We've already learned a lot about Ramadan this month from our neighbors. This weekend is the major holiday called Korite (Eid ul-Fitr in other countries), which is the official breaking of the fasting period. As part of the celebration, the head of household will buy a goat or a sheep, or split the cost of a whole cow to share among their neighbors and friends. There is still a lot though, that I don't understand. As I type, there is some loud chanting blaring from the mosques loudspeakers which lasted until 1:30am.
In order to understand the culture better, I took my eldest son, Jacob, on a guys trip to buy a sheep at a farmer's market. After haggling with several vendors, they tied the animal on top of our luggage rack. Then we took it to a man's house and watched them perform a process as old as time. To be honest, Jacob got a little queezy and had to sit down for a while, but I wanted him to experience this with his dad, because this is an important part of life here in Africa. For someone raised in an urban culture or suburbia, where meat is cleanly wrapped in celophane, he got a glimpse of what life is like for a majority of the world. In a sense, it was like a little rite of passage for my son. Definitely a "guy thing" and kind of gross, we honored mother's wishes by bringing all the mutton home in ziploc freezer bags.
The next week I was asked by one of my Senegelese pastor friends to drive him and his 6 year old son and another young boy to a circumcision ceremony. (My son opted out on this opportunity for male bonding). So, on Saturday, I picked them up at church and we drove for an hour out to a remote health center. After some awkward silence, I asked about the cultural signficance of this ritual for the Sereer people and why they don't perform this surgery after the birth. He told me that circumcision is really seen as a right of passage for manhood. Traditionally they would send the young man out into the bush alone to fend for himself for a month or more, then after a period of separation he would return for a huge party of celebration where the father would kill a fattened cow for a feast lasting several days. Often the circumcision didn't happen until much later in adolescence or early adulthood, usually just before the wedding ceremony. My pastor friend was not circumcised until he was 28 years old, but now the culture is changing and they are starting to do it more when the boys are younger.
We all waited nervously outside the dingy medical clinic as the boys tried to figure out who was going first. The door opened and the father and the pastor's son went inside the room. I thought I would hear crying but it was strangely silent. After 30 minutes, this little guy come out of the room smiling and tell his dad, "I didn't even cry once". Meanwhile, his little friend hid his face in my lap knowing it was his turn next. Since his dad couldn't be there, I became a surogate father for the moment and patted his back trying to reassure him that everything is going to be alright.
The second boy sheepishly went into the room and was a little off-color when he returned. Both boys were wearing little white hospital gowns. I put on some Serer music and tried to change the subject. I felt bad when I heard one of the boys, actually puking in my car. We pulled over and cleaned up the mess, then I did something probably not culturally appropriate - I offered them some Ibuprofen pills which Nicole had sent with me.
For those living cross-culturally this kind of purposeful immersion does change your standing in the community. When you understand more of what's going on, the significance of things and have shared intense moments together, there is a sense of you moving deeper and closer to the people you live among. So in that sense, our whole family has experienced a series of rites of passage as we minister in Senegal.