World
4:01 am
Wed October 24, 2012

Sheep Thrills: Senegal's 'Idol'-Style Pageant For Rams

Originally published on Wed October 24, 2012 12:02 pm

Senegal is awash with rams — stunning, immaculately groomed specimens, each with its own name and colorful, custom-made collar and tinkling sheep bell.

Everywhere you go, you hear "baa, baa" — sheep in their dozens, or alone, bleating from up above on a veranda or in a specially created enclosure in a backyard.

Many of the rams are bathed lovingly in the waves of the Atlantic Ocean, on the fringes of the capital, Dakar. The sheep are fed the best of everything and proudly paraded up and down the beaches.

There is a dual purpose. Dakar and other cities are preparing for Friday's Muslim holy day, Eid al-Adha — or Tabaski, as it's known all over West Africa — marking the celebration when Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son.

Religion And Culture

Media impresario Marianne Bathily explains the link between religion, the Quran, the Old Testament and the Senegalese fondness for sheep.

"Sheep is a sacred animal. When Abraham was asked to sacrifice his son to prove his faith, the ram — the magic animal — appeared and sacrificed itself in place of Abraham's son," Bathily says. "So, this ultimate sacrifice is the reason why here in Senegal, we believe that having a sheep in the house is protecting the house. It is protecting us from bad spirits. And the sheep will always sacrifice itself instead of us."

Senegal's love of sheep got Bathily thinking a few years ago that she had the ready-made ingredients for a Senegalese-style reality show: American Idol or X-Factor — featuring sheep.

"One day it just hit me [that] there is dog competition [or] cat competition in America or Europe, so we must have our own — our sheep competition, because this is what we like," she says.

Bathily grew up around sheep in her family compound, and talks passionately and engagingly about them.

"Here in Senegal, sheep and rams are our pets, you know," she says. "In Europe or U.S., you find dogs and cats in many homes. Here in Senegal — in 8 houses out of 10 — there are sheep and rams."

Idea For The Contest

She describes how she was stuck in traffic one day and watched as an elderly man proudly led a prized ram out of his compound, took up a seat on the sidewalk and sat down. He became the envy of the neighborhood, she says. Everyone who passed by stopped to admire the ram and compliment the old man.

That's when she conceived of Khar Bii, which means This Sheep in Wolof, Senegal's local lingua franca.

What began as a "joke" she says, has blossomed into a success story and a television show that is now in its fourth season, with loyal, record audiences nationwide.

The show's Facebook page has almost 9,000 fans. The massive volume of entries is testament to how much Senegalese love and respect their sheep — though many end up in the pot, nonetheless, on the annual Eid menu, Bathily notes.

She points out that the competition rams are not to be confused with sheep bred for meat and for cooking. And mostly female chefs, in search of their own prize, produce elaborate mutton meals and delectable local fruit juices and desserts as another, separate element of the show.

Televised regional heats of Khar Bii have crisscrossed Senegal, selecting rams to line up for the finals. Multiple shows have been broadcast in the buildup to Eid and the finale of Khar Bii's 2012 search for Senegal's most beautiful ram.

Gauging The Contestants

It is serious business. A team of vets and inspectors measures the sheep, and the criteria are exacting. Dr. Racine Samba Sow, head of the national jury selecting Senegal's top ram, says a good-looking ram is essential, but healthy sheep are a priority if you want to win the Khar Bii contest.

His teams also ensure the sheep are in good health when they are weighed. Some of the rams are huge — more the size of donkeys than sheep, says Bathily, laughing.

Rectal thermometers are inserted and, yes, the sheep are checked for both the symmetry of their horns and their testicles, Sow says.

The atmosphere in Dakar's Obelisk Square, where the finals of the show are being held, is festive, with dancing, singing and much merriment.

Diodji Xavier Ngom has traveled from Kaolack, in the heart of Senegal, with his regional finalist, Ngomez. All the rams are treated like treasures — stroked lovingly upon their heads by their keepers and owners. Ngom says sheep are good company — like brothers, like family — and he's surrounded by them at home.

Owners of fine rams walk the finalists up and down the sheep enclosures. Their glossy coats are brushed to perfection, curly horns burnished, and sheep bells and other adornments jingle as they are looked over by the judges.

Winners And Losers

Suddenly there is a hush in the arena, as the presenter begins calling out the names and towns or neighborhoods of the finalists.

Out trot the 16 rams, one by one, to thunderous applause from the spectators — women, children and men, most of them chanting the names of their favorite rams. Some of the sheep are real pros and are cooperative as they are led out into the arena. Others are a little nervous and clearly spooked by all the noise and fanfare.

The winner is bleating for a prize of about $4,000, Bathily says, and the stakes are high.

She emphasizes that the show hopes to raise the standard of sheep breeding in Senegal, with multiple opportunities for the winners, as prospective buyers and breeders come knocking.

Senegal imports most of its sheep from neighboring Mali — especially during the busy Eid season.

"It's a serious competition," Bathily says. "It is even having an economic impact [in Senegal]. Because for all the people who are participating in Khar Bii, it is a seal of quality. It's creating value. You will be selling your sheep with more value. The lamb will be of more value."

The big moment has arrived.

In third place: Salmane, from Parcelles.

Placing second: Alassane, the ram from Medina.

And the winner: Boy Serere, from Dakar's SICAP neighborhood.

Khar Bii is over for another year, and Boy Serere's supporters rush to give the winner the hugs worthy of a champion.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.