Oh Holidays

Holidays in general are often stressful. Celebrating a holiday in a country where the the culture, religion and traditions are completely foreign and everyone is constantly watching you is completely overwhemling. Needless to say, my first major Nigerien holiday wasn’t exactly perfect. Here, in a fun, chronological order, is a list of my Tabaski mistakes.

  1. I didn’t kill a sheep

Tabaski or Eid al-Adha, is an Islamic holiday that involves the slaughter of a sheep or goat to commemorate the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son Ishmael as an act of obedience to God, before God intervened to provide him with a ram to sacrifice instead. As a vegetarian for the ten years prior to my arrival in Niger, I wasn’t exactly thrilled with the idea of an animal dying specifically on my behalf. Even though my reasons for vegetarianism derive more from my hatred of factory farming than they do from my love of animals, every time my neighborhood butcher kills a goat it sounds like the screaming of a child. Despite the constant questioning of my villagers as to whether or not I was going to kill a goat, I decided that I could avoid the question by joking and telling them I was going to kill a camel or, if they kept questioning, telling them that since I’m a Christian I would kill a goat for Christmas instead. This worked fine until the chief asked me if I had purchased any meat. When I told him no, all of his four wives turned to me in shock. Apparently, what I hadn’t understood is that even if I am not particularly carnivorous myself I should still buy meat to give it to others. By not even purchasing a small amount of meat—and my pale skin advertising to the world that I had the ability to do so—I was like old Ebeneezer Scrooge, except worse, because England never suffered from the famines that ravage Niger.

2. I didn’t put my face in the dirt

Somehow I’d assumed that the morning of Tabaski would be something like Christmas, with all the children waking up at the crack of dawn to start the festivities. Since I normally wake up around 6:30 am for my morning run, I simply decided to skip the run in get dressed in my most formal Nigerien outfit and go out in the village. Much to my surprise, all the kids were still wearing the same dirty outfits they’d worn the day before and all the women seemed to be busy as usual carrying water and cooking millet. As I walked around, people greeted me and asked me if I’d “prayed in health.” This confused me to no end until 9:00 rolled around and my semi-adopted twins escorted me to what they called “the big mosque.” To me, the “big mosque” was simply a dried up riverbed but as the dirt began to fill with people sitting on small prayer mats, I began to understand. The iman led the prayer and I mimicked the women surrounding me as they bowed half-way and then finally planted themselves face first in the dirt. However, unlike them, I had already gotten dressed in my best clothes, including my new white headscarf. Needless to say, I wasn’t all that into the face plant part of the prayer and simply pressed my face close to the ground, hoping no one would notice the difference. But while everyone else walked back from the “mosque” with a proud spot of dirt on their foreheads as a sign of their submission to God, my face sparkled with insolence.

3. I didn’t sleep inside

Now that it’s no longer rainy season and we’ve moved into “cold” season (still in the 100s during the day…), I’ve relished the ability to sleep outside under the stars every night. Even though it is becoming slightly chilly at night, there is a part of me that refuses to believe that I could ever truly be cold in the Sahel Desert. My insistence on shahing wooyia was all well and fine until I came down with a horrible cold and last my voice. This, of course, made the required Tabaski tradition of wandering from house to house and greeting everyone very difficult indeed. My villagers laughed at my inability to speak and my friends scolded me for my stupidity of insisting on sleeping outside.

4. I didn’t hand out enough money

During Tabaski, adults often give out presents to each other and to children. More often than not in Niger, this present takes the form of small coins. Although I had been told this ahead of time and certainly have the money to spare, when hordes of children came to my door asking for their Barka da Salla “Happy Holidays” present and men I barely knew on the street asked me the same question, I freaked out. I had no idea how much money to give them or the small change to give a present to all of them. I lied and told them I’d run out of change which worked until a horde of children and one of my neighbors saw me on the street buying bananas and clearly receiving change. The children crowded around me and when I’d finally managed to satisfy them, my neighbor came over and scolded me for not giving money to him and the other guards of the chief. I handed him the same 25 CFA that I’d given to the children and he scorned it, muttering that it was hardly enough. I added another coin and then retreated into my house where I locked the door and collapsed on my bed, close to tears. Oh holidays…