I recently spent three weeks in Senegal, the land of terenga or hospitality in Wolof, the lingua franca of that country. Senegal is a 90 to 95 percent Muslim country with a secular government with very prominent women, including the ambassador to the U.S.
The country celebrated its 50th anniversary of independence and democracy this year. It plays a lead role in international associations of Muslim nations. The Christian minority holds prominent places in society and the first president was a Christian. In some areas, even cemeteries are shared.
Islam in Senegal has an African flavor and ownership through indigenous Brotherhoods (two large and one small). Although the religion entered the country in the 11th century, it became solidly rooted after the Wolof kingdoms were conquered by the French and was central to preserving a Senegalese identity.
Senegal has not had the disruptions that so many other African countries underwent – it has never had a coup. Many think it is because of the Islamic schools that almost all young children attend, which are similar to Christian Sunday schools, but more intense. The schools teach that Islam is a religion of peace.
The language reflects this. Jamm nga am is the equivalent of “how are you” but literally it means “do you have peace” and the response is jamn rekk, “peace only.” Goodbye is jamn jamn, peace and peace.
On Friday afternoons, business shuts down for about three hours for people to go to the mosque for worship and everyone, even those who wear Western suits the rest of the week, wear traditional clothes, Christians as well as Muslims.
Their most festive religious holiday is Tabaski — in Arabic, Eid ul-Adha – celebrating God’s intercession with Abraham providing a sheep to replace his son as a sacrifice. This is often considered similar to Christmas in its celebration. Every man who can afford it, must have a sheep to slaughter that day for his family and, in the weeks leading up to Tabaski, the city fills up with sheep as herders or middle men who buy from them, take over virtually every spare piece of land.
I recall seeing a man herd about 20 sheep up a stairway on a pedestrian overpass across the highway and down on the other side. People buy new clothes and gifts and the markets are full of goods.
On the day of Tabaski, there is a religious service with prayer and sermon. As the crowds are large, many services are held outside. The colorful traditional BouBous worn – many new for the occasion – make for a spectacular sight. In this aspect, it reminds one of the Easter finery seen in Christian churches.
The iman – or prayer leader – at the worship Senegal’s President Abdoulaye Wade Wade attended this year called for rejecting the frantic search for money and called for a focus on spiritual concerns. The sheep is slaughtered by a leading male in the household with the woman often being the ones to hold the sheep down for its throat to be cut.
The women butcher and cook the meat. Nothing is wasted. There is extended family visiting and a choice piece of meat, such as part of the liver, is given to guests. A rule of thumb is one-third of the sheep is for family, one-third for friends and more distant relatives and one-third for the poor.
A visit to Senegal would challenge the stereotypic views of Islam so commonly expressed in the U.S.