Among other things, I gave up vegetarianism when I made the decision to spend a bridge year in Senegal—or so I thought. Factory farming, my chief objection to meat in the States, isn’t practiced in Senegal and I didn’t want to be disrespectful to my host family’s culture or hard work to put expensive meat on the table (or in the bowl, on the ground, as it were.) If I wanted to truly integrate into Senegalese culture, meat-eating would simply have to come along with the bargain.
My logic was flawless… except that I am revolted by the taste of meat.
Thankfully though, I found it relatively easy to be a covert vegetarian. With Senegal’s communal bowl eating culture, I could both be respectful of the cook and hard work that paid for meals while surreptitiously avoiding the fish, chicken, or goat piled at the center of the bowl.
This practice held up until Tabaski, aka The Festival of the Sheep. The Islamic holiday commemorates God’s test of Abraham’s faith when he asked him to sacrifice his only son. Abraham, a rather devoted guy, is prepared to do the deed, when the benevolent God tells Abraham to call the whole thing off, providing a sheep in the bushes as a substitute instead. For Senegal, this well-known allegory translates into a rip-roaring party. As part of the celebration, every believer who is financially able must kill a sheep.
As you might imagine, in the ensuing days, there is a lot of sheep to be eaten. I thought I’d be able to steer clear with my usual stealth. The jig was up, however, when the serving plate emerged from the cooking area: the only thing on it was fried hunks of dead sheep.
I went into apologetic French-Wolof overdrive. “Je suis très, très désolé, mais… je suis une vegetarienne. Maan lekkul yapp, bal ma, ndax aan bëggul ko!” I’m so, so sorry but… I’m a vegetarian. I don’t eat meat, please excuse me, it’s because I don’t like how it tastes!
Fifteen family members looked back at me, their faces blank with confusion. It’s the Festival of Sheep but she’s not going to eat the sheep? As the French speakers began to disseminate the explanation in Wolof, I saw heads shaking in disappointment. Thinking fast, I added, “Ce n’est pas grave… il y a plus pour vous!”It isn’t a big deal… this way there’s more for you! They broke into understanding laughter and a cousin soon emerged from the kitchen bearing a bowl of oil-soaked fried potatoes that vaguely resembled French fries.
My family has subsequently accepted my strange eating habit, almost looking at it as a challenge. My sisters will chuckle and toss big hunks of vegetable into my section of the bowl. “Fatim bëggna lekk lejuumes!” Fatim sure does like those vegetables.
Though not eating meat Stateside also means not coming into contact with its raw counterpart or preparing meat at all, such is not the case here. In helping my host sisters cook, I’ve de-scaled fish, held the hooves of a recently-living goat as it was undressed from its skin, and most recently prepared chicken for lunch starting just after they’d clucked their last cluck.
This means briefly dipping each chicken in boiling water to loosen the feather follicles, then ripping the plumage from the lardy skin. It makes a sort of popping sound. Next, the innards are removed and sorted for edibility: keep the maroon kidneys, discard the furry yellow stomach lining, etc. Everything is then rubbed and stuffed with spices and dropped into a pot crackling with oil.
I guess I’d say that Senegal has made me a more convicted vegetarian. I have a greater knowledge and respect for the bodies and spirits of the animals I’m choosing not to eat.