Earlier last week I believe I reached an important turning point in my homestay experience: I was allowed to do dishes! It has been a long month of sitting on the highest, softest chair and watching; having the choisest morsels of ceebujen into my corner of the bowl; being allowed to stir the pot but not touch the knife; and feeling often like I was being treated like a five-year-old princess.
But the past few days have been a flurry of activity: the preparation for, the celebration and the aftermath of the Muslim holiday of Tabaski. I came home from l’Ecole Sebiroute early on Thursday morning, after all but three other teachers decided take an early vacation and didn’t show up, and after all of 20 computers in the Salle Informatique refused to let anyone log in (I think that was a sign…). Having nothing planned, I just kind of fell into things, starting as always with helping cook lunch. I don’t think sweeping, peeling vegetables, washing dishes and hanging laundry has never done me so much good. Hundreds of washed bowls, peeled onions, scrubbed panties, swept up grains of sticky rice, three sacrificed sheep and five days later, I already feel like something had shifted, whether in me or in my surroundings, that makes this place feel a bit more like home. I’ve always believe that shared experiences are what bring people together, I just had never considered the massacring of three very large rams to be one of those.
It was certainly an incredible team effort, and a fascinating process to be a part of – one that I think has changed forever my perspective on eating meat. But first a quick explanation. What is all this killing of sheep all about? The Muslim holiday of Tabaski is based on the story of Abraham commanded by God to sacrifice his son Ismael as a test of his faith. Abraham obeys and is on the point of slitting his child’s neck when an angel appears and his son is miraculously replaced by a sheep, which Abraham kills instead. Symbolic I guess of the mercy of God for his most faithful subjects. Tabaski therefore is a day for every male head of household (every married man) to prove his faith in God by sacrificing a sheep. It is also a day for all to ask for forgiveness, to purify their souls of all their sins in preparation for the coming year. This is why the specific greeting used on the day of Tabaski is baal ma at or “forgive me.” Baal naa la, I have forgiven you, is the answer. All men and women will make sure to visit all their family and friends on the day, or during the following days, to ask for and receive forgiveness, and sometimes money too, although I could never tell if that was just a joke or not.
Coming back to the sacrificing, it wasn’t gruesome or disturbing or distressing – everything that would probably expected if I were reading this account as me from before I came to Senegal – it was just so real and natural. To kill, clean, cook, and then eat. Done without ceremony or even emotion, save excitement and then satisfaction to finally be able to savor the first bite. Here is an excerpt from my journal that day:
…..I certainly never have and may never again eat meat in such a carnivorous way. We might as well have gathered around the three live sheep with our knives and forks…although, wait, there weren’t any utensils involved. Quite incredible to hold, tear and pick at the flesh of an animal that was alive only an hour before, to have its blood on your hands, spattered on your feet, its hair blowing in the air, finding its way into everything, including the platter you will soon eat off of. Such a rapid transformation from standing animal to motionless body, to buckets of sheep parts – organs gloopy in one, hooves sticking out of another, three heads cast aside on the ground. We the women and the cooks start with the liver, and then the ribs and it’s a team effort to wash them briefly under the spicket over bowls and carry them still dripping water and blood over to the grills before which we need two pairs of hands to tear them apart and then rub the pieces with salt and maggi (MSG flavoring). Then right on the grill, laid flat, still dripping onto the coals. It takes about fifteen minutes at least for the meat to char and glacken. And then its back into bowls, sometimes, I feared, the same bowls the raw meet had been cut in, and over to my host mother where she sits in her plastic chair under the tree, surveying the operation and calling out instructions. Meanwhile the kids are watching, waddling around, sticking their fingers in bowls of raw meat an then in bowls of magi powder and salt and licking them. The two year old toddler cogna swats a sheep poo with a flip flop, squeeling with delight. Mamor, the four year old boy, carries a sheep head around by the horns and chuna places her plastic toilet conveniently in the middle of everything so hse has a good view while she does her business. Mame mBoy, the grandfather, is the first to eat, out of his special pot privately in his room. My host mother chooses the juiciest looking bits of liver for him. Her main role in the whole process is sort the meat and sheep parts into various buckets, bowls and plastic bags, many of which some leave the house. Gifts, perhaps, offerings to those not fortunate enough to have their own sheep, or reserves for the fridge that we share in somebody else’s house. I hurry off to my room to grab some hand sanitizer, sensing that I will be forced to eat soon, but Ami nDoy runs after me moments later calling “kaay ndekki”, or “come eat breakfast” and nearly drags me over to the platter. Its 12:30 and we all gather around the first bowl of grille meat, liver, onions and French fries to start the feast. In the kitchen another pot of meat is already boiling and the grills are still smoking, popping and sizzling.