Yesterday in Senegal was Tabaski, Senegal’s biggest holiday. It is West Africa’s celebration of Eid-al-Adha, one of Islam’s two major holidays, which commemorates the story of Abraham.
It is hard to capture how big of a deal Tabaski is here, but I will try.
First, Tabaski is an important family time. The travelers are so numerous that in the days leading up to Tabaski. Senegal’s main two-lane highway becomes super congested because it connects Dakar, the capital, and Saint-Louis, the second-largest city. A common car trip out of Dakar that might normally take 3-4 hours might take 5-6 hours. Traffic-wise, it just is a difficult time of the year to drive. Driving on a day close to Tabaski is kind of like driving on a day close to Thanksgiving in the USA.
That said, on Tabaski itself the roads are all but empty, like the eye of a traffic hurricane.
Traveling by plane can also be challenging. Senegalese who live abroad often try to come home, if they can, and limited seats means that plane ticket prices tend to jump. To avoid higher prices and to spend more time with family, lots of travelers try to get back to Senegal weeks in advance. For example, I arrived in Senegal from New York City on August 1st, which was 3 weeks before Tabaski, and there were a lot of Tabaski travelers on my flight.
It is hard to imagine an American equivalent. Maybe an American expat in Senegal flying home for the holidays 3 weeks before Christmas?
Tabaski also happens to be a huge monetary spend for Senegalese families, probably usually the most expensive day of the year. Beyond the travel costs – a relatively minor expense – Tabaski is the day for which Senegalese are most likely to get new, colorful, terrific new clothes. And they are resplendent. They are everyone’s best outfits, and they are worn by everyone in the family at least from afternoon through evening.
(Side/cultural note: People also celebrate Tabaski in Guinea, which borders Senegal to the south and has a fair amount in common with Senegal. When I was a Peace Corps volunteer there, trainers told us that the quality of clothes you wear is a sign of respect for those around you. So even on normal days, people try to wear their best clothes and look the best they can if they are going out. On a holiday, especially Tabaski, clothes become yet more important. I get the feeling it is more or less the same here in Senegal.)
The most expensive Tabaski item is probably the sheep. Each family that can afford one buys a sheep before the holiday, then slaughters, cooks, and eats it on the holiday. In Senegal, note that a decent/good salary might be about 100,000 francs CFA per month, or about $200/month. In comparison, our tour guide in the Senegalese city of Saint-Louis told us that the most expensive sheep there may cost as much as 3 million francs CFA, or about $6,000.
To be sure, a $6,000 sheep will be the Rolls Royce of sheep. Very few people will be spending $6,000 on a sheep. Most sheep will cost way, way less. I do not know how much exactly – I might hazard a complete and total guess that you could buy a sheep for about 50,000 francs CFA, or about $100. But what I can say is that even a less-expensive sheep costs some significant amount of money, and a whole lot of people buy sheep for Tabaski.
A quick note on “why a sheep (or goat):” it goes back to the story of Abraham, where God tells him he can spare his son and Abraham sacrifices a lamb instead. The slaughter of the sheep on Tabaski here is a reenactment and reminder to be willing to sacrifice for God.
Our household purchased a sheep, and here is a photo of it. The photo shows nighttime because that is when the sheep arrived:
One more thing about Tabaski is that it is a tradition at some point during the day to visit your neighbors and apologize and ask forgiveness for the things that you have done, and to grant forgiveness if someone asks you. So, in addition to everything else about the holiday, Tabaski helps to build character and community in this organized, culturally accepted way.
(There must be more to this, but I am a newcomer, and that’s all I have on this for now.)
Separately, there is a tradition where kids walk around in their best clothes and greet the adults at various houses, after which the adults give them a small amount of money, like a single coin.
(There must be more to this, too.)