Friday, December 18, 2009


Around the same time everyone in the US was munching on turkey, I was busy eating my way through every organ and muscle of a sheep. This so-called vegetarian failed miserably on the Muslim feast of Tabaski (Eid al-Adha). I’m certainly not a fan of mutton, but this holiday was some of the best few days I’ve had in Mali. I’m not even sure why I enjoyed it so much. The day before the big feast reminded me a bit of prom. There were a lot of girls crying on account of hair, clothing, and boy problems. Girls cried over their boyfriends who wouldn’t pay for their hair weaves, they threw fits of rage at tailors who hadn’t finished sewing their outfits (despite working through the nights leading up to the feast), they scolded those who shaved off too much of their eyebrows in order to draw them in again with black henna. The young women who had their affairs under control and were not in tears, were busy causing all the rest of the children to cry as they braided their hair. Every other household held a similar scene; a few women seated on a mat braiding fake, purple hair (it's all the rage) into the head of a girl of no more than 3 or 4 years old. I can't imagine what a horror this process is for a mere child. I know, I've had it done. Luckily, women were prepared with lollipops and words of encouragement (you’re going to look so pretty!) or distraction (hey, look at the white girl). My closest girl friend was one of those in tears on account of a stingy boyfriend. So I took her to get her eyebrows drawn in while I got a flowery henna tattoo with my name inscribed on my hand. As we walked around town, some things stuck out poignantly… the hundreds and hundreds of tethered sheep. The act of slaughtering a sheep is the key component of Tabaski, commemorating Abraham’s near sacrifice of Ishmael (as opposed to Isaac according to the Jewish and Christian tradition). Of course as Abraham raised his weapon above the bound body of his son, Allah/God intervened to can just sacrifice a ram instead. A good-sized sheep costs around $100, so one can imagine the expense for the average Malian household. Luckily, there’s some assistance from outside. For example, in my town, the ‘social development’ government office was in charge of distributing sheep to the poorest of families, sheep purchased, according to everyone I asked, by wealthy Muslim Saudis.

On the morning of Tabaski, many went to mosque, many more stayed at home. Marabous, or recognized Muslim holy men, then went around to most families to actually sacrifice the sheep. I took some pleasure in watching my Malian brothers skin our sheep, that is, once I’d gotten over its recently writhing body next to the dugout dirt hole slowly filling with its blood. The bulk of the work was then left to the women of course. We cut, cooked, stewed, grilled, and ate mutton all day long. In the late afternoon, everyone in my household was too exhausted to actually go around greeting people as should be done.

But, I'd had a ‘bazin’ African dress made for the occasion and decided it was a waste if I didn't put it on and go greet. Bazin is quite the phenomenon here. It's the best quality fabric, very shiny, and really all too expensive for what people have to spend. I can't say Malians prioritize the things I would considering their means (the importance of appearance often trumps matters of health and education). But, a bazin outfit is basically seen as a necessity in town for any ceremony. It's imported white from Hong-Kong or Germany, dyed here in Mali, soaked in starch, dried under the sun, then sold on the local market. After I had mine tailored, I took it to be pounded and beaten by hand for a couple hours in order to soften it up and reveal more of its gleam. And even, after this process, its terribly uncomfortable and very conspicuous…recall George Castanza’s swishing suit? I had that episode in mind as I walked around doing my Tabaski greetings. ( my favorite Malian artist in bazin.)

Also on the day, I attended a Somono festival my town holds each year. This is a kind of celebration of fishermen. My last name ‘Fofana’ puts me in the Somono family group, so I was really excited to watch the dances performed. Each race or family grouping has its own dance, and this was the first time I had seen my ancestral dance. Perhaps because I was the only foreigner clearly visible, I was honoured by having puppet performances presented before me. The final act displayed the Somono chief of the village tossing a net over an enormous fish puppet, which sent every child into leaps and every adult into song and dance. During the evening, I went dancing (for the first of 4 evenings in a row). I still find it so ‘Malian’ the way an explicitly religious holiday is turned into an extended party.

Woke up the following day, exhausted from dancing, with stomach cramps probably due to the meat shock to my system. I squatted along with my sisters and mom around the large breakfast bowl. My mother lifted the lid, to reveal not the usual millet porridge, but the entire sheep’s head immersed in its fats and juices. I’d actually eaten a sheep’s eyeball and tongue on Thanksgiving day just for kicks (well, I was hungry and it was the only thing on the menu). But, as my Malian mom cracked the skull open with a large wooden pestle and we picked at the brains, my stomach turned. Oh Tabaski...the sweat, the tears, the discomfort...I loved it.

While I was waiting for the Thanksgiving turkey to be prepared (above), I needed a little extra nourishment...thus the sheep head (below).

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