International Writers Magazine: Senegal
Senegalese Tabaski Sacrifice
An insiders look into the Tabaski celebration at the end
of the month-long Fast of Ramadan.
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
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 familys 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
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
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 chiefs
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.
Senegalese celebrate Tabaski, called Aïd el Kébir in
much of the Muslim world, to honor the sacrifice of Abrahams
son. The Quran 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 Astus brother Djibi holding its mouth closed, I
didnt 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 rams 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 Ndiayes 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 chiefs family. The Senegalese
teranga is truly something else, isnt it?
In Sindou my first stop was, of course, the chiefs 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 doesnt 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 arent
so crazy about her. She is much younger than Ndoyes other three
wives and doesnt 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 Ndoyes.
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. Astus
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
mothers room, Astu and I ate. And she also teased me about how
much my curtsying skills had improved since our last visit to Ndoyes.
Before leaving for the weekend, I went down to Moussa Ndiayes
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
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 Id ever had a salad in a Senegalese
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 dIvoire, 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 yahoo.fr
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