For Senegal’s Biggest Holiday, a Shortage of the All-Important Sheep

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MISSIRAH, Senegal — The couscous was all ready for the lunchtime crowd in Yassin Dicko’s restaurant near one of the biggest sheep markets in Senegal.

But except for family members, the place was empty. Ms. Dicko’s usual customers, shepherds from Mauritania, had not shown up. She looked outside to the vast holding area where just a few meager herds of sheep trotted around, their bleating oddly human.

While the corrals in Missirah, in central Senegal, are usually packed with sheep at this time of year, hardly any salesmen had shown up. Almost no buyers either.

“This is a real crisis,” she said.

It was 13 days before Tabaski, the Senegalese version of Eid al-Adha, the biggest religious celebration of the year in the country, which is about 95 percent Muslim.

No sheep for the Tabaski feast for a Muslim Senegalese family is like no presents at Christmas for a Christian one, and in the two weeks before the holiday, which takes place this year on July 31, there is usually a shopping rush for the animals.

But monthslong government-imposed measures to contain the coronavirus — borders closed, markets shuttered and travel severely restricted — have been financially devastating for many people in Senegal, putting a purchase of great cultural and social importance beyond the reach of many this year.

Even in ordinary years, the sheep is a major purchase for many families, who take out high-interest loans to pay for it and the other food and new clothes that are typically an obligatory part of the celebration.

Owners guard their sheep purchases closely, sometimes even sleeping in the same room with the animal, to avoid falling victim to a theft. While most families buy their sheep in the month before Tabaski, some buy them a year or more in advance and do the fattening up themselves.

This year, aware that citizens would be worried about catching the virus at in-person markets, the livestock ministry set up a Tinder-like digital matchmaking site, where sellers could post appealing photos of their sheep.

Buyers were able to swipe left or right through hundreds of sheep profiles on Sama Xaru Tabaski — or “My Tabaski Sheep” in Wolof, the most widely spoken of Senegal’s many languages — and then arrange a deal for the animal that catches their fancy, skipping hours of risky face-to-face haggling.

But the service has received meager traffic so far, and even if a would-be buyer can find a sheep, it may not be affordable.

A $140 sheep last year now costs over $170, with the hike attributable, according to industry players, to the ripple effects of the coronavirus restrictions.

Around half of Senegal’s Tabaski sheep come from neighboring Mali and Mauritania, and until late June, all the herds were completely stuck on the other side of the border, except those smuggled across.

Now sheep are welcome, but even though the bovid border has been reopened, the expected surge of sheep has not materialized.

One reason is that sheep now must be transported only in trucks, and many drivers are charging twice as much as usual to move the animals.

On a recent Saturday, shepherds, swinging their sticks, yipped and whooped their skinny charges into the back of a truck in Kidira, a town in Senegal on the border with Mali where the sheep had been let out to graze. They were traveling to Dakar with the animals, riding in hammocks strung from truck beams above their undulant flocks.

Watching the shepherds and their charges scurry aboard was Alassane Ndongo, president of the local herders’ association.

While three shepherds can ride in each truck, Mr. Ndongo said that owners don’t because they generally travel alongside by car, and cars are banned from crossing the border.

So many owners were simply keeping their flocks home, another reason for the shortages.

In addition, Mr. Ndongo added, in typical years, many herds would cross the border on foot. But that requires setting off months in advance, and in 2020, that start date for the journey was just when governments were ordering everyone indoors.

While the restrictions imposed to combat the coronavirus have been financially devastating for many, Senegal has not been as hard hit as many countries by Covid-19. Fewer than 10,000 people have had it, of whom 194 have died, according to official figures.

In Dakar, Senegal’s capital, where the streets every year run red with sheep’s blood on Tabaski morning, Abou Gallo Thiello Kane runs the swankiest sheep mall in town, a spacious, manicured tent full of magnificent beasts.

A famous mbalax dancer and comedian as well as sheep merchant to the stars — local celebrities and government ministers are said to be among his clients — Mr. Kane’s 20 years in the business have taught him what prospective buyers look for.

“Women usually want a fat sheep, and a young one, because they’re thinking about how it will taste,” he said from behind a mask, as assistants hauled mangers up and down his ovine kingdom. “Men, on the other hand, buy for aesthetics, and for love.”

Professional butchers are kept busy in Dakar for those who are too squeamish to slit the animal’s throat themselves or for those who have grown too close to their woolly companion.

“Sheep for us are like dogs for Europeans,” said Mr. Kane, who is also president of the National Federation of Sheep Industry Actors. “They’re good company. They’re useful, and they’re friendly.”

The sheep’s role in the Tabaski celebration is far more central than just providing a meal. Eid al-Adha honors the story of Ibrahim, whom God asked to sacrifice his cherished son, Ismail, but then told him at the last minute he could swap in a ram.

“God did not tell Ibrahim to kill the sheep, or to eat it,” Mr. Kane said. “He said it should be a sacrifice. So you have to choose the sheep you love.”

Most of Mr. Kane’s sheep are less lovable than imposing: They are Ladoums, an enormous and majestic crossbreed much prized by the Senegalese, for whom the mere mention of a Ladoum can elicit a wistful sigh.

Mr. Kane’s best Ladoums sell for up to $3,500, and as I spoke with their owner, the regal creatures seemed to know it. One tossed his long tail; another stamped groomed hooves in freshly sprinkled sand. A third, his ears poking through striped, curling horns, looked up with a snooty expression as we walked past.

They needn’t be so conceited. This year, even elite buyers are thin on the ground, Mr. Kane said.

The reduced incomes brought by the pandemic shutdown has pushed some Senegalese from comfortable to struggling.

Ms. Dicko, the restaurant owner, said she was worrying about her friends and neighbors, those who used to make $9 a day and now could only make $4. For them, she said, a sheep was out of the question, and tough days were ahead.

“There will be a lot of hardship,” she said.

Ousmane Balde contributed reporting.

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