DAKAR, Senegal — The street level of Ousmane Ndiaye's building features a fabric shop. He and his family live in a posh apartment on the second floor. Their upstairs neighbors? His beloved ram Billal and 10 other sheep.
Here his animals prance on a sunny outdoor terrace well above the commotion of buses and vendors below, and only rarely use the building's winding staircase.
Billal is fed the family's dinner leftovers, and Ndiaye jokes that his wife is jealous of his sheep. The family even foregoes potential rental income by leaving the upper level of their building unfinished.
"I could rent this place out for 250,000 francs ($500) a month, but I prefer to keep Billal and my sheep here," says Ndiaye, 60, sporting a royal blue boubou as he strokes the head of the sheep he hopes will become a reality television star.
In a nation where sheep are given names and kept inside homes as companion animals, the most popular television show is "Khar Bii," or literally, "This Sheep," in the local Wolof language.
It's an American Idol-style nationwide search for Senegal's most perfect specimen. Now in its fourth season, the show airs several times a week in the months leading up to Eid al-Adha, or Tabaski, as it's known here.
The feast of sacrifice is when Muslims around the world slaughter animals in remembrance of Abraham's near-sacrifice of his son.
In Senegal, the sheep's ties to the important religious holiday have made them a part of many urban families in this predominantly Muslim country of 12.8 million people. Still, every family that can sacrifices a ram at Tabaski, when an estimated 712,000 sheep will be purchased for slaughter. Some 240,000 of those are in the Dakar region alone, where supermarkets are already offering scratch tickets for a chance to win a free Tabaski sheep.
"The Senegalese are really into their sheep," says Fadilou Keita, 28, who lives with six of them by night at his Dakar home. The financial analyst carries his iPad in one hand and sticks his other in the mouth of Aziz to drag him toward the weigh-in scale. "This is my passion."
The finalists from each region of the country now face off later this month for a chance to win 2,000,000 francs ($4,000) and the extra prestige to their future breeding credentials, said veterinarian Dr. Mamadou Ba, a consultant for one of the program's sponsors.
The TV show's Facebook page has nearly 9,000 fans. The sheer volume of entries and its loyal viewership are testaments to just how much the Senegalese love their sheep.
As the country has urbanized, many have kept alive the tradition of sheep raising. It's not unusual to see them grazing in an urban traffic circle or seeking shade near cars at a taxi rank.
The TV show "Khar Bii" follows a team of judges as they make housecalls to scope out potential candidates for regional finals. Trekking down sandy side streets and up on to rooftops, the crews set off in search of an animal with both size and composure.
In one Dakar neighborhood, the "Khar Bii" team ducks under lines of clothes drying in a courtyard reeking of urine until the ram named Cherif is brought out of his pen.
A staffer with a face mask uses a rectal thermometer to be sure the animal is healthy enough for the competition. It takes a total of four people to keep Cherif still while they measure him in length.
The finalists from home visits then square off at regional finals, where one doting owner even brought a special umbrella to protect his sheep Dogo from the blazing sun overhead.
"Some people love cats, some people love dogs. Here we have sheep," says Abou Aziz Mare, 27, who says he spends three to four hours a day on his terrace with his animals. "I live with him like a close friend," he says of Dogo.
Samba Fall, 44, keeps seven sheep at his home in Dakar's Medina neighborhood though his clear favorite is blue-eyed Papis General Fall.
"He is like my little son," Fall says, stroking Papis between his horns. "I prefer being with my sheep to being with people. Sheep don't talk about insignificant things."
Some sheep in Senegal's capital are fed cardboard cartons to line their bellies or are forced to scrounge for trash. Fall says he spoils his sheep by mixing up a medley of corn, millet, beans and sorghum.
"Across the house he hears the pieces dropping into the bowl and comes to find me," he says with a proud smile.
Papis General Fall is among the nine finalists in one Dakar neighborhood when he is led out of his pen on a rope and brought past the judges before being given a bag of food to keep him busy while the other finalists are trotted out one by one to the loud beats of a drum circle.
An audience in white plastic lawn chairs waves fans in the heat as the announcer calls out each animal's measurements and owner's name.
Each ram competing on "Khar Bii" is graded on a series of physical criteria — including up to five points awarded for the symmetry of its testicles and another 5 points possible for the quality of its coat. How well the sheep marches with his owner is another 10 points.
And overall size is key: Papis General Fall at 225 pounds (102 kilograms) failed to advance, and the neighborhood prize went to Alassane — a ram weighing in at 280 pounds (127 kilograms).
The victor had a snow-white coat and red collar with his name embroidered in green and yellow letters — the colors of the Senegalese flag.Comment on this story
Even for the sheep who don't win cash prizes, there is still plenty of love. Lamine Diop, a 33-year-old post office worker, keeps a photo of Eto'o on his cell phone.
"I treat him like a brother," Diop says of the animal named for Cameroonian soccer player Samuel Eto'o. "A sheep is a part of the family. When the sheep is sick, it's like a member of the family is sick."
Khar Bii: http://www.facebook.com/(hash)!/kharbii