The magic and solidarity of celebrating Christmas in a 95%-Muslim country

A magical Christmas in Dakar, Senegal.
A magical Christmas in Dakar, Senegal.
Image: AP Photo/Jane Hahn
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Dakar, Senegal

This time of year, when you take a walk in the streets of Dakar—the capital city of Senegal, that is 92%-95% Muslim in one of the hottest parts of the world, you stumble upon decorated snowmen, Christmas trees with cotton snowballs, traditional masks covered in Christmas lights. It lifts your spirits and gives you hope the end of the world might not be as near as it seems.

The other day I told someone here I love the religious tolerance in Senegal. They told me it’s not “religious tolerance” but “solidarity.” I love that.

I’ve always been uncomfortable with the term “tolerance.” Something about it inherently means there is something wrong about the other—that it has to be “tolerated.” It’s like how you have to tolerate your kleptomaniac friend or your hypochondriac relative. The word ’tolerance’ gives us the feeling that we are somehow more superior in some way, but graceful enough to not detest our object of tolerance—even though we feel we have every right to.

Teranga—that’s the cornerstone of Senegalese society. Senegalese people are known to be extremely warm and welcoming to each other and to strangers. It is something they highly value as a society. In addition to that, they respect other people’s cultures and way of life even if it’s contrary to theirs. In the streets of Dakar, you will see women in small shorts or mini-skirts alongside other women in Hijab. No one will bat an eyelid. Your way of life will be respected and in turn you should also respect their way of life.

I’ve wondered how this seeming contradictions came about and how a society that is generally conservative, can also at the same time be accepting of other people’s ways of life. I believe it stems from a few factors; the first—a shared culture that Senegalese people of all religions have in common that predates monotheistic religions, the second—a social contract that existed between different ethnic groups before the advent of modern religions “Cousinage a plainsanterie” across French West Africa and the third a high degree of comfort with ambiguities and religious merging (syncretism). Teranga cuts across all these factors. This homegrown hospitality is the fabric on which society is built.

Teranga, a Wolof word for hospitality, includes the concept of sharing. While you feel it in daily interactions in Senegal, it is most strongly felt during celebrations. This is when people share important life moments together. Holidays are an opportunity to share and to remember to strengthen family relationships.

Everyone’s welcome.
Everyone’s welcome.
Image: AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell

All Senegalese people celebrate Muslim and Christian holidays together. During each Muslim festival, there are special meals of gifts that are given to their Christian neighbors and vice versa. During Easter, Christians make Ngalakh (a breakfast snack) for themselves and their Muslim neighbors. The Christians will make two batches of Ngalakh – a small batch with wine for their own consumption and a larger one without wine for all their Muslim neighbours. At Tabaski (Eid Al Adha, the Sacrifice Feast), Muslims invite their Christian friends to feast on mutton.

Senegal’s 14-odd ethnic groups share a common culture despite the different languages spoken. This shared heritage predates Christianity or Islam in Senegal. Therefore at the very core – Senegalese see themselves as Senegalese first before seeing themselves as Christians or Muslims. As a friend said, “Both Christians and Muslims go to consult the same traditional spiritual doctors [Animists].”

Cousinage a plainsanterie is a social contract that has existed between different ethnic groups for centuries that allows communities to make fun of each other but all in jest. It loosely translates to “pleasantries between cousins” reminding different ethnic groups and religions that they are all part of the same family.

Even in the same families, people can have different religions but because of the “cousinage a plaisanterie”, religion will not be divisive. This could also explain the reason why religious extremism will struggle to find a home in Senegal. The community is quite small and interlinked.

Christmas in a Dakar mall.
Christmas in a Dakar mall.
Image: AP Photo/Jane Hahn

The final factor is religious syncretism in Senegal and the high degree of comfort with ambiguity and contradictions. A few months back, Tamkharit (the beginning of the Islamic year) was celebrated in Senegal. During the celebrations, one will find some men dressed as women, some women dressed as men, children will go treat-or-tricking to neighbors homes and be given rice as gifts. The main meal of the festival is a type of couscous. Children are encouraged to eat a lot during the festival or risk being beaten by a malevolent angel called Abdou Diambar.

Yes, there is a cross-dressing Halloween-esque religious festival in Senegal. During Eid, both Christians and Muslims get new outfits made, visit each other and ask for forgiveness from those they have wronged.

In 2004, when Cardinal Hyacinthe Thiandoum died—the first archbishop of Dakar, majority of the procession who went to view his body and pay their last respects were Muslims. My Muslim friend’s family still has a poster of him in their home—they loved him for being a great spiritual leader. In Joal, the city that birthed Senegal’s first President Leopold Sedar Senghor—there is a cemetery where both Muslims and Christians are buried. In Senegal, the intersections between culture and religion are blurry and magical.

This holiday season, the world could learn a lot from Senegal. It is very rare to find places where the fact we don’t have the same beliefs (or lack of beliefs) does not make you less or more human. This is something we need worldwide—where it doesn’t matter if you are a Christian, a Muslim, a Hindu, a Buddhist, an atheist or an animist.

Where I don’t have to agree or share your beliefs, but simply respect you as a human being who is worthy of having their own choices and living their own life in the way that works best for them. In a world where people are being killed for all sorts of differences—religious, racial, tribal, sexual orientation etc., we need to celebrate any news that reminds us what humanity actually means.

Merry Christmas from Senegal to the world.