For Tabaski holiday in Mali, families pay to sacrifice sheep

MOPTI, Mali — For this year’s Tabaski, the African celebrations of the Muslim Eid holidays, the sacrifice of animals is not limited to the thousands of sheep that are slaughtered. The Muslim celebration has also put many Malians in a financial bind.

Tabaski — also known here as Aid el-Kebir — requires Muslim heads of households with sufficient financial means to sacrifice a sheep to honor Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his son Ismael to Allah. Ismael was replaced at the last minute by a sheep as Allah had been satisfied with Ibrahim’s devotion.

As they do every year, sheep prices skyrocketed as the feast of the sacrifice approached, driven in part by unscrupulous speculators. The problem: There is less money going around than in years past as Mali — one of the world’s poorest countries — is feeling the pinch of the global economic slowdown.

In Mopti, Amadou Doumbia said he had found a solution to the conundrum. To avoid being at the mercy of greedy sheep sellers, he had decided to raise his own and had two sheep ready for the feast.

“This year they are crazy,” said Doumbia of the sheep merchants. “They think that everybody has money.”

In this city of about 100,000 located on the banks of the Niger river, business appeared to be brisk as live sheep could be seen traveling on top of buses, in carts, on motorcycles or on people’s backs. Some enterprising animals, trying to take advantage of their new owner’s poor herding ability, attempted to escape but secured only temporary freedom and laughter from passersby.

At one of the city’s main sheep markets, the story was different. At dusk on the eve of Tabaski, the market was still full of unsold sheep — a sight akin to a parking lot full of Christmas trees a few hours before Christmas.

The situation was similar a day earlier in Timbuktu where Tuaregs and Arab nomads left the desert to bring their sheep to market. Abdallah Ag Beidoudji said business was much slower than last year. He said that he had sold only five of the 10 sheep he had brought — a worrying fact just a day before the closure of the markets.

Unlike what happens in big cities where intermediaries drive prices higher, Beidoudji sells his animals directly to his customers. Whereas he sold a sheep for about $180 last year, this year he only got a quarter of that price, he said.

“People have no money in Timbuktu,” Beidoudji said. “There is more supply than demand, so the prices have to come down.”

As to prove Beidoudji’s point, an SUV driver trying to find his way through the sheep clusters joked: “There are too many sheep here. People must buy them.”

Tabaski is the most important holiday in Mali — a country that is 90 percent Muslim — surpassing even Eid ul-Fitr, the celebration that marks the end of Ramadan, according to Mahamadou Haidara, an imam in Bamako, Mali's capital.

Fathers who can afford it must buy one sheep — or several if they are polygamous — as well as new clothes and shoes for their wives and children. Sheep prices vary depending on the size and breed and can reach up to $900 for the most sought-after rams. Some Malians save all year long to be able to buy a sheep that they will keep inside their house for days in anticipation of the feast.

Tabaski imposes a heavy financial burden on Malians. Mali, a country that is mostly desert and semi-desert, ranks among the 25 poorest nations in the world. For the first time since 2000, the country’s gross domestic product decreased this year to $8.76 billion, or just $641 per capita.

To reduce the stress levels of Malian men, Le Republicain, a Malian newspaper, advised women to go easy on purchases of clothes, jewels and expensive hair appointments.

“There is no need to be capricious and demand the impossible from your husband to celebrate the holiday,” the newspaper recommended. “To behave as a good wife, you can choose simplicity given the state of the economy of our country.”