Borso Tall, 36, sits down to eat her first Tabaski feast of sheep as a woman living on her own. (Danielle Paquette/The Washington Post)

One of the most important holidays on the Islamic calendar — a festival of sacrifice called Eid al-Adha — is known as Tabaski in West Africa. 

Most people in Senegal are Muslim, and sheep are the centerpiece of their Tabaski rituals. Every family is expected to buy, kill and eat one. So, they were everywhere this month: tied up outside houses, in the backs of pickup trucks, roped next to backyard pools. 

The celebration is a nod to the story of Abraham, who was ordered by Allah to sacrifice his son. But just as the prophet raised his knife, Allah is said to have replaced the boy with a lamb. Now sheep represent faith. 

This religious fete comes with a set of social rules. The head of the household — almost always a man — is supposed to purchase the sheep. Widowed or divorced women generally return to their family’s home.

Breaking this mold is considered “radical” in the words of Borso Tall, The Washington Post’s news assistant in Dakar. Tall, 36, decided to celebrate on her own for the first time this year.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity. As told to West Africa bureau chief Danielle Paquette:

Just before Tabaski, I ran into my upstairs neighbor. We usually stop to chat. 

I said, “Hi, how are you doing? I just bought my sheep.” He said: “Wow, you are courageous.” 

It’s absolutely insane for a young woman to stay in her apartment with her own sheep on Tabaski. Tradition requires that you don’t leave your family’s home until you get married. 

But I felt like I had to do it.

I come from a line of strong women. 

My grandmother came to Senegal with her siblings from Mauritania. She didn’t speak the local language, but she flourished. My mom was extremely educated. A social worker. They broke gender norms silently their entire lives. 

My parents pushed me to pursue my dreams. My dad was a judge. He valued education, education, education. 

That’s how I ended up spending a lot of my life abroad.

I told them I wanted to improve my English, so they let me stay with my older brother in Atlanta for a few months when I was a teenager. I ended up staying for almost three years and finished high school there.

Then I moved to Paris and studied journalism for a while. Education brought me back to Dakar and then took me to other places like Arizona and Scotland.

I returned to Dakar this year.

I didn’t really have money when I came back in January. It was time to finally put down roots. Look for work. My younger brother allowed me to stay with him, which was very generous. But he had gotten married, and it was a full house. 

That’s where my parents were staying. I chose to sleep on a couch by their side. 

Mom had been sick, and I wanted to constantly check on her health. I could often hear her coughing. I knew it was bad, so I took her to the hospital. 

The doctor told me we’d be staying. So that’s where we were for two months.

She was 67. She had hypertension, advanced diabetes and problems with her kidneys. After she left the hospital and we understood her diagnosis, I wanted a place of my own. But I knew it would be frowned upon if I sought that.

I asked my mother: “What do you think I should do?” She said: “Take your independence right now. Just do it. Things will follow. I will support you.”

My mom wanted to protect me, so she moved in with me instead of staying at my brother’s much bigger house with my father.

We found a place in a neighborhood I really like. It’s by a green mosque and my mom liked to hear the call to prayer.

She was still sick, but she seemed stable. We made sure she never missed a dialysis session. But two months ago, she started coughing again. 

As my father drove us to the hospital, she took her last breath on my chest. 

I’m still grieving. 

Everyone expected me to move back in with my brother. But I don’t want to do that. Everything I’m doing now, I’m doing for Mom. I want her to see that I’m still moving forward. I’m still independent. 

Tabaski feels profound to me this year. My life changed overnight.

I asked the landlady if I could buy the apartment. She said no because it’s part of a building. So then I thought: Okay, if I have money in five years, I’m going to buy the whole building.


Borso Tall holds the horns from the sheep she bought for Tabaski. She might turn them into art or a pen holder. (Danielle Paquette/The Washington Post)

So now what was supposed to be me and Mom’s house is my house. I vowed to buy a sheep. I didn’t know what I was doing, though. 

I called my younger brother and asked him to go to the market with me. He was willing to do it after I said “for Mom’s memory.”

We went to the sheep seller. I picked one out and negotiated with the guy. He wouldn’t lower the price. I agreed to pay 120,000 West African CFA francs (or about $205).

My sheep was medium-sized. Rich people buy giant ones. 

If you don’t have much money, you buy a goat. I felt lucky enough to be able to buy a sheep. I kept the horns. 

I wasn’t allowed to do the slaughter myself because I’m a woman. So my brother did it. Then I asked my old neighbor to grill the meat. (My kitchen isn’t done yet — I’m still furnishing my apartment bit by bit.)

She added raw onions and vegetables. I prepared an assortment of mango, hibiscus and baobab juices.

People might ask why I didn’t just go to my brother’s. I couldn’t leave empty the apartment where my mother had passed, though. I wanted to fill it with feast — as she would want me to do. Doing anything else would feel like going backward. 

I gave a lot of the extra meat to people on my street. I gave loaves of bread and butter to a building with lots of kids for their breakfast. You’re supposed to give people things on Tabaski. 

Before the meal, I arranged the meat on one of her old silver platters. You tear it from the bones with your hands. Someday, I’d like to share this kind of feast with a family I choose to build — not out of social pressure but in the name of love. I haven’t given up on that. 

The sheep tasted so good. I bit into it and said, “This tastes like pride.”