Counting Sheep

Tabaski - Marche de Mouton

Marché de Mouton, Dakar

Sheep are quite literally spilling onto the streets and roadsides of Dakar this week. As they take over the city in their masses, humans are feeling outnumbered.

“Four legs good, two legs bad.”

They are tethered in small groups, hoarded by the hundreds at the marketsled along by excited children, getting scrubbed to a snowy white, strapped to the roof of cars, and if you’re lucky, you might even catch the odd ovine face peeking out of the back of a bus.

Is this seat taken?

This weekend, Senegal celebrates THE most important festival in the muslim calendar, Tabaski. Known globally as Eid el-Kebir (or The Great Feast), Tabaski will be observed all over the country and commemorates the willingness of Ibrahim to follow Allah’s command and sacrifice his son, Ishmael. As such, this has become a day of sacrifice, and the countless sheep around the city face a swift end, come Saturday. It’s also a time when families travel great distances for a weekend of togetherness.

The babes and I took a trip to the Marché de Mouton in Yoff to soak up the revelry. No sooner had I arrived and I was kicked firmly up the arse by a cantankerous ram – no joke. Thankfully I have enough padding to ease such a blow. But I kept my bum firmly glued to a bench thereafter…

“There’s a rumour going around they’re going to eat us on Saturday…” “Oh, don’t be so ridiculous!”

Washed and ready to strut his stuff

While the festival is a cause for huge excitement, it’s clear to see the commercial pressure on the community, with tailors and livestock sellers working around the clock to meet the demands. Families must order new clothes and new shoes, and each muslim man will do whatever he can to buy the best ‘mouton’ his pocket allows. Borders are relaxed, as thousands upon thousands of sheep flow into the country from Mali and Mauritania.

Sheep are a serious business in Senegal. While back home in London we fall head over heels for well bred puppies, in Dakar the focus is firmly on ‘les moutons’. There’s even a nationally aired beauty contest, called Khar Bii, to find the most beautiful sheep in the country. And good sheep don’t come cheap. Starting at approximately 50,000 CFA (£70) for a lightweight Peul Peul, and going all the way to 600,000 CFA (£850) for a majestic Ladoum, the pressure on a family’s finances is palpable. In a country where some earn as little as £3 a day, buying a sheep for Tabaski can swallow an entire month’s wages. But buy a sheep, they must.

“I’ve got a baaaaaaaad feeling about this Bruce…”

I asked one of the vendors what to look for when choosing from the flock. I was told one must thoroughly check the sheep’s teeth and back end to ensure you choose a young and spritely specimen… if not, you will be eating meat tougher than an old boot.

Then there are the clothes. Fancy fabrics are chosen from HLM marché and tailors are appointed. Women require four wardrobe changes throughout the proceedings, and for those with multiple wives the costs can sky rocket. It’s also no secret that petty crime increases after the holiday, as people make desperate attempts to compensate for overspending.

However, the festival brings out the best of Senegal’s ‘sharing is caring’ ethos as the community throws their doors wide to neighbours; muslim, christian or otherwise. A muslim tradition, yes. But celebrated with open arms.

I asked our lovely driver Balde to talk me through the day.

“At 7am, my son and I will take our sheep to the beach for a bath…”

“We rise at dawn and eat a breakfast of porridge and tea”, he explained. “Then at 7am, my son and I will take our sheep to the beach for a bath and when we return, the family dresses in their new clothes. The men make their way to the mosque for morning prayers and the women start the major preparations in the kitchen. When we return from prayer, we briefly change out of our nice clothes and the men go outside to sacrifice the sheep. It is important that it is a dignified death. The sheep is cut across the throat and his blood is lost into a hole in the ground. The sheep is then skinned and butchered, while the organs are preserved – nothing goes to waste. Everything is eaten apart from the hooves and the tail, which go to local artisans for crafts. The mutton is then divided into three; one part for the family, one for the neighbours and one for the poor.”

His family will barbecue the meat with spices and serve it with rice and vegetables. He is clearly simmering with excitement. 

One thing is for certain. Sheep will be scarce in Dakar next week.

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