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Tabaski Sheep Cheat Sheet

While most of you are going about your regular Monday business — school and work and rush hour traffic and whatnot — today is Tabaski (also called Eid in other parts of the Muslim world), the biggest holiday of the year here in Senegal. Think Christmas-in-the-US-level celebration — only instead of buying a Christmas tree, you buy a sheep.

For real: here’s one of the city’s hundreds of pop-up sheep lots (trust me, they don’t smell as good as Christmas trees):



So maybe you know the story from the Bible about that time Abraham said to his son, “Hey, let’s go climb this mountain together to make a sacrifice to God.” And about halfway up, the kid, who is obviously very perceptive, is like, “Uh, Dad? Did we forget something? A sheep? A pigeon? ‘Cause we don’t have anything to sacrifice.”

In the end, everything works out ok — just before Abraham plunges his knife into his son, God intervenes, and provides a ram to put on the altar in place of the child. Whew.

This story is also a part of the Muslim faith (although in the Muslim version, it is commonly believed to be Ishmael and not Isaac that God required of Abraham), and Tabaski is a celebration and commemoration of God’s provision.

It is commemorated here in the most realistic way possible: every family buys a sheep, sometimes a few sheep depending on how big the family is. Then, after morning prayers at the mosque, each family slaughters their sheep, butchers it, and an entire day of feasting and partying commences. In the evenings, everyone dresses up in fancy new clothes and goes to visit neighbors, friends and family…bringing well-wishes or taking the opportunity to ask for and offer forgiveness.

Somewhere in the area of 750,000 sheep are slaughtered in Dakar alone on Tabaski. Not a good day to be a sheep. But a very good day to be someone who likes to eat sheep.  So in honor of all of the sheep that are now sizzling on grills throughout the country, here are five Tabaski sheep facts for your cultural edification:

1. This is not a sheep.

Not a sheep in Senegal.

At least, not a sheep here in West Africa. Good grief. Can you imagine that wool coat in this heat? Your sheep would suffocate to death before you had a chance to kill it. No…sheep in this part of the world look like skinny, naked versions of their fluffy cousins.

Skinny, naked sheep.

This is also not a sheep — it’s a goat.

Also not a sheep.

I know, they look a lot alike. But you can tell the difference in the tails — sheep tails point down, goat tails point up.

2. Sheep ain’t cheap.

You know how you’re still paying off all those Christmas presents you bought last year? Here, many families go into serious debt just to buy a sheep for Tabaski. According to laudoum.sn, your small — but not too small — garden variety sheep will run about $160 – $180 USD, easily several months’ wages or more for most families here. Big time sheep can run into the thousands of dollars. It’s no wonder petty crime — purse snatches, break-ins, etc. — hit an uptick just before Tabaski.

Smart businesses take advantage of Senegal’s sheep fever around Tabaski, offering giveaways and including sheep as a purchase incentive — “Buy a new fridge and get a free sheep! Enter daily for your chance to win a sheep! Hundreds of sheep to give away!”

"One hundred sheep to win!"
“One hundred sheep to win!”

A few years ago, my daughter’s fourth grade teacher — a young, blond 20-something woman from the States — won a Tabaski sheep from a local grocery store chain. The class named it “Lamb Chop” and gave it to one of the Senegalese day guards at the school. I’m not sure how many of the kids knew that Lamb Chop was destined for the grill.

3. Don’t buy your sheep until the day before Tabaski unless you want it to sleep in your bedroom.

Theft is a real possibility. Many people who have tied sheep up outside their apartment buildings find them gone when Tabaski dawns. So unless you’re planning to tie it up in your bedroom and invest in a set of earplugs and a boatload of incense, it’s best to wait until the day before.

4. Sheep Idol, Senegal Style

For a while, there was an American-Idol type reality TV show in the weeks leading up to Tabaski whose mission is to find the most perfect sheep specimen: “Khar Bii,” which means “This Sheep” in Wolof. I am not making this up. I haven’t seen any episodes this year, but I must admit the sheep on the show’s Facebook page are pretty impressive, for sheep.

“Champion of Sheep”

5. What happens to the all of the sheep parts?

Nothing goes to waste. Almost everything is eaten — the meat, the organs, the brain…even the intestines are cleaned out and used to make sausage-type delicacies. The hooves and the head are kept to flavor soups. The horns and skins are collected by local artisans to make rugs and leather bags, shoes and furniture.* And the vocal cords are left to hang over the door for good luck. Because what could be luckier than a freshly slaughtered sheep?

Eid Mubarak, Déweneti, Happy Tabaski!

* A little update: one of my Dakar friends alerted me to this article by RFI about the problems created when the horse carts full of sheep skins don’t pass by your house to collect on Tabaski. Apparently many carcasses are dumped into sewer drains without much regard to public health…workers from the sanitation department spent much of the day Monday extracting sheep skins and parts from pipes. In Grand Yoff (just across the highway from where I live), officials spent five hours trying to unclog a pipe stuffed with sheep parts. This presents a serious risk of disease, and there are fines associated with throwing sheep carcasses in the sewers — but they’re not enforced. Now I’m curious: what does the rest of the Muslim world do with their sheep carcasses? 

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