“Knife-sellers love this time of the year.” Professor Mbaye, the psychologist who runs the children’s-rights organization where I intern here in Dakar, was sitting with crossed legs and lighted cigarette after an office meeting. It was our first day back at work after Tabaski, called Eid-al-Adha in many other Muslim countries, which is the biggest holiday of the year. A simple greeting by my fellow interns and me had prompted one of the Professor’s passionate tangents; this time, the subject was the denouncement of the consumerism of the Tabaski season.
His knife jab was in reference to the equipment necessary for the central event of the Tabaski proceedings: every Muslim household must slaughter at least one sheep, offered as a sacrifice to parallel that of Abraham. According to the Koran, God asked Abraham to sacrifice his own son Ishmael (interestingly, Isaac is the nearly-sacrificed son in the same story in the Torah and the Bible), but upon seeing his follower’s obedience, commanded that a sheep be killed instead. In twenty-first-century Dakar, the realities of this ritual translate into a mass influx of smelly, shorthaired moutons that bleat by the thousands in tents along the sidewalks of the city in the weeks leading up to Tabaski. My host family selected an unfortunately sweet little creature, which we kept in a pen on our roof and fed stale baguettes for three days. After weeks of climactic hubbub, the actual slaughtering this past Wednesday – which I watched with more bravery than I had expected while grinding pepper in a mortar and pestle in our courtyard – did not disappoint in terms of blood and gore.
What did surprise me a bit, though after two months in contradiction-seeped Senegal it probably shouldn’t have, was the commercialization of so many aspects of this holiday. Every product from sand (used to mop up the blood in our courtyard) to mint candies (melted down for homemade bissap juice) seemed to be linked to Tabaski by promoters. Petty crime escalated in the weeks before as households sought to fulfill their obligation to purchase a sheep (or to prove their wealth by buying several). Tailors like my neighbor Ousman worked into the wee hours of the morning to meet the demand for fancy fitted traditional clothing, the only purpose of this in the case of many young people like my host siblings being to look rich when going out in the evening. Perhaps most symbolic of these cultural curiosities in the eyes of an American like me was the giant billboard on the main highway that depicted an excited older man in colorful traditional garb, a sheep on his left and an envelope of crisp CFA bills on his right. “Khar ak Khaliss,” it reads, promising that two sheep and the equivalent of 50 USD will be given away each day as part of a bank’s special Tabaski sweepstakes.
While the prevalence of livestock makes it easy to think of this product-promotion and material focus as something foreign and somewhat quaint, Tabaski is more complex than a simple competition for the best feast. Particularly in the bustling urban center of Dakar, Senegalese society is caught in the middle of so many influences: traditional African values and family structures, the legacy of French colonialism, the extremely powerful Islamic Mouride brotherhoods, the disordered modernization that comes with the desire for economic development, and the far-reaching effects of Western (especially American) media and materialism.
As the Professor ranted on about the loss of meaning in the commercialized holiday, I couldn’t help drawing comparisons with the religiously-rooted Christmas season in the United States. Aren’t our TV channels abuzz with holiday advertisements starting in mid-November? Isn’t the blogosphere alight with condemnations of the buying culture? Instead of “khar ak khaliss” contests, we have enter-to-win promotions from car dealerships and turkey sellers. As the world gallops into the heart of this millennium, some might say that all sanctity is threatened by the monster of material culture.
Despite my distaste for the vast commercialization that I witness both in America and Senegal, I am not one of those doomsayers. The way my host family invited me to be integrated in their Tabaski celebration actually showed me that real meaning is still entrenched in the rituals, both modern and ancient, of this holiday. As my host brothers held down the legs of our poor little mouton and my host dad brought the knife to its throat, uttering prayers and bismillah (“in the name of God”), I was overcome by the significance of this act for Muslims around the world. Many, many centuries after Abraham’s sacrifice, my Senegalese family was showing their devotion to God in a very tangible way. They used the day as an opportunity to ask forgiveness of their loved ones for their transgressions, and they cooked extra platters of roast mutton to share with their Catholic neighbors – who will apparently return the generosity on Christmas, a tradition that underscores the ease of interreligious peace in Senegal.
As we stood on our terrace and watched a procession of drum-wielding young men go door-to-door playing for money, my twelve-year-old host brother Mohamed turned to me and explained why we shouldn’t feel badly about killing the sheep. “Every mouton prays to die on Tabaski, because they are guaranteed to go to Paradise.” Mohamed’s earnest comment reminded me that Tabaski is all about faith. Like most holidays in most cultures, it has become dressed with the material and commercial colors of its situational context. Faith and consumerism coexist, and this fact is as authentic to the here and now of Senegal’s reality as the livestock wandering around the huge LED screen in my neighborhood – that is to say, what seems like contradiction is not contradictory for the people who live it.
I’m leaving tomorrow for a ten-day rural stay, so unfortunately a more detailed description of the actual goings-on of the holiday will have to wait. The majority of this post was originally written for the Berkley Center’s Junior Year Abroad Network, which features blogs from Georgetown students focused on religion, peace, and world affairs. If you’re interested, I have some grisly photos and play-by-play journaling of the slaughter and other affairs of the day that I’d be happy to send along.
For approximately the next two weeks, I’ll be visiting the village of Keur Demba Ngoy Diakhate, near the Thiès region by the western coast of Senegal. I’ll be working in agriculture/gardening and hopefully shadowing and doing research for my internship at the school and health clinic there. Apparently I’ll also have a lot of down time to interact with my village hosts, draw some connections with life in Dakar (which is probably drastically different), and reflect. The next time I have Internet access will be in November – it’s really hard to believe how quickly the time is flying. Just today, as I navigated a couple of marketplaces and bus switches on my way back from Mass at the cathedral, I was struck by the fact that I’m probably more familiar with the layout of the city of Dakar than that of Chicago. Dakar’s my home turf: I know the bon prix for taxis to various quarters, I can find my way to my friends’ houses, and I’m comfortable scoping out new places. I’m excited to experience something completely new in Keur Demba Ngoy Diakhate!