The International Writers Magazine: Senegal

The Senegalese Tabaski Sacrifice
Kari Masson

An insider’s look into the Tabaski celebration at the end of the month-long Fast of Ramadan.

he Lébou people say that not knowing is bad, but not seeking knowledge is worse. Actually, they say, “Xamul aay na, laajtewul a ko raw.” My friend Astu quoted this to me as I was lamenting the cultural gaffes I had made since arriving in Senegal. I had forgotten to take off my sandals before going into the huts. I had accidentally touched a Muslim holy man who believed touching women made him impure. I had mispronounced the word for teacher and introduced my language tutor as my circumciser, much to her embarrassment.

But with those experiences behind me, I was ready to seek more knowledge and understanding. I was ready to tackle celebrating Tabaski, Senegalese-style, with Astu and her family.
The first thing I saw was sunlight. The first thing I realized was that I had overslept. Not wanting to miss a single moment, I quickly dressed in my new blue ensemble that my tailor made for the occasion. Astu had told me I would need two outfits for the day, a more casual ensemble and a fancy boubou robe for later. “Eat what you want, but dress according to what society wants,” she had instructed me.
As I walked into the Ndiaye family’s courtyard, I was greeted by a sleepy-faced four-year old Moussa, still chewing on his piece of bread for breakfast. After greeting the women in the courtyard, wishing them peace and peace for their families, Astu led me down a path. Following her footsteps through a tight maze of cement walls, we headed towards the ocean.
Between the crashing waves and the mosque serving the small fishing village of Miname, men and their sons were gathering to pray. We sat on a crumbling concrete wall behind the rows of men in full length boubou robes kneeling on brightly colored woven mats. As each man arrived, he rolled out his mat, slipped off his pointed shoes, and performed a ritual cleansing before kneeling east toward Mecca. Led by the Imam, they stood, bowed, and knelt in unison, moving together like a patchwork wave.
The beauty was joined by comedy as I watched the little boys mimicking the motions of their dads, but also poking each other and laughing, trying desperately not to be caught in their mischievousness.
Little Moussa grabbed my hand and pulled me to the sandy courtyard wedged between three concrete block houses and the ocean. Six of the chief’s rams were being led in on rope leashes by a feisty group of little boys. Shallow pits had been dug in the sand. I glanced at Astu to confirm that I was indeed going to watch what was coming and not wimp out. Neither of us looked too sure.

 The Senegalese celebrate Tabaski, called Aïd el Kébir in much of the Muslim world, to honor the sacrifice of Abraham’s son. The Qu’ran does not say which son, but Muslims believe it was Ishmael rather than Isaac. For the 30 days leading up to the holiday, Muslims fast from sunrise until sunset, not even drinking water or swallowing their own saliva. During that month the country seemed to overflow with shepherds selling rams to be sacrificed. Now the shepherds were gone.

Image of Astu's room

Each ram was pinned to the ground by the weight of at least three men and a dozen little boys, with its neck stretched over an empty pit. Moussa Ndiaye, the village chief, sharpened his knife against a cement wall and then solemnly walked over to the first ram. He paused for just a moment to look at me and be sure I had the camera ready. Then, in one swift movement, he slit its neck. I had dreaded the noise that the animal would make, but thanks to Astu’s brother Djibi holding its mouth closed, I didn’t hear a thing. I watched them hold the ram in place while the blood drained to fill the pit. By the time my eyes moved again, Moussa was killing the third ram and waiting on me to get myself and my camera in gear.
Within ten minutes, all six rams were quietly bleeding into the sand and the boys were wild with excitement. One by one, the older boys carried the rams, holding them by their legs, into the inner courtyard. A rope was wrapped around each ram’s neck and then hooked onto a tall doorpost or roof, leaving the animal hanging in a way that made it look as if it were standing in its hind legs. Astu and I crowded around to watch Ndiaye’s son slit the skin from neck to stomach. He used a long knife, pulling the skin away from the muscle like a tight sweater. I was amazed at how quickly and expertly he made the cuts for the skin to fall off perfectly.
When half of the skin had puddled on the ground, he called me over to try my hand at it. I slowly walked over, wondering if I would actually be able to touch the dead ram or would simply pass out cold. I like to think it was my bravery, but truth be told, it had much more to do with everyone watching that led me to try my hand at skinning. For those who have never attempted this particular feat, I can assure you that it is not as easy as it might look.
The last step in the process, and by far the most revolting, was removing the organs, which poured out in a big stringy mess as he sliced the ram fully open. Then, with one hand on each set of ribs, he pushed against the cement wall to break the joints apart before cutting the meat into pieces to be grilled.
Seeing as had seen meat be grilled before, I decided that since this would be a good time to wander two kilometers down the dusty road to the neighboring village of Sindou. I strategically planned to avoid showing up at meal time in order to avoid eating ram at every house. The Senegalese are famous for their incredible hospitality, called teranga.
I thought it to be a brilliant plan, reasoning that an uncooked ram meant the meat could not be served. But the teranga is not easily deterred. Instead, my dear friends gave me raw, still warm, ram meat to take home. By the end of the day, three families had given me meat as a gift, including the huge “drumstick” from the chief’s family. The Senegalese teranga is truly something else, isn’t it?
In Sindou my first stop was, of course, the chief’s house. Souleymane Ndoye was entertaining the village elders and religious leaders, seated on mats in a large room off his courtyard, drinking tea. His first wife, Fatou, insisted that Astu and I join them. Going into that room was by far the most difficult part of the day, even more than the ram slaughter, because I was terrified of saying the wrong thing, shaking hands with someone who doesn’t touch women, or offending in other ways by accident. And if I did, it would be in front of every respected man in Sindou. But Fatou assured me that, “If a centipede loses a leg, it does not prevent him from walking.”
We took off our sandals, pulled back the lightweight curtain, and stepped into the room. “Asalaam malecum,” I greeted, as my eyes adjusted to the dim light. Slowly, I made a tour around the room, stopping to wish each man peace as I curtsied and shook his hand. We settled onto mats and answered questions about our families, our health, and whether we had peace.
After about fifteen minutes, when the questions ran out, we asked Ndoye if he would excuse us to go visit with his wives. I learned a while back that he had a soft spot for his fourth wife, Binta, and he loved for me to visit her. After making another round of the room, shaking hands and saying goodbye to all the men, I retreated back into the bright sun in the courtyard.
Binta is 100 percent Senegalese woman. Her voluptuous frame is always draped in a long, flowing boubou in bright colors and her hair braided into elaborate artwork. The men love her, but the women aren’t so crazy about her. She is much younger than Ndoye’s other three wives and doesn’t have many children yet. When I first arrived in the village, Ndoye had asked me to go meet her. I walked up to her door and said something in Wolof that I hoped sounded like, “Your husband sent us.” She welcomed me in, and has every time since then when I show up unannounced after a visit to Ndoye’s. 
Astu and I walked back to Miname, stopping briefly at my house for me to change into my embroidered skirt and flowing top. We arrived just as the Ndiaye family was finishing their meal. The men had already started preparing the hot mint tea, pouring it from one cup to another in a two-foot stream. Their wives and children lounged around big bowls of food, occasionally reaching for a handful of meat and sauce. Astu’s sister pulled out a huge plate of ram, onion sauce, and macaroni that they had saved for us. Sitting around the plate on the floor in her mother’s room, Astu and I ate. And she also teased me about how much my curtsying skills had improved since our last visit to Ndoye’s. 
Before leaving for the weekend, I went down to Moussa Ndiaye’s courtyard to thank the family, say goodbye, and take pictures of everyone in their elaborate Tabaski outfits.
On my way into the capital city of Dakar, I stopped in the town of Rufisque to see my friend Maimouna and her family. By the time I left, after a few rounds of tea and more ram, I was exhausted, as were my Wolof language skills.
But the next stop was a bit different. When I lived in Dakar a few months earlier, I had a Sunday afternoon ritual to visit the Niang family and drink tea in their three-room apartment, complete with television, DVD player, and couches. Momar Niang worked for the German Embassy, and he provided very well for Ndeye and their five children. It was certainly an odd shift to go from sitting on the floor to resting on the couch while we watched CNN in English before dinner. And what a dinner it was! Ndeye served platters of grilled ram with onion sauce, fried potato slices, and a salad, the only time I’d ever had a salad in a Senegalese home.
Well after the sun had set, I said goodbye to the Niangs and drove across town to make a quick change into Western clothes before heading downtown to meet up with some American friends. We had big plans to watch the Superbowl live, which meant an 11 pm kick-off for us.
I crawled into bed just before the sun came up, closing a 20-hour Tabaski celebration, with an American twist at the end. The following week, Astu told me, “Little by little, one catches the monkey in the wild.” She was right. Little by little, I was gaining knowledge of the Senegalese culture.
 © Kari Masson June 2006

Kari Masson has a very colorful collection of stamps in her passport. She grew up in Cote d’Ivoire, studied in the UK, spent time with the Maasai people of Kenya, camped in the Swedish tundra, worked in a health clinic in Senegal, and currently lives in Lyon, France with her husband. She uses her experiences as inspiration for articles that have appeared in travel, cross-cultural, and expatriate-focused publications.
kmasson03 at

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