In my village, Sama Ndiayen, preparation for Tabaski began weeks ahead of time. For many people here, Tabaski is the one time in the year when they get a new outfit tailored, myself included. This year I bought white “wax” (waxy fabric that is stiff the first time it’s worn) in the market in Thies, and had it tailored and embroidered by a tailor in my village. (The tailor did a beautiful job in my opinion, except that the pants pockets are about two ft deep and the shirt pockets are under my armpits.) The purchase of the food is also important. My family bought many kilos of onions and potatoes, and a ram for 35,000 CFA (approx. $70) from a herder at the weekly market. Many rams are brought in from eastern Senegal and even from Mali and Mauritania. A ram is the sine qua non of Tabaski, and as demand peaks, prices can reach 500,000 CFA ($1,000) for a big one in cities. I’ve asked a few people in my village which is tastier, ram or goat, and everyone I asked said goat, which is much cheaper. But without a ram, there is no Tabaski.
In the days leading up to Tabaski, the women busied themselves with their hair. A few women in my village paid to go into town to have their hair done at a salon, but most bought weave and braided eachother’s hair at home. Young girls got their hair braided first, while young women braided their hair the day before, so that the braids would still be fresh on-the-day-of. Most older women just covered their hair in a head-wrap.
One of my host sisters, Diara Gaye (who is actually adopted into my family and is about 8 years old), had a unique hairstyle. While she had the same cheap yarn-like weave that most of the other girls her age had, there was a large bald patch from where she fell and cut her head, and had to have it shaved, a month or so ago. The wound healed fine, but she has since been the butt of jokes about her hair. People have taken to calling her Bala Gaye III, successor to the famous wrestler Bala Gaye II, who has a similar weird haircut, although his is intentional. Diara seems to like the attention, and has taken to saying Bala Gaye’s signature line “I don’t care” (in English) and dancing around like she’s getting ready to wrestle.
On the day of Tabaski, I slept in and then got up and greeted all my family members around the compound, a daily routine. We had breakfast and then around nine o’clock all the men and boys and the elder women put on their new outfits and marched to the mosque in a colorful parade for a special Tabaski prayer. I put on my own new outfit, and people began complementing me on it at once – it’s a lot fancier than my old one, and is a big contrast from the shorts and dirty tshirt I wear around on most days. I helped my host sister in law peel potatoes until the men came back, changed back into their daily clothes, and slaughtered the ram. Last year I helped skin the ram and clean the organs for eating, but this year I decided to just watch. I kept my fancy clothes on, partly so no one would ask me to help, since it’s not very pleasant work.
My brother Xalifa butchered our family’s ram skillfully, but my host uncle’s teenage sons, Babacar and Aladji Omar, were doing theirs for the first time and made some mistakes. After slitting the animal’s throat while looking into its eyes and draining the blood into a hole in the ground (as is the protocol), they hung up the ram by a rope tied to its rear legs and attached to a tree. But once they had tied it, they let the body swing and hit the tree trunk, causing the stomach’s contents to come gushing out of its bloodied throat. It was not very appetizing to watch, so I went back to peeling potatoes with the women.
Once the ram was butchered, the women went to work cooking it in a vinegary potato and onion sauce, with lots of oil, which is standard Tabaski fare. We had a second breakfast of organs before the rest of the meat was cooked, but the full lunch was served at around four in the afternoon. It was a communal, progressive lunch, moving from compound to compound around our neighborhood of the village. First we ate at my neighbor Aladji Konte’s, then moved on to Papa Dia my counterpart’s, then to my own compound where my family and our neighbors served everybody more meat and potatoes than many of us could handle. The man kneeling next to me at the bowl kept egging me on and I ate until I felt sick. Then we sat around and shot the breeze while recovering.
It was not until the evening that the males and older women re-donned their fancy outfits and the young women and girls put theirs on for the first time (they had been cooking and eating all day, and didn’t want to stain the new clothes). And then the photo-shoot began. It took a while to get my family rounded up for a photo, which was taken by Papa, who worked as a photographer in Kaolack when he was young. I also took a family photo for Papa, and another family in my compound. Lots of kids asked for photos, and women with their babies, and I was taking photos until it was dark and I was using the flash.
The first day of Tabaski is the most important, but the eating and merry-making continue for two more days. Figuring I wouldn’t get work done anyway, I got up early on the second day and rode my bike to visit my friend Joey, who lives near Sokone, about 50km away in the area of the mangrove delta. I left around 7:00. The first part of the ride was through back roads and quiet villages where people were just waking up and women were going to pull water in the early morning chill. After an hour and a half I hit Passy, a road town along the highway, where I stopped for breakfast. I pulled my bike up to a boutique painted with murals of Baba Maal, the famous Pulaar singer (check out an album called In Search of the Lost Riddim, by him and Ernest Ranglin – I recommend it), where I bought and ate bread and butter. While I was sitting there a bunch of well-dressed young boys came in and bought fire crackers and began setting them off outside. I got back on my bike and continued on the dusty highway towards Sokone.
Nearing Sokone, the scenery became greener as I grew closer to the water and wells became shallower. The highway entered groves of cashew trees, and passed by an old abandoned cashew processing plant on the outskirts of Sokone. (Cashews have a hard shell from which the nut must be delicately extracted. I’ve heard that today, many of Senegal’s cashews are shipped to India for processing. The cashew tree is native to a small area in South America, but today the majority of production is in India, Central Asia, and Africa.)
An hour and a half after Passy I reached Sokone. Sokone is one of the biggest towns in the delta area, but it has a sleepy feel, especially on the morning after Tabaski. It is bordered by water on two sides, an although many of the mangroves in the area have been cut down for their rot-resistant wood and alternative land use, some mangrove reforestation efforts are underway and some of the mudflats outside of town are dotted with rows of mangrove seedlings. The town of Sokone itself has some nice big mahoganies and a lot of mangos and other trees, as well as a few campements, although not nearly as many as the tourist town Toubacouta, 20km further down the highway towards Banjul. Pigs – always a sign of Catholic presence – wander the unpaved avenues that lead into quiet neighborhoods set back from the highway.
I met up with Joey and a Sokone volunteer, Jamie, and that afternoon we set out for a nearby campement that was purported to have the coldest beer in Senegal. The campement is across the water from town and although we heard there was a bridge, we found it wasn’t finished. We rode as far as we could and locked our bikes together and waded across to the campement, where we found the refreshments to indeed be brain-numbingly cold. The hotel is located on a rise, and we could see Sokone across the water. On the edge of town was visible a large air-conditioned house with solar panel on the roof, which is rumored to belong to either an American or a Brazilian woman. There are a few French people who live in Sokone, including some volunteers associated with the church, an old man who roams the streets on an ATV, and a philanthropist couple who were the only other guests at the hotel that day. They spend several months of each year in Sokone, and built a school in a nearby village. They went to Joey’s village once, took pictures, and when they came back they had printed them out, decorated and laminated them as gifts. I would have liked to talk to them, but none of us three speak French.
We went down to the water, in a reforested section, for a swim. As we walked across the beach crabs skittered back into their holes. Mangroves are really beautiful. There is something special about the combination of forest and ocean. You can easily get lost in the maze of waterways.
When we were ready to leave we realized that we had lost the keys swimming, and since the bikes’ back tires were locked together we half-carried, half pushed them back to Sokone. We left them at another campement on the edge of town, whose owner has a family connection to Peace Corps in Dakar and knows a lot of volunteers. It was getting dark, and we decided to crash at Jamie’s in Sokone rather than walk the 5km to Joey’s village by moonlight. We bought some onions and potatoes at a shop as sarice.
Jamie has a very large host family that lives in tight quarters, although they have money. We sat on plastic chairs outside and ate dinner, mutton left over from the day before. I avoided the meat in favor of the cous-cous, and when Jamie’s father saw and was concerned I awkwardly tried to explain in language appropriate for people who are eating that the Tabaski ram gave me diarrhea.
“Eh! Xaar bek na la!” He said (the ram butted you in the stomach!) I later found this explanation garnered a lot of laughs in Joey’s village.
After dinner we watched the news on TV outdoors, and there was a story on the latest Peace Corps group to swear in. It was funny watching ourselves on TV, we looked so professional. RTS sends a TV crew to every swear-in; showing toubabs dressed up in boubous and complets and speaking local languages with funny accents must up the viewership.
The next morning we left early to find a metal worker who could cut our lock for us, but only one was open, it being Tabaski, and he wouldn’t do it for a reasonable price. Instead we bought our own hacksaw at a hardware store, cut the bikes free ourselves, and rode to Joey’s village.
In the afternoon we went to Joey’s master farm and grafted a couple Zizyphus there and for another farmer in a nearby field. Neither of us had grafted Zizyphus before but we’d had some success grafting mangos last time so we gave it a shot.
At night we ate more ram and cous-cous for dinner, and sat out under the moon with Joey’s family and talked. Joey’s dad, who is a lean old man with no teeth, filled his tobacco pipe and smoked and ground up kola nut using a home-made grater to suck on, since he can’t chew. He speaks fast and it’s hard to understand him, but Joey’s gotten good at it. His name is Poot Diop, and as a Diop he is entitled to tease me, an Njay. He does so with more relish than any other Diop I have met. When am I going to change my name to Diop, he always asks me, since it is so much better? Njay’s eat a lot, he says. When I tell him the ram hit me and I can’t eat any more meat, he says Njays are not strong, that’s why.
Poot and his wife don’t have any children of their own, but he has two adopted children (or three, if you include Joey). He can be hard on his adopted son, who is a goofy, chubby teenager, but can also be very kind. Joey told me that after his brother worked hard harvesting cashews for months, Poot went to Kaolack with 40,000 CFA in his picket to buy him a bike as a present. It is not every day that a Senegalese kid gets a 40,000 CFA present. He came back and the bike was super cool-looking, with a headlight powered by energy from the wheel. But it started to break right away, and turned out to be a piece of crap. Poot yelled at his son that he was breaking it because he didn’t know how to ride it right, but Joey says that really he blamed himself for being suckered on the deal.
We sat out under the stars and Poot got to telling us riddles, and we shared a few. After a while it was chilly and I was tired and I went to bed.
Later I was talking with Joey about life in Peace Corps, and we both agreed that we’d like to do more adventuring, break out of routines we’ve fallen into. There are supposed to be some beautiful areas in the south, and I still hope to go there. But traveling in Senegal is difficult because roads are bad and it takes a long time to get anywhere. And after being here for over a year, you’re suddenly back to square one in terms of community integration. No one knows you, you’re offered toubab prices and spoken to in French. But it’s not necessary to travel to have adventures – there is a lot to explore locally, characters to meet and beautiful spots to find. I hope to do more of this in the year I have left.
Papa and me.