In Senegal, the biggest celebration of the year is preceded by a government meeting to answer to a most pressing question: how many sheep does the country need?
The celebration is the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Kebir, which takes place on Monday. Millions of Muslim families in West Africa, where the event is known as Tabaski, slaughter a sheep, roast the meat and share it with guests.
The answer, this year: Senegal required a whopping 750,000 sheep, with a quarter-million heads just for the capital, Dakar, alone. National police were instructed to go easy on local breeders trucking their sheep to designated sales points. Border controls were relaxed and taxes were waived to import almost 300,000 sheep from neighboring Mali and 80,000 more from Mauritania in less than a month.
Call it the Great Sheep Migration.
Tabaski brings with it real economic impacts. The annual spike in demand for rams for Tabaski has boosted sheep farming across the dry northern zone of West Africa, a region that’s already exceptional for its large livestock populations, according to Roel Bosma, a livestock researcher at Wageningen University. “It’s like a once-a-year market that generates huge profits for traders,” Bosma said by phone. “You’ll even find women cooperatives fattening up sheep ahead of Tabaski in areas where women didn’t traditionally rear cattle.”
But the festival is inflating costs for the 15 million Senegalese, who’re increasingly picky about their sheep. Good-looking rams with manly horns and symmetrical testicles are the most coveted, and their value has surged since an elite variety entered the market at a starting price of $1,700. Conventional tall rams now sell for as much as $350, or the equivalent of a lower middle-class monthly income.
In the past, "you could buy rams at 40,000 CFA francs ($67) and that was considered a lot of money already,'' said Serigne Diop, a tailor, comparing today's prices with those of five years ago. "Now, you start at 65,000 francs ($110) and you get a sheep that is just about acceptable.''
To put those prices into perspective, per capita expenditure in Senegal totalled $791 in 2015, according to World Bank data. And rams aren't the only big Tabaski expenditure: husbands are also expected to buy new clothes for their wives and children.
High prices don’t deter some buyers, who will get a loan to buy a handsome ram, never mind that it’ll get slaughtered within weeks (Banks grant special Tabaski loans). A man who comes home with a small sheep risks derision even from his own children, who’ll want to parade the animal outside and give it a daily wash on one of the beaches that surround Dakar.
It may seem surprising that the humble sheep can serve as a status symbol, but this is, after all, the country that pioneered a popular reality TV show featuring a ram competition, with a panel of judges using scorecards to rate the nation’s most esteemed beasts. Even if some say that religious festivals should be about temperance, in Senegal, a sheep’s size has become the most accurate gauge of social status.