Clean your teeth, purify your soul

Sothiou salesmanThroughout the year in Senegal, but especially during Ramadan, the traditional toothpick, the sothiou, can be seen in almost every mouth. In addition to cleaning your teeth and freshening your breath, it is also seen as a sign of piety, distracting you from the evils of smoking, keeping your mouth pure for prayer time, and fooling your stomach by chewing something during the fast period.

Just as with the baffling range of toothbrush technologies in the north, so in West Africa there are different twigs for different folks. There’s the Saudi “siwak”, highly prized for its pain-killing effect; the myrobalan, tamarinier, cola, or my favourite, the “mate xewel” (meaning “bite your luck” in Wolof), which will supposedly attract money to its masticator. During Ramadan, however, the “nep nep” is king. One young salesman explained,

It’s the dryest one. It doesn’t make you salivate too much. It prevents bad breath, treats toothache, calms irritated gums and heals infections with its antibiotic power.”

With these claims and a price tag of only a few cents, the big toothbrush manufacturers should take note.

But take note: they don’t come in day-glo green, orange or pink.

You can see a sothiou in action in a picture I took previously.


Today is the most important national holiday in Senegal, Tabaski, the Wolof word for the Festival of the Sheep, known elsewhere in the Muslim world as Aïd-el-Kebir. It is a celebration of an event that is also important to Jews and Christians, that is, the sacrifice by Abraham (Ibrahim in Arabic) of his eldest son. If you recall the story, Abraham, aged 80, was still childless, and so promised God/Allah that he would sacrifice his firstborn if He would grant him a child.

(Don’t interrupt. I know it doesn’t make sense.)

A single child is born, Ismael. Years later, God reminds Abraham of his promise. Abraham is a man of his word and so prepares to sacrifice his son to God. At the moment Abraham’s knifeblade touches Ismael’s throat, the Angel Gabriel does a quick switcheroo and in the place of the child, puts a ram, whose throat is promptly slit.

As a reminder of Abraham’s act of faith, Muslims reenact the sacrifice of the sheep each year. Every head of the family (male, of course), is obliged to provide a sheep for his family. The obligation is not enshrined in the Koran, rather it is a social pressure to “keep up with the Jones'”, or the Dioufs, perhaps, here in Senegal.

Sheep envyWith the cheapest, scrawniest sheep costing about 2 weeks’ pay for many people (50,000 FCFA or 75 euros), I asked an acquaintance of modest means why he didn’t just buy a leg.

“Ah,” he sighed. “It’s not for us, the adults. It’s for the children. They can’t show their face at school if their father didn’t have a sheep for Tabaski.”

So 2000 years after the sacrifice of the son by the father over a point of honour, today’s fathers have to sacrifice themselves, often running themselves into debt for the rest of the year, in order to preserve their children’s honour. Sweet irony.

Of course, such subtleties are lost on the sheep. For him the story ends the same way.

Le mouton qui pleure

The Korité Kid

Those who imagine the Muslim world to be a single unified block of believers might be surprised that in just one West African country, Senegal, there are any number of different groups of Muslims, none of whom conform to the supposed hegemony of Saudi Wahhabism. In Senegal, as in many parts of Muslim Africa, Sufism dominates, with its devotion to local saints, whose images are painted on walls and reproduced in stickers on every taxi dashboard.

The four main Muslim groups in Senegal take the form of Brotherhoods: the Xaadir, the Tijaniyya, the Mourides and the Layènes. In addition, other more local marabouts, or Islamic teachers, can have a powerful influence over a given population.

An illustration of this diversity was evident this week with the end of Ramadan. The signal to end the month of fasting is the first sighting of the new moon. This can be a pretty hit-or-miss affair and can lead to quite a lot of confusion. Oustaz Abdou Aziz Kébé, Head of the Arabic Department at Cheikh Anta Diop University, Dakar, explained:

The meteorologists say that it is impossible to see the crescent moon because of the overcast sky. But that does not mean it has not appeared. It may appear in neighbouring countries, in Mali or Mauritania. If we refer to the four Schools of Hanafite, Malikite, Hanbalite and Chaféite, we can note that the first three […] accept that when the crescent moon appears somewhere, it is valid for all Muslims. Only the Chaféite School considers that each town must make its own sighting.

Thus for some, Ramadan ended yesterday; for most it was today, declared a national holiday by the Government.

One final confusion: the festival to mark the end of Ramadan is called Korité in Senegal, but is known elsewhere in the Muslim world as Aïd-el-fitr.

Whatever the differences in Brotherhoods, saints, schools of thought and moon sightings, all Muslims will agree that the end of Ramadan is an occasion to feast with your family, and, more importantly, wear your newly bought clothes.

This photo is of my neighbour, normally running barefoot in the sand, transformed today into an elegant young gentleman by his proud parents.

The reversed baseball cap was the boy’s own touch.

The Korité Kid


Sidewalk scholar

Sidewalk scholar

I almost fell out of the taxi, holding baby J under one arm and dragging out her buggy behind me.

Source of great amusement to the devout beggars lining the sidewalk around the mosque. Baby J waved wildly at the old men and got big smiles in return.

Having broken the ice, I asked the nearest guy if I could take his picture. He immediately snatched up his reading and peered at it intensely — the look of a serious scholar.

Click for larger version

He loved the picture.