Fete de Mouton

Ever been to a sheep party? Well I have! Fete de Mouton, or Eid-al-Adha (the feast of sacrifice), is the major Muslim holiday celebrating the willingness of Ibrahim to sacrifice his son, Ismail, for God, who later intervened and replaced Ismail with a sheep instead. To commemorate Ibrahim’s sacrifice, every year Muslims worldwide sacrifice a sheep, and divide it into three parts (for family, for friends/neighbors, and for the poor). This was my first major Muslim holiday that I’ve spent in an almost exclusively Islamic village. What I thought was just a one day celebration, in fact is a week long celebration in Ngatt. It definitely didn’t disappoint for my first week in village, that is for sure.

The Feast
Since Eid-al-Adha is based off the lunar calendar, like all Muslim holidays, the exact date was unknown. Well, it could’ve been known if any of the people in Ngatt had access to internet, but instead they merely played it day-by-day to see when the moon was right. Throughout my first week, everyone assured me that it was going to be Sunday, so I planned my schedule accordingly. I scheduled to be at the hospital on Saturday and I told my landlord’s family that I’d bake several cakes on Sunday for the festival. But low and behold, I woke up to Abdou, my landlord’s son, tapping on my door early Saturday morning with a piping hot pot of corn beignets and saying ‘Barka de Salla!’ - for happy holiday! I stared at him, “Huh?! Juuldee…alat…!?” - but the festival…is Sunday…?!? Nope, apparently they decided last night that Saturday would be the festival. Go figure.

I took the beignets and ate them as I thought about how I could cram in work, watching the festivities, and baking three cakes (which also involved setting up my Dutch oven). I chose the lets-see-what-happens approach, I finished my beignets and walked to work while greeting every person I encountered on my walk, which is just what you have to do here. I got to work, had a good hour long meeting with the hospital chief explaining what work I did in my old village and what I envision doing in Ngatt. After he told me about the needs of the community and we finished the meeting, all the Muslims were headed to the top of the village to pray. (Ngatt is located on the side of a small hill, so the top of the village is the start, and the bottom of the hill is the end of the village). Everyone I knew who passed me said that I had to go take pictures, so I asked Moussa to give me a short break and I followed the crowd. What seemed like every male in Ngatt was gathered at the base of the cell tower for prayer. I stood in the back, as it is not customary for women to be able to attend the prayer until they have reached menopause. The Chief of Ngatt’s guards stood in the back with me with their spears in hand and explained the prayer to me as I took pictures. They translated the Imam’s prayer and explained why women weren’t allowed to pray with the men. I watched the perfectly choreographed standing, kneeling and bowing of the men as they faced the cell tower (it looked like they were prayers to the Heavenly Father of Good Cell Reception, rather than Allah).

When the prayer finished, the mob descended upon me. Everyone wanted their picture taken and everyone wanted me to take videos of them speaking Fulfulde and about the holiday. After appeasing as many people as I could, I headed back out on the road to watch the village chief get carted away in his car to his house, which would have otherwise been a five minute walk away. Everyone ran after the car as I rejoined Moussa and we walked together toward the chief’s home. When the mob at his house finally dissipated, Moussa and I were invited in to sit in a completely dirt room draped in elegant pagne and flanked with men wearing large, colorful boubous. The chief looked down from his ‘throne’ in his large white headwrap at me sitting on the floor as Moussa explained why I’m living in Ngatt. The chief was extremely receptive and joked with me about me already learning Fulfulde (Unbeknownst to me, he had stopped by my house the first day I was in Ngatt to greet me while I was in pajamas…an awkward first introduction if I’ve ever seen one).

After the visit at the chief’s, I headed home to begin baking cakes. My landlord, Oumarou, said he was inviting friends over to eat the cakes with him. I had assumed he was bringing our neighbors and his family, but no, at 3pm he showed up with all the prominent Muslim men in Ngatt. They gathered in a circle and sat on my drab concrete floor in their elegant boubous as I passed around banana bread, red velvet cake, and brownies and as I attempted to explain a bit about America. My landlord is a prominent Muslim in Ngatt, so he invited his brothers, who are just as genial as he, as well as the Imam, and several men who have already made their pilgrammage to Mecca. I held my breath as they all took their first bites of the cake. It was a sight to see - all these grown men, sitting Indian style on my floor, eating cake with their hands in their nice attire. While I was worried the food would be a failure, soon a smile broke out on all their faces. One particular Alhadji (someone who has been to Mecca), said he loved the cake so much that he will return every Friday for cake - and he also wants me to be his 4th wife, since his other wives can’t bake cake. When everyone finished eating, the Alhadji led a group prayer for the holiday and for my work in Ngatt. When that finished, we headed outside my house for a group picture. Once they saw the first photo, all the men turned into young boys and joked about the way each other looked, and they kept asking for more photos so that those in the back could be in the front. It was a very unconventional Fete de Mouton, but it was perfect. Little did I know, the fete didn’t end there.

The Fantasia 
I’ve wanted to go to a fantasia in Cameroon for some time, but living in Lomie made that extremely difficult. Fantasias are when the Lamido holds a celebration where men get on brightly decorated horses and charge towards the Lamido to show their gratitude for his rule. Fantasias only happen on Fete de Ramadan, Fete de Mouton, 20 May celebration, and perhaps if an outside delegate is visiting. The fantasia in Tibati was to be held 3 days after Fete de Mouton, so after I finished with work on Monday, I hitch hiked a bus to Tibati, where a massive storm was rolling in.

I was meant to meet up with Victoria, the PCV in Tibati, but the storm kept her at home for the time being. As I raced towards the Lamidat, my sandal broke. Clueless on what to do, I ran up and down the street barefoot, looking for a store that was still open that would sell shoes. Finally, I found one, and asked the man for his cheapest pair of shoes. I got what I paid for - the ugliest pair of while floral sandals, designed for children, for $1. I’ll take it and risk looking like an idiot rather than sustaining a foot injury! I finished my run to the Lamidat and was invited indoors by several of the horse riders for the ceremony. I took off my ugly children’s shoes at the door and joined the men sitting in what I would describe to be a large sandbox. An hour later, the storm ended and the preparations for the fantasia continued.

A while later I spotted Victoria and we sat in the plastic chairs that had been laid out for viewing the fantasia. After a while we noticed that it was only Muslim men who were sitting in the chairs, so feeling very out-of-place, we quickly left our seats to join the women and children in the crowd. Not long after, the men in the chairs summoned us to sit with them again. Having no choice, we agreed.

At this point, the fantasia was beginning. The Lamido was paraded out on a horse and men held up red parasols above his head and spinned them as he walked. The Lamido did a parade around the market like this, before returning to the entrance of the Lamidat. This is when the 10 or so other horses walked far down the road and in small groups, or individually, proceeded to charge towards the Lamido and suddenly stop in front of him, raising their arms in gratitude. This whole process was repeated for the next hour, occasionally with the Lamido himself joining the group and charging towards the Lamidat. It was a beautiful sight to be seen, and also quite magical. Not to mention, the Tibati Lamido is one cool guy with his white turban and sunglasses! Not to mention, he is a friend of the Peace Corps.

The Fete 

As I said, the Fete de Mouton ended up continuing for an entire week. After the fantasia in Tibati (which normally marks the end of the holiday), Ngatt just kept on partying. In the past, Mbororos from all over the region would congregate in Ngatt after the Fete de Mouton and hold traditional dances for a week. “Why Ngatt,” I asked a young man attending the celebration with me. “Because Ngatt is known for being the most socially organized and structured!”, he explained as if it were evident. Now, most Mbororos don’t come for the celebration anymore, it continues nonetheless with the Ngatt Mbororos. On Tuesday night I headed to the primary school with my neighbor Ruai and her friends. We watched and Mbororos from nearby (but also from the CAR) gathered around and danced. After a nearly 2 hour photoshoot with Rugai and her friends, I returned to the festival.

Mbororo dancing is very odd and reminds me strikingly of awkward high school formals. All the men link arms in a semi-circle, as the girls stand at a distance. The drummers play the same rhythm over and over again: tam-tamtam-tam-tam-tamtam-tam from 3pm to 9pm. The girls walk with the drummers towards the gathered boys. Each girl chooses one boy, pulls him from the group, and brings him to the ‘middle ground’, which is where everyone then busts the same exact dance move, which goes something like this: Stand up, bend forward so your torso is parallel with the floor and your butt is sticking out, and then wag your behind for a good 15 seconds. After everyone does this move, the men return to their semicircle and the girls return to their mass, and the whole process is repeated again. The Mbororo do this for 6 hours straight, without variation, and without stopping. I got in there at one point and shook what little behind I had, and judging by the laugher, I should start my own comedy show.

All around the dancing crowd, women and girls sold oranges, guavas, chewing gum, and other crackers and biscuits as the dancing continued into the night. Rugai paced back and forth in the crowd, acting either too 'busy' or too 'cool' to join the dancing. I decided to ditch her and her teenage wanderings and go sit to watch the dancing. As I said, pretty much every aspect reminded me of an awkward school formal. As the sun started to set, I followed the group from the school to the market, where they continued for several hours more. This whole process was repeated every night for a week.

While I fail to comprehend the significance of this Mbororo festival and of the dance itself, it was nonetheless an amazing cultural experience that provided much insight into the local community, and what I do realize is that this is just one more way for the Mbororo to manifest the celebration of this holy holiday. All the fete-business made for an eventful first week in Ngatt, but with that came exhaustion that I inevitably had every day, but it also came much insight into the community and some great friendships.


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