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Ode: Holiday fare in Niger

Jim Schaap
Ally Karsyn
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On an ordinary day in rural Niger, sheep are everywhere.

Fences, pens, corrals? Nah. Yours, mine, and ours mix on streets where they stay alive on whatever they can turn over. How people determine whose is whose is a mystery, but owners know, I'm told. 

Sometime ago some folks in Sioux Center raised a big stink when others wanted to raise chickens in their backyards. In rural Niger, there are no back yards; for thousands, probably millions of chickens, everywhere is their backyard.  

 

Sheep too. Donkeys. Even cattle, although fewer cattle roam dusty village streets. Sheep are everywhere.

I wish I didn’t have to say this, but to me, the word Tabaski sounded more like a seasoning than a holiday weekend. But Tabaski, Festival of the Sacrifice, is an age-old Muslim gala of biblical proportions—sometimes called “The Great Feast,” one of the biggest celebrations on the Muslim calendar.

A couple years ago, Tabaski happened to fall on a day I was in rural Niger, a Sunday when everyone celebrated. Markets closed. Horses raised dust on village streets, their riders bedecked in traditional finery.

The fact is, I’d never heard the word Tabaski before. But what did I know about Islam? Only what I’d read, only what I’d heard, only what’s current after the latest terrorist attack. I was retired but still a child, and that day one of only two white men in the village. I’m an Iowan, a Siouxlander of Dutch-American parentage and not young. To say I felt anything near to being at home would be a stretch. I wasn’t afraid, but I was most certainly an alien.

The massive street fest that is Tabaski celebrates a biblical story probably too scary for Sunday School: God commanding Father Abraham to sacrifice his son on a burning altar. Then, at the very last minute, God jams the operation in reverse and points out some poor ram in a thicket to become the sacrifice. Muslims and Christians know the story. Only Muslims celebrate. I had to learn.

Sheep are everywhere anyway in rural Niger, but on the day before Tabaski, they are legion. In town and village across the land, men make deals for holiday fare the way Siouxland shoppers clean and jerk 15-pound turkeys from Hy-Vee.

For Tabaski, all the attention goes to that poor animal blessedly tangled in the thicket. Heads of families buy sheep because everyone celebrates. Everyone eats.

On their way to the celebration, I saw sheep sit athwart mopeds, poor thing held in place by the crotch of the driver. Holiday sheep adorned the upper decks of semis, each held in place by shoppers bringing home the mutton. 

Sunday morning began with prayers. Just after, at a time the whole village honored, each of those poor sheep met his or her appointed end in a massive murderous moment, wooly throats ritually and publicly cut. Not pretty, a butcher shop outside every front door. Rivers of blood soaked into dirt roads.

Once heads and hooves got tossed aside, skinned-out bodies were impaled on wooden cross staves and made ready for the flames, homebrewed barbeque sauce painted on with homemade whisk brooms. I tried to keep a low profile because I’d never seen anything like it. Six or eight drawn-and-quartered sheep leaning into a roaring fire so big you’d need a cane pole to roast a marshmallow.

For a while we just took a neighborhood stroll, two North Americans and a pair of African doctors, our hosts. Tabaski is a family thing—think Thanksgiving, without the cranberries, and outdoors—just about everything in Niger is outdoors. Tradition has it that a third of that ram or sheep is for family, a third for friends and the remaining third for the poor. To my Dutch-reformed, righteous ears, that sounded more Christ-like than Christian.

A kid comes out with a paper plateful of something or other. Hadn’t a clue what was being offered. “Don’t ask,” one of the doctor whispers and shovels it in. It’s some kind of hard fried meat morsel, spicy and crisp and dipped in a hot sauce—wonderfully spicy, I thought. As hors’ d'oeuvres, we could have done much worse. The little crispies were sheep liver cut into peanut-sized bites and deep-fried by the women inside the house. The men, by tradition, were outside doing the roasting. I learned there’s a ritual to the Festival of Sacrifice.

The main course, roasting away, was still a couple hours from medium-well, so the four of us walked through town and ended up at the gated palace of the Prefect, a politician who, just for us, quoted JFK’s “Ask not you country can do for you” speech as reference to his own grand commitment to service. His power and authority was greatly buttressed by big men in camouflage outside his door, AK-47s hanging from their shoulders as they sat in their jeeps. Secret service, I guess. I didn’t know whether to be scared or at ease.

No matter. At the Prefect’s we were honored guests because the village didn’t often see Americans, guests of the doctors. For one holiday afternoon, we were celebrities. Things were very serious, high-toned, instead of doors, thick curtains, theater-like, and high ceilings to trap the heat. Just outside was equatorial Africa.

We sit, as does the Prefect—and his wife, because we are in the presence of power. “Will we eat with me?” he asks. The room is surrounded. It’s not that we have a choice. We say yes. He offers no menus.

The entrée is delivered by a bald giant with massive shoulders so perfectly proportioned you might think of him being groomed for the Packers. He offers and I take a plate. Wouldn’t think of saying no. He nods, then returns—first the yams, largely tasteless and generally consumed simply for the carbohydrates, and then the main course, mutton, all of it in a rich sauce I lack the vocabulary to describe, spicy and strong enough to cover any unpleasantries. In the Prefect’s palace, nothing is difficult to get down, even though some things, for me, are difficult to swallow.

Things are formal, but slowly as we eat, as we share a table, the pomp and circumstance wears. If I don’t remember the tastes exactly, I apologize. I just remember eating. Everything. And it wasn’t bad.

I sat at an appointed place at the end of a long couch, the Prefect’s wife on my left, the Prefect himself on her left. On command, that giant who served us produced a little point-and-shoot camera because a photo of all of this was requested, or so the Prefect maintained. Thus, the three of us posed. I leaned in and threw an arm around the Prefect’s wife’s shoulders, as I might have done here, giving no thought to Niger’s customs.

Now, three years later, when I look at that photo, all I see is a big, bald white guy, a Moby Dick whale out of water. I can’t help but think the Prefect and his missus must have never forgotten those Americans who came by on the Festival of Sacrifice, especially that heavy who got a little too close to the Prefect’s wife on the Prefect’s sofa in the Prefect’s palace.

Whether or not I ever offended anyone that day I suppose I’ll never know. But I can hope for grace. After all, Tabaski is a religious holiday—all about sacrifice. For a moment at least, with our ritual meal behind us, the people in that high-ceilinged room were odd but smiling friends, brothers who had broken bread together, Muslim and Christian, African and American, black and white.

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Ode is a storytelling series where community members tell true stories on stage to promote positive impact through empathy. It’s produced by Siouxland Public Media.

We’re hosting Ode’s 2nd Anniversary Show on Friday, February 2 at ISU Design West in downtown Sioux City. We’ll have live music by Shawn Blomberg, starting at 7 p.m., followed by stories about “Risk.”

Tickets are $10 in advance; $15 day of show.

Dr. Jim Schaap doesn’t know what on earth happens to his time these days, even though he should have plenty of it, retired as he is (from teaching literature and writing at Dordt College, Sioux Center, IA). If he’s not at a keyboard, most mornings he’s out on Siouxland’s country roads, running down stories that make him smile or leave him in awe. He is the author of several novels and a host of short stories and essays. His most recent publications include Up the Hill: Folk Tales from the Grave (stories), and Reading Mother Teresa (meditations). He lives with his wife Barbara in Alton, Iowa.
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