The day of reckoning has come and gone, and now that I'm on the other side of it, I find myself not really knowing what to say. Was it good? Was it bad? Call me a fence-sitter, but I'm going with both--allow me to elaborate. The day before Tabaski was pretty much like any other Sunday, with a few exceptions. Dogo and I got home at 5 that morning from going out the night before*, said hi to my Yaay as she got up to pray, went to bed, slept till 11, were fed breakfast, I took a nap, I washed my underwear, by hand, mind you--but then, when I went to go hang it on the line outside, I found Dogo washing a mouton, who looked altogether bewildered by what was happening. Dogo looked over at me and shrugged. "The last bath, huh?" I shrugged back. Can't argue with that.
Later that night I was sitting with my Yaay watching the mouton out in front of the house--I was watching the way the light was flickering across the back of one little one. He and another baby were happy and hopping around, but his hair was jet black so it reflected differently than it did on the others. Most of them are white--but he was all black except for a spot on his nose. Yaay was talking to me about the next morning, how at 9 they were going to pray, and then the Iman was going to kill his mouton, and then we could kill ours. "How many?" I ask. "Four!" she says. "It's a good year!" A good year indeed.
Later that evening, I was in the kitchen helping her make dinner--something that involved an elaborate explanation on how to properly make french fries** ("Lala! Look, look! You have to double dip them, so they get crispy!"), when the mouton outside start raising hell. They were baa-ing and baa-ing like nobody's business, way more than normal, and that's really saying something. Yaay looks at me with her eyebrows raised. "They're crying about tomorrow," she says. I ask her, "How do they know?" She shakes her head. "They know."
She's right--come tomorrow morning, every mouton in Senegal was quaking on their spindley little legs. I got up early so as not to miss anything--but I didn't need to. I was caught up only in a whirlwind of cleaning that lasted until about 9:30 or 10:00. Then, and I don't know how they knew or who gave a special signal or what happened, but everyone simaltaneously started filtering outside. There was a pit dug in the sand just past our gate where they brought the first mouton to--they keep his legs caught together and his head stretched out, his neck just over the pit. It takes three men to hold him down, even though he's not fighting too much. Dogo has a huge knife, almost sword-like, and he measures where to cut. The rest of us--my Yaay, Faatu, Mamie, Mareme and I--stand behind them. It's not a celebration, but I don't know if somber is the right word either. The air is charged with waiting. The first one goes quickly, but his blood is too red in the pit and it hurts my eyes to look at it. It's too bright. I don't watch all of it but they do, and sometimes Yaay reaches out for my arm and says, "It's not pretty, it's not pretty." No, I think, dying never is. The next two struggle and I have to look away--I look instead at the road past the mouton yard. The breeze is ruffling the leaves in the tree. A car drives by. A dog is curled up against the curb. The sun is making shadows move against the ground. The whistling noise that's coming from the mouton's cut throats and the click of their hooves against the cement as they kick away their last moments in life are suddenly very far away. I listen to the birds--they don't know not to chirp today, so they chirp away. Mareme leans against my legs. I pick her up, and even though it's hot her weight is oddly comforting. For one of the first times in my life, I feel old.
It doesn't take them long to get through all of them--four in total. As soon as they finish outside, they bring the carcasses into the house and in about 30 seconds flat the courtyard has turned into a full on butcher shop. I go back outside with my Yaay, who is washing the blood off the concrete just outside the gate. I think of A Tale of Two Cities and blood running in the streets, and I think I understand. Bucket after bucket is sloshed out and scrubbed down. I t's surprisingly efficient and soon no trace remains other than the pit of blood, slowly congealing in the sun. By the end of the day it will be a purpley-black, and they'll scoop it out in one hunk with a shovel. It was a little too much like jell-o for comfort. While I'm leaning against the gate, trying to avoid having to watch the moutons being skinned inside, another family comes outside their gate and starts sacrificing their mouton. I look away, and inadvertently right at another mouton: this one is already gone, skinned, and being strung up to be quartered. Oh come on, I think. So I go back inside--if I'm going to watch mouton being butchered, I might as well watch my own. As soon as I turn back into the gate, Faatu, my older, intimidating sister catches me. "Lala," she says, and she starts again in broken English, which is what they do sometimes when they really want me to understand something. "You see that if we don't have the mouton, we don't have people. It's a sacrifice and we are thanking them." I understand--I've been fortunate enough to grow up knowing that all life comes at the expense of other life. I think of my Dad at home, saying a prayer for every successful hunt and for every animal we are able to eat. It makes sense to me, so I send a prayer of thanks up to my God--maybe he'll translate for Allah, let him know Lala says jerejeff.
Once the mouton are skinned, I find myself recognizing a familiar smell--but one that I associate with cold garages in the winter, with white butcher paper and sharpie-d dates on masking tape in my Dad's totally illegible handwriting. Now we are quartering, but they don't cut it into anything I know, no backstraps or flanksteak. All I know is there are four men with knives flying, and three huge plastic tubs that are filling up with piece after piece of raw meat and bones. Then in a weird turn of events, I find myself elbow deep in mouton liver, peeling off a thin layer of perititanium from the spongy meat, cutting off strings of fat like I was born to do it. Tabaski is truly a family affair--what's the saying? The family that butchers together, stays together? Something like that.
We end up barbecuing over an open flame all afternoon--I'm put in charge of barbecuing the liver with Mareme. Sometimes, in life, you find yourself asking, "What should barbecued liver look like?" And sometimes, in life, there's a language barrier, so you end up asking, "What color when it's at the end?" And sometimes the response is, "Brown." And you have to look at your four enormous mouton liver, roasting merrily over a fire, and think, well, it already is brown. It started brown. So I can't really go wrong, right?
Regardless of how terrible of a barbecuer of liver I am, it turned out delicious. I've never snacked on so much liver in my life--not that I make a habit of it at home, although I might start. Faatu does the ribs next, I'm happy as a pig in mud, knawing on a mouton bone like it's my last. They all laugh. "Lala! 30 minutes ago you were scared! Now you're happy!" It's all fun and games until one of the men walks back in with three skinned mouton heads, eyes and horns left intact, and drops them into the tub next to my chair. Well, at least I know it's fresh.
The atmosphere was actually very reminiscient of an outdoor family picnic during the summer, except there's also a lot of raw meat being cut and around, but pretty soon I get used to that. I'm feeling good until my host mom sends me out with a plate of food for the Lebanese couple who run the grocery down the street--I have to walk through the now empty mouton yard, and I get the eerie feeling that I'm walking through a graveyard.
The next four times she sends me out I just feel hot. Charity is an important part of Tabaski though--throughout the day, kids come into the courtyard with plastic bags and Yaay would grab a handful of raw meat and put it in, saying Diweniti, baal ma aq.
After another intense round of cleaning, in which the floor and walls are scrubbed down multiple times, we nap to take off the edge of the mouton feast. Then I am dressed in my Tabaski finest, eliciting oohs and aaahs from my family and a hiss from every Senegalese male in a 3-mile radius, and we go to visit family and friends. I'm sent off to visit Merrill***, who lives not far away through the maze of alleys between the houses. We meet up with our friend Rachel, and then we visit our Senegalese friends--Tafa is at his house and we say hi to his whole family, then we walk to Bachir's and say hi to him and Barra, then it's back to my house to get Dogo and so everyone can say hi to Yaay.
The day ends on a hysterical note--Rachel, Merrill and I are sitting in the living room of my house when all hell breaks loose. A baby mouton comes barrelling through the house, bleating like mad and hopping around like crazy until he finally gets himself wedged between a chair and a mirror while we're doubled over in laughter, not even making an effort to help. It was the perfect end to a rollercoaster of a day. You'll have to excuse my cliche, but it's true.
*Don't judge me. They don't start going until 2 or 3, so 5 is really actually pretty reasonable to come home. But you know you're in a Muslim country when the call to prayer coming from the Mosques is when you know you should go home. **Everyone, and I mean everyone, eats french fries here--some families eat them every night for dinner. Huge deal. Probably could count as a food group. Also, if I may borrow a line from Alanis--isn't it ironic? I learn how to make french fries in Africa. Will wonders never cease. ***I've yet to meet a Senegalese person who can say my friend Merrill's name. It's endlessly entertaining to hear them try, although my host mom has at this point given up and now refers to her as "your big friend" because she's somewhat tall. Sometimes she throws in "your big RED friend" when she has a sunburn. This is also endlessly entertaining.