This is a very late post about the holiday of Tabaski in the Muslim world. During the initial two months of training for PCVs in Senegal, we move around A LOT. There are technical training days where we live at the main training center in the city of Thies, there are volunteer visits where we go to different regions of the country and stay in villages with current volunteers, and there are days where we have community based training and live with host families who speak our local language. Luckily for us trainees, we got the true Tabaski experience and were home with our host families on October 15th, the days most Muslims celebrated Tabaski.
Tabaski is also called Eid al-Adha, or Festival of Sacrifice, by all Muslims. This holiday commemorates the willingness of Ibrahim to sacrifice his son Ishmael (Abraham and Isaac in Christianity) in obedience to God. At the last minute, God provided a ram to be sacrificed instead, in reward for Ibrahim’s obedience to God. Today, Muslims around the world slaughter a ram (or goat or cow depending on a family’s wealth) and share it with friends and family in celebration.
Given the language barrier, I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect on the day of Tabaski. I have been in Senegal for eight weeks now but at the time of Tabaski it had only been three. The night before I tried to have a conversation with my host dad about how the day would go, what was expected of me, etc. The conversation ended up going something like this:
“Dad, what time do I need to wake up tomorrow?”
“Very early. Allah rises early.”
“Ok, what will I need to do in the morning?”
“Ok, for everyone?”
“Yes, like a good Senegalese woman.” (followed by a lot of laughter and an elbow jab)
“When will we kill the ram?”
“When it is time.”
“How do we kill the ram?”
(And he makes a throat slitting motion with his hand and laughs) followed by, “Alhamdulillah!” (an Arabic phrase meaning, ‘Praise to God!’)
At this point he loses interest in my broken Pulaar and I decide to just wake up at six the next morning and be ready for anything.
The day of Tabaski ended up being a marathon of who could talk and eat the longest. I woke up at six as planned and was greeted by my family who had already been up for two hours for morning prayers. I was immediately directed to a group of women crowded around a tub of onions, gabbing and cutting away. None of them cry while cutting onions! I was amazed. And they were hysterical when the onions started getting to me, I think they think it’s a foreigner problem or that we don’t have onions in the U.S. I tried to explain that most people cry while cutting onions but they just kept laughing and telling me I was too happy for Tabaski.
After the tub of onions we moved on to a tub of potatoes. They watched eagerly but, as promised, the potatoes did not make me cry. At this point in the morning, the men in the family were all dressed up in their nicest clothes and leaving for the mosque. In Islam, only men pray at mosques, women pray in their homes. I want to take a second here to remind you that I live in a very large compound with two houses. One house is my host father, his three wives, and the children who are still young enough to be at home. The second house is rented out to Malian immigrants who all share rooms and whose numbers I cannot keep track of; there seem to be new faces every day. This means that on Tabaski there were upwards of 30 people (including guests and visiting family) eating with us, hence the tubs of onions and tubs of potatoes. Every man who can afford a ram is expected to sacrifice one. In the case of the Malians, the men went together and bought two small rams between them all. My father, a relatively wealthy middle class man, bought a very large ram for our family.
So, after the men returned from morning prayers they all changed back out of their fancy clothes and into old, stained clothes. It was time to kill the rams. It happened remarkably quickly, the longest part was digging a deep hole in which to drain the blood and bury the inedible parts of the animals. Basically, the men lay the ram down by the hole, the head of the family or the most senior man holds the knife and says prayers in Arabic, and then he slits the animal’s throat and lets it bleed out. After this, everyone moves very quickly to hang the animals and start butchering them. A very efficient line forms with the men cutting up and skinning the animal, a child holding out a large bowl to catch the chunks of meat, and then another child running the bowl to a group of women in the kitchen hut who clean it and cook it on charcoal or by frying it. Don’t ask me what happens if you don’t have enough children to do all of the running, it would be a lot more work for everyone.
I spend a lot of my time in Senegal being gawked at or laughed at. Tabaski was a lot of laughing, especially when I was so interested in understanding the killing and butchering process of the ram. Although I did get some satisfaction out of seeing the looks on my host brothers faces when I picked up a knife and helped skin the animal. Priceless!
While the morning of Tabaski was a lot of work and running around, the afternoon was a lot of eating and greeting of neighbors (eating the ram… not the neighbors). Everyone takes portions of the meals they cooked and brings them around to neighbors, apologizing for any wrongs done or misunderstandings they’ve had in the past year. We ended up with about seven new bowls of food by the end of the night. Around 8 pm my sisters and I got dressed into our fancy Tabaski clothes and got ready to walk around the neighborhood and visit with their friends. I had picked out the material in a color I liked a week before and we brought it to the tailor to make and embroider. Senegalese people take great pride in dressing well and I saw some of the most elaborate clothes yet on Tabaski. I was able to meet up with some other trainees while out with my sisters and we caused quite a scene wherever we went that night; most people here are only used to seeing tourists and didn’t know what to make of ‘toubabs’ in local dress, greeting them in their own language.
Celebrating Tabaski with my host family was an amazing way to experience Muslim culture and better understand some of the principles of Islam. I greatly respect their devotion to their faith and their willingness to share their wealth with each other. We may disagree on gender roles (try and tell my mom in America to just sit around and watch the men butcher the animal… ha!) but each difference helps open my eyes just a little bit more.