Deck the halls! Muslim Senegal celebrates Christmas

DAKAR: After his morning prayers at the mosque, 25-year-old Mamadou Aliou Ba puts on his Santa suit, the padded belly protruding from his thin, tall frame, and goes to work. He stands proudly, smiling from behind a snowy white mustache and beard that take over his face, waving to families walking by the supermarket in one of Dakar's wealthier neighbourhoods.

Ba is one of many Pere Noels, or Father Christmases, seen in Senegal's capital this festive season. He, like the majority of Senegalese, is Muslim and yet celebrates Christmas.

"Everyone, Christians and Muslims, celebrate Christmas here," he said, holding up a small bag of candies he gives out as gifts. "I like to do this work," Ba says, adding that he also enjoys the extra money.

About 94 percent of Senegal's 14 million people are Muslim, but Christmas is everywhere. Street vendors hawk tinseled garlands, blow-up Santas, Christmas trees and ornaments. Giant candy canes line the path to one mall where a sleigh sits in the tropical heat, and at an amusement park a large Santa Claus statue greets visitors.

The prominence of the Christian holiday highlights that Senegal is a bright spot of tolerance and diversity in West Africa where many countries are divided by religion and ethnicity and where the threat of Islamic extremism is growing.

Daouda Sow (45), a Muslim businessman says he has a Christmas tree at home.

"This is the culture in Senegal," he said. "It's very open, and it's different from our neighbors such as Guinea or Mali."

Sow says he has celebrated the holiday since he was a child. "The two religions, we are in it together," he said, using a phrase common in Senegalese culture. "We are invited to celebrate holidays like Easter and Christmas, and we invite Christians to celebrate our holidays with us." Members of the same families may also practice different religions, he said.

This year is particularly special because the celebration of Moulid al-Nabi, the birth of the Prophet Muhammed, is followed just a day later by Christmas, said Bakary Sambe, an assistant professor at Gaston Berger university in St. Louis, on Senegal's northern coast.

"The celebrations symbolize the uniqueness of Senegal, where we are a Muslim majority and where we have a special cohabitation between Muslims and Christians," said Sambe, also the head of the Observatory on Religions, Radicalism and Conflict in Africa.

In Senegal, most Muslims belong to one of the Sufi brotherhoods, "which interpret Islam according to our social values in a peaceful way, based on education and tolerance. ... We have a critical assimilation of Islamic faith. We accept it as a faith, but we try always to harmonise between Islamic and local values," said Sambe.

This has been a barrier against the Islamic extremism seen in neighboring countries in West and Central Africa, said Sambe.

Worries of extremism have caused Senegalese authorities to propose banning fireworks for New Year's Eve celebrations and some vendors have complained that less tolerance for public gatherings could hurt business.

Senegalese of whatever faith get into the Christmas spirit of celebration.

"For us, it's a night out!" said Ouli Sanokho, a 23-year-old who works at a call center. "In fact, we celebrate the entire month," quickly adding that alcohol is not imbibed.

Ashok Chellani, said he is pleased to have a Santa in front of the supermarket he manages. He is Hindu and said he welcomes the month of celebration.

"We are in this together," he said, adding that the Santa will be at his shop until December 31. "A festival is a festival!"