“You know, you should really skype your family and show them what we look like here in Dakar. Make sure they know you’re not hanging around with funny people. We know what Africa looks like to them. Let them know we have a bit of civilization.”
This was what my aunt was telling me in perfectly fluent English when I visited her for Tabaski three weeks ago. The irony of the moment was particularly striking given the three different doors and the long hallways I had to pass through just to get to one of the many guest entertaining rooms where I was received. Oh, I fail to mention the fountains, swimming pools, carefully kept shrubs and marble columns that took up most of my visual concentration. A bit of civilization huh.
Of course civilization is not measured by the abundance of swimming pools. Well, debatable point now that I think of it. But in all seriousness, Tabaski intimately presented Senegalese civilization to me. Tabaski is the most important Muslim holiday of the year in Senegal. The festival is also known as Eid- al-Adha in Arabic speaking countries, and it commemorates the willingness of Ibrahim (Abraham) to sacrifice his son Ismael as an act of submission to Allah. Senegalese families celebrate Tabaski by slaughtering a sheep to Allah. I had an insightful but mild, though not entirely uneventful, Tabaski. Here I go.
The day of Tabaski, I awoke to the call of prayer from the neighborhood mosque and the resigned behs of the sacrificial lamb in the courtyard. It would be time for the sacrifice once the men returned from the morning prayer. The silence of the lambs loomed. I went downstairs, armed with my camera and investigative curiosity, to the courtyard to find my host brother Masar and my host brother-in-law Suleiman strategically positioning buckets of water around the sheep, which was tied to the corner of the courtyard. I noticed the drain directly underneath the sheep to be opened, knives were placed on the table and the broom brooded ominously in the other corner of the courtyard.
(Warning, slightly graphic mental imagery)
It happened really quickly. By quickly I really mean a few minutes of struggle, grunts and behs. The sheep was untied, then bound by its feet, then made to face east towards Mecca, then its horns were pulled back to expose the throat, and then the blade went down three or four times. The blood wasn’t very affecting but the sound of spurting blood was upsetting and uncomfortable. I felt like a crime scene investigator with my camera. I felt the need to document this, in the Senegalese context, extremely ordinary event. Throughout the entire process, Suleiman was telling me that this was simply the way things were done in Senegal and they didn’t have anything towards animals. The nonchalant manner in which he slit the sheep’s throat convinced me entirely. I wasn’t judging, yet I felt shaken all the same.
The sheep soon stopped shaking and the butcher arrived shortly to carve the sheep up. This was when things started to be interesting. Before I had a chance to regain my composure, Masar told me to stay as he had a job for me. The work of the youngest son. Me. The sheep’s stomach and intestines were extracted and it was my responsibility to remove all the … waste. Imagine pressing down on a straw and squeezing towards the ends. I’ll leave it there. At one point, my sister fed me the freshly grilled sheep liver with a simultaneously entertained and sympathetic look on her face while my hands wadded through warm semi-liquids, as I burst out in madman laughter every few seconds at the incredible ridiculousness of the situation.
(Warning ends here)
I learnt far more than a sheep’s digestive anatomy during Tabaski though. Families and friends visit each other after the sheep was prepared and eaten for lunch. I noticed that while my brother, sister and I left to visit other households, my mother stayed to receive incoming guests. As such, each household I visited was empty, aside from the elderly matriarch. It was strange and peculiar, but I thought it said so much about the state of gender dynamics in Senegal. The head of the household, at least domestically, were the women. As much as I perceived women to be unjustly treated here and the divisive gender roles to be restrictive to the emancipation of Senegalese woman, I suspect this dynamic is far more nuanced and complex than I originally imagined. Another area of interest was the strong sense of religious and communal unity that Senegalese exhibit effortlessly. Portions of meat were given to Christian families which do not celebrate Tabaski as a gesture of respect. Impoverish members of each neighborhood also received meat as there seemed to exist an unspoken, yet coordinated effort to ensure nobody would go hungry on Tabaski. It was heartwarming sight of human solidarity. I am already removed from the negativity of the world’s tragedy found on the internet and television media, Tabaski almost made me forget entirely.
That was what I remember best from my Tabaski experience. It was the most authentic Senegalese experience I had in Dakar. I left Dakar for Joal, my permanent home in Senegal for the next six months. I left Dakar heavy with feelings of loss. Dakar felt like an unopened book, with all its potential plot lines and dialogues only I could imagine. And the affection I had for my host family in Dakar made the departure all the worse. It rained when I left too, so I could barely see the red rear lights of my host mother’s car as she drove away. Pathetic fallacy. How cliché.
I am writing from the relative comfort of my new home in Joal, my permanent placement in Senegal for the next six months. I say relative since my standards of material comfort have shifted significantly since my arrival in Joal. I am sweating. The filtered water that I drink taste like bleach. There are flies and mosquitos hounding what little skin isn’t already bitten. The occasional draft from the rotating fan makes me question the evolutionary purpose of my bodily functions. I will write about Joal another time though, as after a week of orientation in our respective placements, all the fellows were whisked away to a holiday resort in Toubacouta for some more informational sessions. Another reason as to why I am saving Joal is because I haven’t come around to taking photos and looking like an intrusive tourist. I also haven’t comfortably explored the town or settled into a routine or lifestyle. I have so much to say about Joal so I suppose this short paragraph serves as a mini preview for the next blog post.
Toubacouta was strikingly beautiful. The resort was situated by a river and mangroves, monkeys and large birds were unsightly common. We had more language classes and sessions that revolved around making the most of our Senegalese experience. Our team leaders and teachers were curious to see how we were adapting to our new surroundings and made sure any of our concerns and apprehensions were addressed before letting us loose. We toured around the area, visiting a bird sanctuary and a remote villege of 93 inhabitants, ruled by a Queen. It was such a typical tourist experience honestly and I thoroughly enjoyed every second. The views were incredible. The photos can speak for themselves. I knew this moment was soon to come but Toubacourta was the first time I thoroughly felt like a ‘I am exploiting the shit out of Africa tourist’ in Senegal. We stayed at a resort with a swimming pool, a bar and enough lounge chairs to make me question the purpose of my lower limbs. Buffet breakfast every morning and three course meals for lunch and dinner. Running water. Air conditioning. Toilet paper. It was so very pleasurable. Guilty pleasure kind of pleasurable. I went running one morning into the town of Toubacouta, outside of the bubble that was the resort, and it was just like any other under developed Senegalese town. Lack of a drainage system in the rainy season meant puddles of muddy water everywhere. Horse and donkey drawn carts. A bit of civilization. I ran quickly that morning in order to keep these observations in the peripheries of my vision. We stayed for short five days at Toubacouta and returned to our respective communities.
So the question I have that is still unresolved in my conscience, and haunts me so terribly harsh: What does the abundance of swimming pools measure then?
I haven’t yet seen a pool in Joal and I don’t think I mind all that much.
TLDR – Jasen experiences Tabaski and left Dakar feeling sad. He adapts to Joal before going to Toubacouta for more training sessions. He feels confused about the juxtaposition between the tourist and the authentic experience. He still does but not really either