausted.

For those of you mildly concerned about recent incidents with my uncle, turns out that the second purpose of Tabaski is forgiveness. There are a series of fun Wolof phrases designed for asking all of your acquaintances for pardon for past disagreements and offenses, as well as anything you might have done unknowingly and or unintentionally. I forced myself to take a deep breath and pull off a typical Wolof scenario which ended in the forgiveness of my uncle and the restoration of our (tolerable) relationship.

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