For those of you who do not know, Tabaski is an annual festival in the Muslim faith that is the beginning of the new year. It commemorates the day when Abraham showed his obedience to God by being ready to sacrifice his only son, and the fact that God then sent a ram to be sacrificed instead, so the son did not die. In the Judeo-Christian tradition the son was Isaac, of course, but in the Muslim tradition that son was Ishmael, through whom they trace their heritage back to Abraham. In any case, it is a big religious festival and a legal holiday here. Every family that can afford it buys a sheep, kills it, and has a feast.
I was fortunate enough to be in the capital for another reason at that time, and to have just met an acquaintance of my son in law here, who very kindly invited me to join him and his family for the fete. I did not get in on the sheep sacrifice part of the day, nor did I go to the mosque. My escort, who works in the government here, picked me up (in his car, no less) about 1 in the afternoon and our first stop was at the home of his secretary. He gave her one of the ubiquitous black plastic bags everything is put in here when you buy anything. I think it had some of the meat from his sheep, but I am not sure. The women in the family were in the court yard, preparing the mutton and other food. We were escorted into the house and served pineapple juice. Then the secretary brought a plate of French fries and fried plantains, and another plate with several pieces of grilled chicken. I ate only a little because he had warned me that on this day you are expected to visit many people and eat everywhere you visit.
Next he took me to his house where there were quite a few people gathered. Some were seated on the front terrace and others in the living room. I was invited to sit in the living room where there were overstuffed chairs and couches to seat about 9 people. I sat there and tried a drink made from the sap of the palm tree. It was not bad, but had a bit of a bite to it. I still wonder if it was not a bit alcoholic. I assumed it would not be because Muslims do not drink alcohol. Later those of us in the living room started the line to the food. First there was of a big plate of crudité, that is, all sorts of raw vegetables, cucumbers, onions, tomatoes (green) canned corn, grated carrots and I don’t know what else, with a yummy dressing. Then there were the French fries served with an onion and tomato sauce in place of ketchup, fried plantains, baked fish, couscous, very well cooked lamb, and grilled chicken. Having eaten my fill, it was time to visit another house.
He drove me to the fancy part of town, called Ouaga Deux Mille, that is, Ouaga 2000. It is the new area near the presidential palace where there are a number of government offices, embassies, and very upscale houses for the high up government officials, I think mostly at the level of cabinet ministers. There were a lot of people there, all dressed in their holiday clothes, and here I was, this ancient American woman wearing my traveling clothes. I was glad that my blouse was the one made of the material celebrating the 8th of March, International Women’s Day, so I was not a total western interloper.
At the gate there were guardians, like for all big important houses, but these were dressed in camouflage fatigues so I think they may have been military. Happily, no guns in sight, however. As at my host’s house, there were several seating areas. First there were those seated outside. Then there about 20 men seated on one side of the six sided entry hall. In the center of this hall was a gravel pit, about 10 X10 feet, with a banana tree or some other tropical tree, growing up toward the sky light a couple of stories above. On another side there was what was clearly to be the buffet line, and another set of doors opened into the air conditioned “great room.” There were a couple of seating areas for 10-15 people. We greeted folks at the first one and ended up seated in the second one. At first I was seated in one of those plastic lawn chairs that serve the function of folding chairs here, but very quickly I was asked to stand for a second so they could replace it with a padded chair from a rather elegant dining room set. And THAT is a sign of respect, folks. You get the really good chair if you are an honored guest. My host introduced me as a Peace Corps volunteer and the mother in law of a colleague in American and that was about all the conversation about me.
In any case, after a few minutes it was time to start the buffet line and our room was invited to go first. The choices were rather similar to those at my host’s house, but there were a few differences. In addition to the things he served, there was to and sauce, although the sauce had big chunks of chicken in it, which is not your usual to sauce! The mutton was being sliced by a carver, as you might see at a fancy buffet in the states, and was pretty tender.
After all of the people in our seating area had eaten a server brought over a bottle of Champaign and one of red wine. Only about half the folks accepted and I found out later that, in fact, Muslims will serve alcohol to guests because they know others expect to have wine with meals. The only rule is, they will not serve too much, so as not to cause problems for their guests. It is also possible that the minister and his family are not Muslim, becasue everybody celebrates all the holidays here, regardless of their religion. I had been introduced to the minister on the way to the buffet line and had a chance to thank him on the way out. We were escorted to the front gate by his wife, again a real honor.
We returned to my host’s house were the people who work under him were paying their duty calls to give good wishes for the fete and the new year. Some of them had met my son in law and I knew they really did know him from the little French I could understand, “the big guy with the beard who talks fast and negotiates hard.” That’s him, all right.
By 5:00 it was time for the neighbors to start calling and for my host to go visit neighbors so I asked to be taken back to my living place, having seen the general idea of the fete, having eaten way too much, and being rather tired. What an adventure!