Senegal | Tabaski


The eve of Tabaski, everything is quiet, except the five or so sheep atop our roof! Most have traveled to the suburbs of Dakar, or beyond, to join their loved ones for the holiday, but others, like my family, stay in their neighborhoods.  

What is Tabaski 

The Senegalese equivalent of Eid, la fête de Tabaski commemorates Abraham’s devotion to God in his willingness to sacrifice his son Ismael.  Upon seeing that he would indeed make this sacrifice, God excused Abraham from carrying through and instead, had him sacrifice a sheep. Therefore, as my host sister Aida explained to me, each boy must sacrifice a sheep annually to celebrate Abrahams devotion to God.  

Weeks leading up to the day of Tabaski, walk the streets of Dakar to find every open plot of ground packed with sheep under tarp shelters, their hooves pegged to rocks and wooden stakes, vendors keeping watch day and night. It was for that reason that I didn’t get to know my host brother Gorgui until after Tabaski commenced. I would catch him coming home for dinner, then leaving again to spend the night shift watching over the sheep to be sold the next day.  

Wednesday morning, the day of Tabaski, I woke up, restless in anticipation because precisely between the hours of 9:00 and 10:00am, the streets would be scattered with the blood of sheep, one or more per family, depending on how many men.  After much thought, I decided I wanted to watch the sheep ritual take place.  

The women had been preparing food since the minute I awoke. Standing on our little porch, my eyes surveying the sandy street, I watched the men returning from prayer, mats rolled up under their arms. After disappearing into their houses clothed in beautiful silk robes, they emerged in common clothing to dig deep holes in front of each doorstep.  

When my brothers brought our sheep, several friends appeared to help out.  Jumping aside as my brother Gorgui dragged a struggling sheep that had been living on our roof, past me and out the door, I watched as they laid it on the ground, neck over the hole.  Along our street, groups of boys and men did the same. After gently cutting the sheep’s throat, they directed the blood into the hole, and when it was dry, carried the dead sheep inside to butcher it.  

Aida, Mama Thiam, and Sigé had begun food prep early that morning, and the guys pitched in by butchering the sheep, and literally using every last piece. I chopped veggies and tried to take in all that was going on around me. Relatives and neighbors stopping by, kids playing, music blasting, the flow of people and greetings never seemed to cease. It is custom for each visitor to greet everyone in the house, I’m not going to lie, it got pretty overwhelming, but what a great way to get to know the extended family and neighbors, Oh! And break out of my shell as they made me dance to Senegalese music all day long!  

Having finished chopping up the mutton, the men handed it off the the women to BBQ alongside frying potato wedges, spices ground with stone, onion sauce in the making, and proceeded to sit down, smoke, make tea, and talk, comme toujours! In Senegal, the women do almost all the housework, though considered a guest, I was expected to sit with the boys and men, chatting and making tea.   

After a morning full of preparation, lunch was served.  My sister placed the big round bowl on a cloth in the common area and relatives flocked around the neatly placed BBQ mutton and homemade potato wedges topped with a spicy onion sauce. It is custom to use your right hand as you tear chunks of mutton from the bone and to use a friend to get more leverage of the meat is too tough. I don’t recall ever having eaten meat so fresh.  The bone on which I was gnawing had belonged to the sheep I had watched my brothers drag down from the roof that morning, and now, several hours later, I was eating it with spicy onion sauce.  

A now well fed extended family sat back, “sourna” – full/unable to eat more, but my sisters didn’t rest. Qu’est-ce que tu fait? I demanded, watching Mama and Aida chop and fry more potatoes and refill the BBQ with more cuts of mutton. Turns out it was time to prepare the next meal, the one we were to have in less than 3 hours. I don’t know how many extended relatives and friends stopped by that day, but there was an entirely new group present for the late afternoon meal.  I was happy to catch guests snacking on my California pistachios throughout the day.  

A little more relaxing and greeting family, and it was time for dinner! One thing I love about the way we eat here is the mentality that everyone takes care of everyone around the meal bowl.  People will take it in turns to break up the meat with their hands, distributing bite size chunks to each person’s corner of the round bowl to ensure they “mange bien!”. Nek naa torop – everything is delicious! The many meals and gathering of family reminded me of my US family’s celebration of Thanksgiving, a holiday on which other day is spent enjoying each other’s company and cooking food.  Tabaski, however, or just Senegalese eating habits in general, don’t permit you to over-stuff yourself because you’re eating out of one bowl and must leave some for others.  

A day full of festivities and it was time to sortir. The night of Tebaski, people generally dress up and walk the neighborhood visiting friends and loved ones.  It is tradition for children to dress in their best and parade around the neighborhood asking for treats.

Later in the night, my sisters Aida and Mama Tiam loaned me a beautiful orange and blue blouse and skirt and we got ready to “sortir”. Taking a bit of time to prep, I rushed to be ready on time. Turns out there was no need to worry, my sisters took another half hour to hour doing their make up and deciding what to wear. This was one of my first exposures to the reality that everything here is pushed back an hour or more from schedule. 

Two of Aida’s friends picked us up along with our friend Binta and we drove across town, my sisters taking selfies the entire way.  Arriving at Djob’s house (my sisters friend), I thought we were stopping in for last minute items before “la fête”, but this empty house was “la fête”! All six of us lounged in the living room.  I drank juice as my sisters spent an hour posing for photos in their Tabaski best. A cute room backset with Senegalese and Nigerian music and chatting with my sisters friends, I was content. After being there for several hours, we got back in Djob’s car and drove home. I definitely got an age specific perspective of Tabaski night for had I been with my mom, we would have walked around the neighborhood, stopping to see her relatives. Anticlimactic though it was, I enjoyed our little “sortir” that helped me get to know my sisters.   

Somewhat analogous to Thanksgiving, Tabaski was the perfect holiday to have during my first week in Dakar.  I met the extended family throughout the day, spent hours chatting with my brother and his friends around Ataya (tea tradition), witnessed the ritual Tabaski ceremony, and experienced a wonderful introduction of Senegalese culture through their practice of this major holiday.  

Senegal | Bienvenue a Dakar!


Transition, Travels, Neighborhood, and Family

Hello to all and welcome to my “Official Blog!”  Dakar!?  I can hardly believe I am here..

As I begin my third week living and studying in Dakar, it truly feels like I belong here.  But let me get you caught up on my travels to Senegal, my living situation, and my neighborhood! When I emailed my flight plan to my local advisor she responded, “Ohhhh Eliza!  My prayers are with you!” But my flight path to Dakar was a kick start to a wonderful semester.  After saying goodbye to my family in SFO, Itook WOW Airlines to Iceland, where I transferred and arrived in Denmark at ~5 pm.  Practically jumping off the plane and boarding the city Metro, I began my 12 hour layover at the Copenhagen metro stop my friend Anna had suggested.

I decided to center my adventure around finding the famous Little Mermaid statue, and saw some lovely architecture and cute narrow cobblestone streets on the way.  After sleeping a few hours near my gate in the Copenhagen Int’l. airport, I boarded yet another flight… to Lisbon!

A few hours later, I began another 12 hour vacation in Portugal!  The red, yellow, and deep orange tiles pop out against the blue sky, and after wandering through oceanside Lisbon for several hours, I met up with Sammy, another student en route pour Dakar!I am eternally grateful I did, as we bonded immediately and have been each other’s “comfort zone” ever since. After some tasty food and drink in a cute alleyway, we hopped back on the Metro to catch our evening flight to Dakar!!

Dakar, Senegal’s capital, is situated on the westernmost point of Africa.  A former French Colony, Senegal’s national language is French, while Wolof is the language most prominently spoken in Dakar.

Touching down in Dakar after speaking French to the Senegalese man sitting next to me for five hours, I couldn’t have been more excited and at ease. Driving through Dakar that night, my head out the window, smiling cheeks enjoying the night air, my mind full of enthusiastic anticipation, I finally started to feel like this was all real.

My host mother, Jacqueline Gomez, greeted me at the Brioche Dorée, a bakery at the center of our neighborhood; Cite Assemble, Oakam, Dakar.  Her arms open wide, I immediately felt comfortable and at ease. Having worried that arriving at 2:30am would awake the family, I was surprised to find everyone still up; Aida and Maman Thiam, my 27 and 21 year-old sisters, my 24 and 14 year-old brothers, Gorgui and Sherif… everyone was up and awake except for Baby Couree, my mother’s 6 months old granddaughter who lives with the Thiam family while her mother studies in Washington DC.  I would soon learn that staying up until 2:30am is habitual for this family, and that “going out” for Senegalese youth means returning home at 5:00 or 6:00am! They care for me like I’m truly their sister & daughter, and I cannot imagine a better fit for me.

I learned more during my first full day in Dakar than perhaps any other so far, and I spent most of it in our house. I think everyone can relate to the feeling of waking up, having arrived somewhere new in the dark, and feeling completely surprised and renewed.  I woke up to Senegalese pop music blasting from the main room, under my blue mosquito net, and smiled as I greeted my new reality. I have a small room and my own bathroom in which there is a bed, chair, shelf for clothes, locking drawer, toilet, sink, and shower. The shower is cold, but honestly, I wouldn’t want anything else in this humidity. Emerging from my room, my mom took me on a brief house tour, showing me the boys’ room, girls’/her room, living room, hallway/hangout space (where we spend most of our time), 2 small outdoor courtyards for cooking, hanging out, and dishwashing, and the tiny kitchen.  The front room of our house, which opens to the street, is lined with colorful garments and serves as my mother’s tailor shop. Next, she took me to the roof where they keep 7 goats. I get to hear and smell them constantly throughout the day. The house is small and simple, but a perfect size for my family and the many visitors they host as they pass through daily. That leads me to discovering the atmosphere of “Teranga” here in Senegal.

Teranga refers to hospitality, an allusion to the warmth of the welcome.  It’s a Wolof word that comes from the word Teral, or the word Earth, signifying arrival. To this they hold true.  It took me a few days to figure out which of the guys sitting in my house was actually my older brother, because there are 5-8 friends & neighbors in our house at all times. In addition, it is unacceptable for someone to enter without individually greeting every person in the room… but aside from that, come and go as you please!  Hence, I was given a very warm welcome not only by my own family, but by the whole block.

Because it was my first day, my sister Aida made Thiéboudienne (chéh-bu-jen), the national dish of Senegal, which consists of red rice (made with tomatoes and vegetables), fish (traditionally “chof,” but not so available today due to overfishing), cassava root, carrots, eggplants, cabbage, and peppers.  This dish truly embodies the concept of “teranga.” It is served in a large, round bowl, rice on the bottom, fish, veggies, and sauce on top, around which everyone sits. One uses their right hand to pick the fish off the bone, break off a piece of vegetable, and/or scoop up the seasoned rice, squeeze it into a ball, and mange!! Having been a vegetarian for the past few years, I found myself struggling with the meat, but as everyone eats, people take it upon themselves to break off chunks of meat, sometimes tugging the chunk between two people with harder meats, and distributing it to each person’s portion of the bowl.  I decided to put my vegetarian diet on hold while in Senegal, and boy was that a good idea. Not only do they eat meat for just about every meal, but these dishes are to die for! They are hearty,saucy, spicy, and you just can not overeat because everyone is sharing from the same bowl. I’ve found it to be the perfect amount per meal, and although I sometimes crave more vegetables than I get, I couldn’t be more impressed with the cooking.

That evening, I accompanied my sisters to nearby boutiques (small corner shops where you can buy anything from cell phone credit to ice cream), and went on a brief neighborhood tour with the other 15 US students living in Oakam. Our neighborhood lies in north-western Dakar, bordering the Atlantic. It’s only a 15 minute walk from our area to the beach, which is truly a gift! Walking to the beach after a long, HOT, Dakar day and swimming in the Atlantic could not be more refreshing! There is a small restaurant at our local Mamelles Beach, and a beachfront perfect for swimming, football, or watching the sunset.

Aside from the beach, Oakam is famous for an enormous monument to the African Renaissance and a hilltop lighthouse.  La Monument de la Renaissance Africaineis a solid copper statue built in 2010 that commemorates the Rebirth of Africa and Senegalese independence.  It is 49m tall, and atop a hill of approximately 100m, therefore, climbing the stairs and taking an elevator to the top guarantees quite the panoramic view of the Dakar peninsula.

I can thoroughly say I am pleased with my neighborhood placement, fellow students, and family in Dakar.  There is a dirt soccer field next to my house, a nearby beach, incredible food, interesting and genuine people visiting 24/7, and Wally Seck and Maitre Gims playing in my house all the time.  Yes, it is hot, and Dakar is definitely an adjustment, but I am feeling positive and like I adjusted relatively fast. Quality time socializing is an enormous part of the lifestyle here, which gives me the opportunity not only to become close to my family and neighbors, but to practice French all the time! I am grateful for all my French teachers and classmates in the past who helped me build enough ability to successfully communicate my needs, and to engage in more than surface level conversation with Senegalese family and friends. French is the official language of Senegal, however, everyone in the capital and surrounding area speak both French and Wolof. Learning Wolof has been slow thus far, but I hope that through my class sessions and full immersion, my understanding will continue to grow.

I called my Dad on face-time the other day and found myself saying, “I was born to live in Senegal!” Obviously, Dakar is only one small peninsula and CIEE has provided me a very smooth start, but I thoroughly love it here.  With every day comes an adventure I never could have anticipated. I look forward to many excursions, my classes, and beginning my Internship at the Ministry of the Environment for the Senegalese Government!