DAKAR, Senegal — After prayers at the mosque, Ibrahim Lo is off to do some last-minute Christmas shopping. Soon he is eyeing the rows of dolls wrapped in plastic bags on a wooden table as he searches for gifts for his four children.
A bouquet of inflatable Santa toys tied to a nearby tree bobs in the air at this outdoor market in the seaside capital as he makes his picks.
It looks a lot like Christmas in Senegal, where 95 percent of the 12.8 million residents are Muslim. Even the Grande Mosquee, a mosque that dominates the city’s skyline, is aglow in holiday lights.
“When they go to school, the children learn about Santa,” says Lo, wearing a flowing olive green robe known as a boubou. “We are born into the Senegalese tradition of cohabitation between Muslims and Christians. What is essential is the respect between people.”
Senegal, a moderate country along Africa’s western coast, has long been a place where Christians and Muslims have coexisted peacefully. Most Christians here are Catholic and live in the south of country and in the capital.
Hadim Thiam, 30, normally sells shoes but during December he’s expanded to an elaborate spread of tinsel, cans of spray snow and fireworks.
“It’s not linked to God. It’s for the children,” says Jean Mouss, 55, a Christian out shopping for holiday decorations at Thiam’s stand. “We wish Muslims a Merry Christmas and invite them into our homes for the holiday.”
Signs of Christmas are prevalent in this tropical seaside capital.
Green and flocked plastic trees of every size are sold on street corners alongside Nescafe carts and vendors splitting open coconuts. “My First Christmas” baby sleepers are folded neatly on the top of the piles of second-hand clothing for sale on the streets. There are French “buches de Noel” and chocolate snowmen for sale in the upscale patisseries.
At lunchtime, a chorus of schoolchildren singing “Silent Night” echoes across a courtyard. The main cathedral is now a spectacle of lights each night — no easy feat for a city often subjected to power cuts.
Still, not everyone in Senegal thinks embracing Christmas is all in good cheer. Mouhamed Seck, a Quranic teacher and imam for a mosque in a Dakar suburb, says taking part in the holiday is supporting a non-Muslim religion.
“Islam forbids Muslims from taking part in these festivities,” he says.
Parents who celebrate Christmas, though, say it’s a secular time to celebrate with their families on a national holiday.
“To make my two children happy, I buy gifts for them and ask their mother to prepare a very hearty meal but we don’t go to Mass,” says Oumar Fall, 46, who has a 10-year-old and a 13-year-old.
Santa Claus, known in this former French colony as Pere Noel, also makes the rounds at upscale shopping centers and grocery stores in the weeks before Christmas.
Mamadou Sy, 40, had been working at a hotel in Morocco until his visa recently expired. Now back in Senegal, he’s making extra money this December as a Santa at the seaside Magicland amusement park.
Like children everywhere, some are frightened by him, but most just want pictures — and presents.
“Senegal is a unique case where 5 percent of the country is Christian,” he says, seeking shade while wearing his red fur costume and hat. “Christians celebrate Muslim holidays and Muslims celebrate Christian holidays.”
The tradition even extends to Senegalese schools. Therese Angelique Soumare’s students all get together for a Christmas party the weekend before the holiday with their parents. The teachers put presents under a tree and Santa Claus shows up to hand them out.
“Everyone celebrates because it’s for the children. Here in Senegal we are good neighbors,” she says as she picks out gifts for the party. “We sing, we dance and we love seeing the children’s joy.”
Associated Press writer Sadibou Marone contributed to this report.