Senegal is a predominantly Islamic country, with 92% of the population practicing the religion. While you can find Christians (I even met a Jew once), there were not many in my little corner of the country. I lived in a rural village, where most had never gone to school and some, especially the women, had never even heard of Christianity. They knew that other religions existed because they thought of Islam as just Senegalese/African, but they did not know what the other religions were. It was an interesting experience for me, a non-religious person, to try to piece together the Bible stories I know in a second language. However, to my villagers I was an authority on Christianity, because I told them I practiced the religion (specifically, Catholicism, as there were some Catholic churches around. But even the more educated people in village did not often know that Protestantism existed and I was not invested enough in teaching about Western culture that I felt the need to explain the aftermath of the Reformation). I told them I was Catholic because in Senegal they are very tolerant of other beliefs, but only on the caveat that others believe something. Atheism is not acceptable, to the point that Peace Corps warned us that we might need to leave the country because of how poorly people might react to that information. So, I was a Catholic. Goooo Team Mary (Mariama, in Arabic).
This being an Islamic country, the village (and thus I) celebrated the religion's various holidays. The two main ones are called, in Arabic, Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. The former is the celebration at the end of Ramadan, to mark the end of fasting. The latter marks the devotion of Abraham (Ibrahima, in Arabic) to Allah, that he would be willing to sacrifice his only son for Him. Both holidays are celebrated in similar fashions (literally), with new, tailored outfits, meat in the dinner, and late-night celebrations.
Quick fun facts: Eid al-Fitr is commonly referred to a Korité in Senegal, while Eid al-Adha is called Tabaski. However, in Mandinka, the word for both is simply "Salo" (pronounced sah-low), which means "prayer".
Also, a quick word on Ramadan: meant to imitate the life of Mohammed, a healthy Muslim is to not eat or drink anything from sunrise to sunset during this month. There are exceptions - for example, children, older people, and pregnant women are exempt (though pregnant women are expected to make up for it once the baby is born). I tried and failed miserably to participate. My first year, I never tried to not drink water but I did my best to not eat. By day three, however, my host mother ordered that my fasting was over and I resumed eating lunch with my younger host siblings. My second year, I made it a grand total of one day without drinking water. I could not believe the terrible mood I was in by the end of the day, and I ended up drinking about three bottles of water just before the sun set. I decided that was good enough. As for food, I woke up whenever I woke up (usually around 8:30), made myself breakfast, and then did not eat again until everyone ate dinner at night, so I half-did the food bit. How on earth they manage to not drink water for a month straight in that heat, I do not know, but I will forever be in awe of that achievement and devotion. At least in Senegal though, the days are not that long - about 14 hours of daylight in comparison to the poor Muslims in Sweden who have to deal with northern summers of constant daylight. But at least they have jobs that take place in comfortable offices rather than physical labor in heat of upwards to 120 Fahrenheit/48 Celsius, so you can stop feeling too sorry for them.
For a woman, the preparation begins a day or two before the actual holiday. New braids (deebero, pronounced deb-air-oh) must be put in, and henna must be applied to hands and feet.
For braiding, a woman will typically sit on a short stool while another woman takes apart the old braids and then puts in new ones. New braids are done very tightly, and headaches are a common post-braiding phenomenon. Fire is also often used to ensure that braids stay in place. They take a lighter and literally burn the hair (and because the braids are skinny, they also burn the scalp), in order to set the braids. Yelps of pain are often heard during braiding but no woman complains otherwise because, ya know, beauty. Females are the same everywhere.
Braiding is not only done at holiday times, of course. Senegalese womens' hair is always braided. The one exception can be sampled in the top photo of this blog. Women sometimes buy fake hair and braid it into their real hair, in order to get long, flowing locks. This look was especially popular amongst the teenage/young 20s crowd. But in general, braids were the fashion du jour in the village. My hair, being about as far from African hair as possible, always looked horrendous in these styles - just look at that photo! - but my friends delighted in braiding me so I was usually rocking the plaits. This was not the only part of my appearance that I did not care for during these two years - I gained 20 pounds (9 kilos) because the diet was carb-heavy and the heat too high to exercise. I stopped shaving (as the photo below shows), and I never wore makeup. And I tell you what, it's the most free I have ever felt.
Next Salo step: henna. The photo to the right is a common look for Senegalese henna, lest you have images of intricate Indian henna swimming through your head. The dust they used for it was sold at the markets, as was the tape used to make designs. A few days before Salo, I would buy this and bring it to the women in my compound who would do the designs. The tape was cut into small pieces and would around in various designs. Some women get very artistic with their henna designs, though my villagers never got too adventurous with theirs.
Where the above photo goes awry is that the henna is supposed to be black, not orange. The discoloring occurred because we didn't leave the dust on long enough. In order to create the black, you mix the dust with water in order to make a paste. This paste is then spread over the taped areas, and then small plastic bags are wrapped around the hands and feet in order to protect them from dirt and whatever else. A couple of hours later, the bags come off, the paste is washed away, and you/re left with henna that stuck around for about ten days. I always liked having henna, but it was tricky to get it to work for me - I have really oily skin and thus the tape never stuck. I had multiple women throw frustrated tantrums over this.
Salo itself dawns to find the boys and men wearing their new outfits. Traditional Senegalese outfits are made from fabric purchased by the meter at the market (typically three meters for kids and four for adults, sometimes five for women in order for them to also have a head scarf made). The fabric is then dropped off at a tailor, who measures the person and makes the outfits. Holiday time, their "to do" piles were often so high that you couldn't see them working behind them. Tailors in cities tend to have books full of designs, and you just point to the one you want. The tailor in my village did not have one of these, but people just described to him what they liked and he got them done. Tailored-clothes are one of the things I miss most about living in Senegal. I am a woman after all, I enjoy clothes shopping and it is especially fun when those clothes are made specifically for you.
Why are only the men and boys dressed in their new clothes in the morning, you ask? Well, welcome to Senegal. It is a very patriarchal society. While the men enjoy the day, the women are busy preparing the biggest meal of the year. They are not able to get into their own new outfits until they are done working, either right before dinner is ready or after they are done eating. What will often happen is that mothers, once the main cooking is over, will hand over control of the smaller tasks to their daughters so that they can get changed and have fun while their pre-teens are sweating over the fires.
The food prepared is indeed the best meal of the year. If you ever have the chance to participate in an Eid feast in a richer country, take up the invitation. It's the equivalent of Christmas dinner but with different food. Unfortunately, my village's dinners were not on par with anything like that. But there was meat in the bowl (a communal bowl, eaten with right hands, is how the Senegalese eat), which was a rarity in the village, as meat is expensive. On Eid al-Adha, a sheep is always the chosen meat because it was the animal Abraham sacrifices once Allah told him to not kill Isaac. Typically it is a large ram that is sacrificed, to be cooked throughout the day and eaten for dinner See the above photos to see both how the rams are transported from one city to another, and also the last minutes of said ram's life. Also, notice the man had already eaten breakfast, as had his older son. Men eat before women.
In the photo to the left, the meat was being cooked over an open-air flame with onions and a whole lot of oil. Typically, food was cooked in a koba (coe-bah), or a cooking hut, but on Salo there were many makeshift fires all over the compound because the kobas were so busy. The oil is noteworthy because, if there is one ingredient the Senegalese love, it is palm oil. A woman would consider her cooking a shamble if the bowl was not a lake of oil at the end of a meal. I recently had a meal at a West African restaurant, and the food was so delicious that I promptly ate far too much, far too quickly. I forgot that perhaps eating so much oil might not agree with my stomach after so long away from this cuisine and promptly spent the rest of the night in a bit of pain. But it was worth every...er, issue that came my way!
Finally, it is the women's turn to get dressed. And let me tell you, it's worth the wait. The men look good, but the women look good. Their outfits are far more complex, with beading, fancy threading, and beautiful fabrics. They put on makeup, with heavy eyeshadow and lipstick. They also wear earrings that we would consider gaudy but look really beautiful on them.
These holidays are something of a debutant ball for the pre-teen/teen girls of the village. Not only do girls of this age everywhere want to impress, but they will all be married in the next few years. They want to make an impact on the boys and men of the village (or at least, the fathers of the boys, as marriages are arranged in the village).
As with all adolescents, sometimes this means some fashion mishaps. I personally liked the boldness of this girl's look, but after she had walked away all of the adults were rolling their eyes and smiling knowingly. At least her shoulders were on point.
People always stayed up late on Salo, talking, laughing, and gathering together for dance breaks and singing. The Senegalese never sleep anyways. I was always the first adult to go to bed, around 11, and the last up, around 8. Even kids don't go to sleep until after midnight. And on Salo, this late bedtime was extended to well past 1 or 2 in the morning. For them anyways. Like I said, I liked to get my sleep so I can comment no further on what activities were partaken.
The only downside I really have to say about Salo is that I was always very hungry: because the star of the day was dinner, we did not have lunch, nor was dinner ever ready before 10 pm. I, however, seemed to have an abnormal experience with this. Every other Peace Corps member was always fed throughout the day. I don't know why my village only ate at night on Salo, but considering that is the biggest complain I have against my hosts of two years, all is well.