SOMETHING LIKE HALLOWEEN BUT NOT QUITE

My daughter is very curious about how I did things when I was a child. Recently, she wanted to know what I dressed like for Halloween and was almost sad for me when I told her that we did not have Halloween in Senegal. She was shocked when I revealed to her that we do have something similar but people do not trick-or-treat for candy! How can one trick-or-treat for anything other than candy? I know those of you who are from Senegal know which holiday I am referring to, but for the sake of my readers who are not, I would like to explain Taajaboon.

Taajaboon is a celebation held on the night of Achoura or Tamxarit (Wolof) which often falls between the 9th and 10th day of the Muslim New Year. In the Muslim tradition, Achoura commemorates the day Moses freed the Jews from Pharaoh. It is meant to be a day of fasting, prayer and accomplishment of good deeds such as touching the head of an orphan or giving alms. For Sunni Muslims, the day is one of happiness and rejoicing while for Shiites, it is a day of mourning because it is also the anniversary of the decapitation of Imam Hussein at the battle of Kerbala in the year 680.

In Senegal, a majority Sunni Muslim, Tamxarit highlights the country’s religious hybridity becauseTaajaboon is not practiced in other Muslim communities and the whole celebration combines elements of indigenous religions with Islam. Tamxarit is celebrated with a copious dinner made of millet couscous and a fancy lamb or chicken stew. Adults would spend the day saying verses of the Koran on their rosaries. However after dinner, families would take turns saying three consecutive wishes on the back of a bowl (usually the one they ate dinner from) and turning it over to the ground at the end of each wish. Later that night, children, and adults who feel like it, would cross-dress, paint their faces with ashes or white talcum powder, and go from house to house trick-or-treating. This is the Taajaboon part of the celebration.

The local Muslim lore suggests that it is on the night of Tamxarit that the Angel of Death chooses those who are to die during the course of the upcoming year. So children are jokingly told to eat well at dinner so that they are too heavy for the Angel of Death to carry. The cross-dressing and the painting of faces translate this notion of hiding from the Angel of Death who would not recognize men from women since the gender lines are blurred through costumes and the unrecognizable faces. The costumes and scary faces also add humorous and spooky elements to the celebration.

Children are told to leave a shirt with pockets in the living room for the angel to bring them gifts (I believe this part is borrowed from the Christian tradition of Santa Claus bringing gifts on Christmas night.). The day after is the culmination of the holiday when families gather in the morning to recite specific verses of the Koran and pray for the year ahead to be better than the previous one. It is also believed that at a certain time of the day, those who put black kohl around their eyes and look up the sky, would see the soapy waters discarded by Fatoumata Bintou (daughter of the Prophet Mohamed (SAS)) after she finished washing her clothes.

An important aspect of Taajaboon is the singing and dancing that goes along. There is pretty much one song delivered in different versions throughout the night. The song emulates a conversation between the Angel of Death and the person it has come to take. The lyrics state that the Angel of Death has two sides. It will come from above and land on the ground. It will ask the person if they have prayed and fasted. If the person answers no, they would go to Hell. If they answer yes, they would go to Heaven. Groups are often divided by age. When they arrive at a house, they would sing the song and show off their costumes. When they receive a treat, they would dance and say prayers before heading to the next house.

The best part of Taajaboon for me as a child was the anticipation of the event and the creativity involved in making a drum from large tin cans, as well as borrowing clothes from my dad’s closet in order to have the most “manly” costume. It was an occasion to bond with friends because like Halloween, the essence of the festival is to have fun. The treats range from a cup of rice, millet, corn or sugar, to money. Often, groups would meet and strategize about their action plan and how to get the most treats. Our group would get together later in the week in order to have a party where the proceeds of our trick-or-treating would be prepared into a meal. Depending on how much of each item we got during Taajaboon, we would resell a portion to our moms in order to buy other ingredients we would need for our party.

Taajaboon has many similarities with Halloween such as the port of costumes, the trick-or-treating, and the bonding with friends. A major difference though is that Taajaboon does not have the consumerism culture that surrounds Halloween with the ridiculous amounts of candy and costume sales. But despite the fact that I worry about my kids’ teeth on Halloween, I really enjoy the holiday! I wrote this post wearing my purple witch hat.

Happy Halloween!

To my Senegalese readers, happy Taajaboon on November 12!

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