Saturday, January 11, 2014

Mini Christmas in a Muslim Country

Ever get a little tired of the same old Christmas shenanigans (shopping fever, Santa suits, onslaughts of “Christmas albums”, etc.)? Try spending the holidays in a Muslim country.

In Senegal, with over 90% of its population of 13 million practicing Islam, I definitely did not expect much attention to be paid to Christmas. After living in Senegal for nine months, joining my host family in their celebrations of traditional Islamic holidays (Ramadan, Korité, Tabaski – which mostly involved dressing up and eating way too much goat/sheep), I thought maybe we’d all wish each other a few “Joyeux Noëls” and that would be that.

However, I was pleasantly surprised to find a cheerful embracing of Christmas in Senegal – celebrated unofficially, of course. But a stroll around the capital city of Dakar during the holidays turned up tinsel decorations, Christmas trees, and street hawkers selling inflatable Santas… even while calls to prayer echoed from the mosques.

Market-Lover's Paradise

Wandering the streets of Dakar in mid-December, I stumbled onto one of the city’s holiday surprises: the “Marché de Noël” (Christmas Market), hidden behind the walls of the Institut Français. As I entered, shaking off the persistent vendor who had glued himself to my side (finally!), I wasn’t sure what to expect. Shopping in Senegal usually requires a strong dose of patience, since you have to bargain for almost everything.

As it turned out, the Marché de Noël proved to be a tranquil haven from the usual bustle of Dakar. Inside the walls, the gardens rippled with greenery and soft music. Light dappled its way through the trees to the pebbled paths, where dozens of artisans and vendors had set up shop. Local artists mixed with expats to offer fair trade prices, promoting creative products you might never encounter just by roaming Dakar’s usual boutiques and markets.

Everywhere I turned, I saw up blazes of color. Rows of beaded jewelry lay next to hand-woven scarves, painted earrings, CDs of African music, sculptures carved from wood or made from recycled materials, shoes and stuffed elephants sewn from brightly patterned Senegalese fabrics, organic foods promoting local products, and more.

To start, I wandered through the tables of beaded, metal, and painted wooden jewelry. Some were simple silver pendants in tribal patterns; others were thick ropes of colorful beads. There were displays of woven cotton scarves, racks of breezy dresses and stylish clothing made from brightly patterned African fabrics, and other tables of purses, wallets, and knickknacks.

Each time I stopped to ask, the vendors were happy to tell me their story: a Senegalese women’s group finding new markets for their crafts, small but growing family businesses, expat artists who discovered inspiration in Senegal and decided to stay.

One young Senegalese woman named Aïssatou Sene had started her own fashion line, Bélya, making shoes and blazers from local fabrics. “I’m saving up to open my own shop soon,” she told me happily.

At another table, the group Empire des Enfants sold leather and beaded keychains made by former street kids – boys trying to learn a trade and create a new life for themselves.

Nearby, a French expat displayed purses and earrings she’d made out of cut-up and painted vinyl records. Another French artist, known as Fallou, collected fallen calebasse fruit and carved the gourds into bowls, candle holders, and ink-dyed earrings. “You can find it in the streets of Dakar!” he said, grinning.

Seductive Liqueurs

As I continued wandering, a table of bottles caught my eye. Topped in flourishes of fabric, the bottles glowed with golden liquid in the sun. Bending over to examine the labels, I was intrigued to discover that La Marquise was a “boisson alcoolisée” – a liqueur mixing rum from Cape Verde with South African white wine, spices from Madagascar, and Senegalese fruit. Flavors included mango, ginger, orange, tamarind, mad (a sour West African fruit), pineapple, passion fruit, and lemon. Pieces of fruit lined the bottoms of the bottles.

Noting my interest, the lady seated regally behind her creations offered me a sample, and I accepted a small test cup of passion fruit Marquise. Gearing up for the alcoholic jolt, I was shocked when the liqueur slid smoothly down (no cringe moment!) in a tangle of fruit and spices. The taste of rum was faint but just present enough to add a slight kick. Not bad for 7,000 CFA (less than $15) per bottle.

“I love the fabric at the top of the bottles,” I told the vendors.

“They’re like the head pieces that the Pulaar women wear, aren’t they?” one responded, smiling. I hadn’t thought of that, but the swirl of fabric did recall the local tikas worn by many women in my town of Kolda, in south Senegal.

According to the vendors, the Marquise liqueur recipe was passed down from their grandmothers and great-grandmothers since pre-colonial times. “La Marquise remains just as exhilarating and naughty today, especially in ginger,” noted the informational flier in flowery French. (Yes, I had to suppress giggles while reading this. Note: a gift of fresh ginger is considered quite seductive Senegal.)

The producers of Marquise don’t have a shop of their own yet – but in typical Senegalese fashion, you can give the vendor a call and she’ll make arrangements for you, no problemo. (Les Ateliers Nylanou, +221 338222718).

For the Food Lovers

The logical next step after the liqueur tasting was to visit the cheerful Michèle Jouga of Les Nougatines de Mame Michèle (+221 338231777). She sold peanut brittle, nougat, and organic jams in flavors of bissap (hibiscus)-menthe, orange-papaya, lemon, and baobab fruit (known as “pain du singe” – monkey bread). Samples provided.

Across the path, young Khady Ba showed off the products her family business: Milmaïs Bakery (+221 766808528), an enterprise using local products to make organic breads low in sugar, fat, and salt.

“My father Assane Ba founded the company,” Khady Ba told me proudly. “We don’t have a shop yet, which is why we offer free deliveries, but we hope to expand soon.”

The breads, sold in soft oval-shaped loaves, came in blends of maize, peanut, millet, fonio, sorghum, and even moringa (a highly nutritious plant many health workers – including myself! – are trying to promote throughout Senegal). I bought a moringa loaf, loving the sourdough-like taste. Wish I could bring that down south to Kolda...

Unlike most markets in Senegal, Marché Noël sold items at fixed prices - but some vendors offered slight discounts if I was chatty enough. In any case, the benefits brought to the local community were obvious, and I was happy to spend a little extra. Senegal’s Christmas may not be as flashy as the Western version, but think what they’re promoting: peaceful coexistence between religions, plus (through this market) support for local artists and entrepreneurs. In my book, that’s even better!