MISSIRAH, Senegal – Couscous was ready for the lunchtime crowd at Yassin Dicko’s restaurant near one of Senegal’s largest sheep markets.
But except for the family members, the place was empty. Ms. Dicko’s usual clients, Mauritanian shepherds, did not show up. She looked outside towards the large waiting area where only a few meager flocks of sheep trotted, their bleating strangely human.
While the pens in Missirah in central Senegal are usually full of sheep at this time of year, hardly any vendors have shown up. Almost no buyers either.
“It’s a real crisis,” she said.
It was 13 days before Tabaski, the Senegalese version of Eid al-Adha, the biggest religious holiday of the year in the country, which is around 95% Muslim.
No sheep for Tabaski for a Senegalese Muslim family is like no Christmas present for a Christian, and in the two weeks before the holidays, which this year takes place on July 31, there is usually a rush. animals.
But the measures the government imposed for months to contain the coronavirus – closed borders, closed markets and severely restricted travel – have been financially devastating for many in Senegal, putting a purchase of great cultural and social significance beyond reach. a lot this year.
Even in ordinary years, sheep are an important purchase for many families, who take high interest ready pay for this and other new foods and clothes that are usually a mandatory part of the celebration.
The owners keep a close eye on their sheep purchases, sometimes even sleeping in the same room as the animal, to avoid being the victim of theft. While most families buy their sheep the month before Tabaski, some buy them a year or more in advance and fatten themselves.
This year, aware that citizens would fear catching the virus in in-person markets, the Livestock Ministry set up a Tinder-like digital matchmaking site, where vendors could post attractive photos of their sheep.
Buyers were able to browse hundreds of sheep profiles left or right on Sama Xaru Tabaski – or “My Tabaski Sheep” in Wolof, the most widely spoken of Senegal’s many languages - and then make a deal for the animal they liked. , skipping hours of risky face-to-face bargaining.
But the service has received meager traffic so far, and while a potential buyer may find a sheep, it may not be affordable.
A $ 140 sheep last year now costs more than $ 170, with the rise being attributed, according to industry players, to the ripple effects of the coronavirus restrictions.
About half of Senegal’s Tabaski sheep come from neighboring Mali and Mauritania, and until the end of June all herds were completely stranded across the border except those smuggled.
Now sheep are welcome, but even though the cattle border has been reopened, the expected influx of sheep has not materialized.
One reason is that sheep now only have to be transported in trucks, and many drivers charge twice as much as usual to move animals.
On a recent Saturday, shepherds, swinging their sticks, barked and shouted their meager loads from the back of a truck in Kidira, a town in Senegal on the border with Mali where sheep had been left to graze. They were traveling to Dakar with the animals, mounted in hammocks suspended from truck beams above their waving herds.
Alassane Ndongo, president of the local association of shepherds, watched the shepherds and their loads rush on board.
While three shepherds can board each truck, Mr. Ndongo said the owners do not because they usually travel nearby by car, and cars are prohibited from crossing the border.
So many owners just kept their herds at home, another reason for the shortages.
In addition, Ndongo added, in typical years many herds crossed the border on foot. But that requires leaving months in advance, and in 2020 that travel start date was right when governments were ordering everyone inside.
While the restrictions imposed to fight the coronavirus have been financially devastating for many, Senegal has not been hit as hard as many countries by the Covid-19. Less than 10,000 people are affected, of which 194 have died, according to official figures.
In Dakar, the capital of Senegal, where the streets are red with sheep’s blood every year on Tabaski mornings, Abou Gallo Thiello Kane runs the city’s chicest sheep mall, a spacious, well-maintained tent full of beasts. magnificent.
A famous mbalax dancer and comedian as well as celebrity sheep dealer – local celebrities and government ministers are said to be among his clients – Mr. Kane’s 20 years of work has taught him what potential buyers are looking for.
“Women usually want a big sheep, and a young one, because they think about its taste,” he said behind a mask, as attendants carried feeders up and down his sheep kingdom. “Men, on the other hand, buy for aesthetics and for love.”
Professional butchers are busy in Dakar for those who are too disgusted to slit the animal’s throat themselves or for those who have gotten 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 are good company. They are helpful and they are friendly.
The role of the sheep in the celebration of Tabaski is much more central than simply providing a meal. Eid al-Adha honors the story of Ibrahim, who God asked to sacrifice his beloved son, Ismail, but then told him at the last minute that he could trade a ram.
“God did not tell Ibrahim to kill the sheep or eat it,” Kane said. “He said it should be a sacrifice. So you have to choose the sheep you like.
Most of Mr. Kane’s sheep are less lovable than imposing: they are Ladoums, a huge and majestic cross highly prized by Senegalese, for whom the mere mention of a Ladoum can elicit a nostalgic sigh.
Mr. Kane’s best Ladoums sell for up to $ 3,500, and as I spoke with their owner, the royal creatures seemed to know it. One threw down his long tail; another groomed hooves stamped in freshly sprinkled sand. A third, his ears pointing through striped, curly horns, looked up with an arrogant expression as we walked past.
They don’t have to be so conceited. This year, even elite buyers are scarce, Kane said.
The drop in income brought about by the closure of the pandemic has pushed some Senegalese from ease to difficulty.
Ms Dicko, the owner of the restaurant, said she worried about her friends and neighbors, those who were making $ 9 a day and now could only earn $ 4. For them, she said, a sheep was out of the question and hard days were ahead.
“There will be a lot of difficulties,” she said.
Ousmane Balde contributed reporting.