A Kingdom for a Sheep

For People in Senegal, sheep are roommates, a status symbol and political issue. An ode to the country’s most important creature

The sheep are everywhere. They populate house entrances and sidewalks, crowd the islands of traffic traffic circles, bleat from roofs. They leisurely cross the streets, with a self-confidence that in India only sacred cows would muster. You can find them where you would least expect them. Sometimes their bleating can be heard from behind the walls of the barracks.

Only once a year does it become eerily quiet. Then, shortly before midday, the bleating from thousands and thousands of sheep throats falls silent. In summer, at a time calculated according to the position of the moon, Senegal celebrates Tabaski, the Muslim festival of sacrifice, also known as Eid al-Adha in Arab countries and Bayram in Turkey. To celebrate the faith, each family slaughters a sacrificial animal on this day; in Senegal, it is a sheep.

But this is not supposed to be about death, but about life. Because in Senegal, the westernmost country on the African continent, raising sheep is a collective passion. The baker, the tailor, the mechanic, the miracle healer, the politician, they all share one passion: raising sheep. The sheep gives comfort and nourishment to its owners, it is a sacrificial, domestic and protective animal, it serves a hobby, as a bank account or as a status symbol. And sometimes it even makes politics. In most countries, the sheep populates pastures and farms. In Senegal, it has conquered the cities, especially the capital Dakar. Some even speak of the „secret life“ of this city. And those who follow it learn many things about the country.

There is Khulam Kane, whom they call the Sheep King of the Medina, a district with a particularly high density of sheep. Kane, 32 years old, could also pass for a Berlin hipster, full beard to wool cap at 30 degrees. Sheep are Kane’s profession. His kingdom is right on the Corniche, the street that winds along the cliff and that politicians and tourism entrepreneurs like to praise as Africa’s boulevard, which would be justified if it weren’t allowed to deteriorate a little in some corners. In any case, hidden behind a wooden fence, there is unexpectedly a little bucolic idyll. Sheep graze in front of a straw hut, turkeys peck up a few grains, men prepare green tea in the shade of a tree. Kane cuddles the necks of his animals, they lay their heads back with pleasure. He’s happy here in the barn, he says. „Because they are like us. You watch them grow up like little kids.“

There’s Rokhaya Gueye, 86, who keeps sheep and pelicans on Ngor Beach, two species that get along well together. „When the sheep are sleeping, the pelicans make themselves comfortable on their backs.“ Gueye has raised three children, countless grandchildren and many more sheep. She doesn’t sell her animals, she says, unless she needs money for an emergency. „They’re kind of a bank account for a rainy day.“ As she narrates, she chops up the cardboard she’s about to serve her animals mixed with peanut kraut. Many sheep farmers feed cardboard to their animals, so all kinds of cardboard are in hot demand. I was amazed to discover this when I moved to Senegal and the neighbors were scrambling for my empty moving boxes.

And finally, there’s Papa Demba Fall, a sociology professor, a choreophäe in the field of migration and a passionate sheep farmer. He has built his own multi-story house for his sheep and goats – he owns specimens from all over the region. He employs a domestic helper specifically for his animals. On the second floor of his sheep house he has set up an office, here he retreats to write his scientific studies. Thebleating, it is inspiration for him. Fall has written a study on urban sheep farming. Long before Islam arrived in Senegal, people kept sheep at home, says Papa Demba Fall. Preferably white ones. „The white sheep was a guardian animal that served a therapeutic and social function,“ Fall says. „They say what happens to the animal will happen to the family.“ It’s popular as a pet anyway, he adds, „because while neighbors are bothered by dogs barking, no one gets upset about gentle bleating.“

In a country that celebrates hospitality and twhere people traditionally opened its doors to all neighbors, a guard dog still disturbs many people. „When we got a guard dog, all our neighbors got upset“ says writer Mariama Ndoye. A sheep, on the other hand, doesn’t scare anyone away; it mows down visitors in a friendly manner.

But Dakar wouldn’t be Dakar, one of the proudest cities in West Africa, famous for its tailors, notorious in neighboring countries for its arrogance, if it weren’t also about showing what you’ve got.

„We are snobs,“ says Fall. And that’s why the sheep becomes a status symbol for those who have them. People present their animals to business partners and competitors, and the sheep pen becomes a salon, a place where they can discuss business undisturbed – just as they go to the golf course elsewhere. There are the breeders and veterinarians of the haute volée, where the richest and most important of the republic gather. Exquisite animals are given as gifts to ministers, clergy, and patrons.

Before Tabaski, the feast of sacrifice, many Dakar residents stake their animals on their doorsteps – each can then see exactly what the other can afford. Before Tabaski the sheep becomes a home story. News portals show celebrities and politicians buying sheep. Every second breeder claims that the First Lady bought her sheep from them last year. Could increase sales, after all.

Animals are available for every budget. A small animal of the Baly-Baly breed can be had for the equivalent of 80 euros. But a large Ladoum, a luxury breed, can cost five million West African francs, the equivalent of 8,000 euros. A few years ago, a breeder turned down an offer of 52 million francs for his most beautiful Ladoum ram, the equivalent of 80,000 euros.

Some breeders call their animals „the big one“ or „the fat one. Others give them proud titles: Tyson or Manga like the champions of Senegalese wrestling. Isaora like the heroine of the Brazilian telenovela. They name them after politicians, the great marabouts, religious leaders, or the first lady of the Republic. Some hang amulets around their animals to protect them from the evil eye. And almost everyone takes care to keep the white coat as shiny as possible. That’s why on weekends the sheep take over the beaches, which are usually the realm of fishermen, surfers, musclemen and beach beauties. Because just as the German washes his car on the weekend, the Senegalese washes his sheep on the weekend – or he pays a couple of neighborhood boys to do it for him. And what a spectacle it is. How they peel the sheep’s fur in the sand, push and shove it into the sea. Sometimes the breeder pulls his sheep into the waves by its front hooves, and from the beach it looks as if the sheep keeper is performing a strange dance with a reluctant partner.Once washed, the sheep coiffeurs brush and comb the coat until it shines in a new luster – especially on Tabaski.

On the Feast of Sacrifice, Muslims celebrate the pious devotion of Abraham. According to tradition, he was prepared to sacrifice the life of his son to the Almighty. But when Abraham put the knife to his son’s neck, the Almighty had put a ram in the boy’s place. Therefore, for the holiday, if possible, each family slaughters a sheep, which is then divided into three parts: one for the poor, one for relatives, friends and neighbors, one for the family. It is a holiday of generosity. And thus presents real challenges to those who have little. After all, an adult son or father of a family should not only get the sheep, but also new clothes for the whole family. Preferably several, so that one can change several times on the feast day and appear in constantly new splendor. But the feast demands special finesse from all those husbands who live in polygamous marriages. In Senegal, this is one third of all married couples. Tradition dictates that a polygamous husband donates a sheep to each wife in the family. The diplomatically delicate task of the husband is now to find sheep of as equal size as possible. Woe betide that one wife’s is bigger than her competitor’s. „To a grande dame like me, you bring this cat?“ is still considered a gracious reaction. Eyewitnesses report physical confrontations in the open street, in which stingy husbands were maltreated with handbags.

Before the Feast of Sacrifice, many people are therefore on the lookout for money, hitting on relatives, neighbors, colleagues and old schoolmates. Anyone who has a reputation for being successful or wealthy is hustled from many sides, in the hope that he or she can spare some cash.

Not a few people are exhausted by this. They switch off their phones weeks before Tabaski.

The Feast of the Sacrifice also presents the government with major logistical challenges. The newspapers never tire of emphasizing how important it is for social peace to satisfy the demand for sheep. With a population of 16 million people, 95 percent of whom adhere to Islam, the country needs a large quantity of sheep. Estimates put the number at 750,000, which the domestic market cannot provide. Politicians travel to neighboring countries to secure supplies, especially Mali and Mauritania. At one point, Senegal even purchased sheep from Hungary. For neighboring Senegal and Mauritania, usually fiercely antagonistic, the sheep trade is a rare moment of cooperation. Newspapers praise the sheep’s diplomatic finesse. They call it the „sheep of peace.“

Published on 21 August 2018, translated by deepl