Tobaski

Next week is Tobaski, the Islamic festival of Eid al-Adha when devout Muslims all over the globe commemorate the willingness of the prophet Ibrahim to sacrifice his son Ishmael in response to God’s command. The Islamic story is very similar to the Christian version as told in The Old Testament book of Genesis when God ordered Abraham as a test of faith to sacrifice his first born son Isaac. In both versions the devout father was willing to submit to God’s command, but just before the sacrifice was carried out an angel told him to stop, the child was spared and a ram caught in a nearby bush was sacrificed instead.

This is an important religious festival for the Muslims and preparations have been going on for some time. It appears that many Gambians will travel “up country” to celebrate with their family on the first day of the festival, which is predicted to be on Tuesday (15th), but this will only be confirmed the night before as the date depends on the lunar sightings which regulate the Islamic calendar. Everyone is expected to dress in their finest clothing for special Eid prayers and it seems customary for them to order new clothes for the occasion so the tailoring workshops have been busy for several weeks trying to complete their orders before Tobaski – a task which has not been helped by the frequent power cuts here in Bakau. The whirr of sewing machines can be heard at all hours when the electricity supply allows, and new outfits which have been ordered well in advance are now nearing completion and being anxiously tried for fit as the big day approaches.

After the ritual ablutions and Eidh prayers have taken place it appears that the party begins. Muslims who can afford it (and many who cannot!) will sacrifice a ram and as a result the Kombos is full of small flocks of sheep (all rams as apparently castrated lambs are not acceptable as a sacrifice) for sale at the roadside – the number increasing daily as more rams arrive by the lorry load, and as I travel home each night I see potential buyers assessing the quality and arguing over the price before leading their purchase away with a rope, or bundling it into the boot of a car or onto the roof of a van. (Amazingly the animals don’t seem to mind in the least so I guess they are used to being transported. I can’t imagine sheep in the UK behaving in such a docile fashion). I’m told that this year the supply is plentiful but that the price is high. It sounds as if a good meaty animal can cost as much as 15,000 dalasis although the lesser ones might be half that. As usual in such situations the dealers are being accused of profiteering, and they in turn are blaming the higher price on the current unfavourable exchange rate with the CFA – I’m told a lot of the livestock is brought in from Senegal. Whatever the reason, D15,000 is a huge amount from the average Gambian’s income representing about two months wage for a mid ranking civil servant. Nevertheless large numbers will be slaughtered and barbecued – a third of the meat is supposed to be given to the poor and needy, another third to friends and neighbours, and the final third kept for the family feast. If the cost of a ram is out of reach, it seems that it is acceptable to buy a cheaper alternative, but no-one likes to be thought unable to afford it so some take out loans to enable them to do so. This conspicuous consumption seems ridiculous to me, but is only comparable to the attitude seen in the UK at Christmas when some spend more than they can realistically afford just to demonstrate that they can, and spend the next few months paying for it. My Zimbabwean housemate suggested to an impecunious Gambian colleague that he should buy a ram on the second day of the festival as it was bound to be cheaper (like post Christmas turkey at home) but was told that would be no good “because then it would just be meat”!

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Rams by the side of a busy dual carriageway quite unperturbed by the Electricity/Water Board employees on their ride to work

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Checking the quality at Abuko – the main livestock market/slaughterhouse

As yet we haven’t been informed when our offices are closed – it will be announced on Monday, but I expect Tuesday and possibly Wednesday will officially be public holidays, and by the sound of things not much will be done on Thursday either, so as we don’t work on Fridays it will probably be a one day working week. On Tuesday (assuming that is the day confirmed as Tobaski) I have been invited to visit a friend’s family compound for the celebrations which apparently involve much feasting, but at least I now know about “salibo” so am prepared. This is the custom whereby at the festivals children go round the local area in their best clothes visiting the neighbouring compounds with polite greetings and expecting to be given small gifts. At Korite I knew nothing about salibo but watched as my host gave small coins to a constant stream of young visitors. Then the following day I was treated to the same spectacle at my own compound when our neighbouring children came knocking at the door. By the time the last children visited the cupboard was bare as we had no more change to give out and had exhausted our small stock of toffees from the fridge so I had to apologise and send them away empty handed. They probably thought I was just being mean, so this time I’m better prepared. I’ve been saving up my loose change and adding bags of sweets to my shopping basket over the last three or four weeks, and this morning I got a bag full of coins from the bank. Let’s hope its enough! Our maid was very grateful for a bonus in her pay packet this week, but a colleague of mine told me this morning that one of her office staff had made a point of telling her that a previous manager had bought them a ram. I gather that if she is expecting the same this year she will be disappointed.

So….another new African shirt will be aired for the occasion, and tomorrow I must go and buy another pair of smart trousers. There are a number of second hand clothes stalls by the roadside on Kairaba Avenue and I have a friend for life at one of them after buying a pair of trousers from him some time ago. The trousers were the same brand as some I have at home, clean and pressed and looked like new for the equivalent of about £6. I’ve been highly delighted with them but unfortunately caught the leg on a bit of jagged iron getting out of a van and made a small tear, so can’t possibly wear them for the festivities! My trader friend will be delighted as ever since I bought the previous pair he has made a point of greeting me whenever I walk past his stall – even if I’m on the opposite side of the road he never fails to spot me and shouts and waves across the traffic!

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