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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Hunger Games: Ramadan 2014, week three

Hello from the Kolda Regional House!  The regional house is a place for all PCVs in the area to get together for meetings, parties, trainings, or other events.  It has beds for dozens of people, a bathroom with a shower and a flush toilet, internet (usually), and thousands of books.  I live on the other side of Kolda from the regional house, so it takes me about four hours to get here, so I don’t visit too often: this was my first time to the house since I moved to Teyel over two months ago.  I came this weekend because we had mandatory all-region meetings on Sunday and Monday, where we talked about projects that Kolda volunteers are doing in their sites, then today (Tuesday) we new volunteers had agriculture training, which consisted of five hours of planting seeds, transplanting tree seedlings, pruning, digging garden beds, and adding proper soil amendments.

I had decided that I wasn’t going to follow my Ramadan fast at the regional house, because I didn’t want to waste the opportunity to enjoy good American food with good American people, and I’m happy with my decision.  It was rejuvenating to be out of the village for a few days, and I definitely enjoyed the yogurt, pizza, beer, and hamburgers available in the city!  When I go back to village tomorrow, however, the fast will be back on.  I’ve missed it.

I’ve been thinking a lot this month about what Ramadan represents culturally.  I am definitely not an expert on Ramadan – I don’t even think I could call myself a novice.  Nonetheless, I’m going to throw my opinions up on here for anyone that wants to read about it, and please feel free to leave a comment with your opinions, too. 

Ramadan is, at first glance, a religious holiday, and any attempt to describe its origins is therefore religious.  However, like Christmas celebrations in America have changed over time and now have little to do with Mary’s virgin birth, Ramadan has changed as well. It has become an integral, almost tangible part of village culture.  It’s not only about the Koran and prayer times.  It’s more than that, in ways that are hard to describe...but I'm going to try.

It’s about camaraderie with neighbors.  Breaking fast with someone is a bonding experience, and so is partaking in the hilarious afternoon conversations that end in lists of foods you longingly wish you were eating.  There are plenty of people fasting because of their strong religious faith, but there are plenty of others who are doing it simply because it’s fun to be a part of the group.  Fasting is a central component of small talk this month.  “How’s the fast?” and “How’s the tiredness?” are standard greetings.  Nobody expects children to fast, but many choose to, anyway, at least for a few days, just because they want to feel like a grown up, like part of the group. 

It’s about self-discipline and control.  Ramadan is easier than I thought it would be.  My body adjusted to the altered feeding and watering schedule and I have had plenty of energy.  However, people in my community don’t like to hear that.  They revel in the challenge.  They like to hear that it’s hard.  “How’s the fast?” is usually answered with “I’m working hard, little by little!” or “I’m wrestling!” People will brag about how much work they did without any food or water and about how hungry and tired they are.  They brag about it like a frat boy brags about how bad his hangover is.  Again, in my experience, the fasting is really not bad.  Ramadan days are only about fourteen hours long, so even for an exceptionally active person, it’s not overwhelming.  Plus, the people here are not idiots.  If they truly stretch beyond their limits and need a break, they take one, gracefully, supported by everyone.  If someone leaves the fast temporarily or permanently, it’s a cultural taboo to ask them why.  Everyone is accepting.

It’s about being thankful for what you have.  My uncle Bubacar explained that the month of Ramadan makes him appreciate the other 11 months of the year more.  I know I, personally, have never appreciated clean, fresh, cool water more than I do at the end of a Ramadan day.  Food tastes better when you’ve been anticipating it for hours.  Devout Muslims give up smoking, sex, impure thoughts, gossip, travel to sinful places, etc., too, and the anticipation probably makes them appreciate those things even more, too.

It’s about compassion.  Since everyone is hangry, everyone understands that the hangriness is nothing personal.  When my brother snapped at his kids a few days ago, everyone rushed to his defense, including the kids themselves.  “He’s very tired today!  He worked very hard!  He must rest!”  Everyone is given the benefit of the doubt during Ramadan.  When I’m not feeling 100%, everyone understands.  When I greet people in the afternoon, I am usually asked if I’m tired and if I’d like to take a nap.  This isn’t in a condescending way – it’s just people looking out for one another.  It’s nice to blame bad moods on Ramadan instead of blaming the person themselves.

Like I said, I don’t want to give the impression that I understand the culture here.  I am an American, not a Senegalese, and my own ethnocentrism is unavoidably clouding everything I see.  I think I understand more now than I did, though, and I’m trying to keep my mind open to learn more.

One week of Ramadan left to go, then it’s off the Thies for more technical training!  Until next time.  

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Hunger Games: Ramadan 2014, week two

Week two of Ramadan was a little easier than week one physically, because my body has adjusted to the altered feeding schedule.  However, many people, myself included, have been testy or even downright cranky in the afternoons.  Take a normal feeling of “hangry,” multiply it by 5, and imagine that everyone you come into contact with all day feels the same way.  Reading through my journal is funny.  Entries written in the afternoon or early evening are pessimistic and entries written in the mornings and late evenings are not.  It’s like there were two different people writing it, and one of them's a bitch.

Ramadan’s been easier physically because I started eating like my family does.  Last week, I would break fast as the sun set (with my family, or in town at a sandwich stand), then go to bed soon after.  I felt full after breaking fast and I usually try to avoid eating when I’m not hungry, especially since I knew I’d be waking up early to eat more just before sunrise.  The first week of fasting, even though I didn’t feel too hungry, I started getting dizzy while walking around in the afternoons, and I came close to fainting a couple times.  I decided to try a new strategy.  When in Teyel, do as the Teyelians do, right?  Therefore, this second week, I started eating the evening meal with my family (at around 9-10 pm). The last few days, I’ve been eating everything they put in front of me.  Last night’s dinner had courses, Beauty and the Beast style.  We started with bread and leaf coffee, then ate gosse girte (which is technically the “thin rice porridge” out of a Charles Dickens novel, but is delicious if we have enough money for sugar at the time), then couscous and bean sauce, then more bread, then peanuts.  After every course, my family would discuss how they were haari (full), but not yet haari tepp (very full), so more food was needed.  Every day is Thanksgiving during Ramadan, and every night I fall asleep in a food coma.

Because I’m eating more, I have more energy.  I’m able to do everything physically that I was doing before Ramadan started.  I’m posting this today from Velingara, the closest town with electricity and internet, which is nine miles from Teyel.  I biked here today, and I’m planning on biking home later, and I feel totally confident in my body’s ability to do that.  I haven’t gone running since Ramadan started (I don’t want to stretch myself too far) but I’ve been able to do normal light activity (walking, biking, laundry, etc.)

Not drinking water is not nearly as hard as I thought it would be.  I realized that thirst can safely be ignored.  I’ve always been scared to not drink water when I was thirsty, so this is the first time I’ve tried to stretch that limit, and it’s a lot easier than I thought it would be.  The thirst is there, but it’s not overpowering, and every evening, that first drink of water is like heaven.  Interestingly, when I first drink water, my whole body breaks into a sweat almost instantly, even though I never feel warm at the time.  I drink tons of water at night and in the early morning, and I haven’t had any trouble with getting dangerously thirsty during the day.  I suppose our bodies didn’t evolve to always have a Nalgene with us.

I decided that I’m going to take a 4-day break from Ramadan next week, when I have a training in Kolda. The following conversation did it for me:

Steph: “So, you’re fasting, huh?”
Me: “Yep.”
Steph: “Water, too?”
ME: “Yep.”
Steph: “All month?”
Me: “If I can.”
Steph: “That’s really impressive.  A bunch of us are planning to make brunch at the Kolda house when we have training next week.”
Me: “Brunch?”
Steph: “Yeah, we’re gonna make pancakes and eggs.”
Me: “I’m not fasting.”
Steph: “Really?”
Me: “Brunch.”

Done and done.  There are few things I love more than brunch.

People in my village are starting to quit Ramadan now, too, or at least to take breaks from it.  My nearest Peace Corps neighbor, Kim, said last year in her village, once one person was brave enough to admit they had quit it was like an avalanche.  No one wanted to be the first.  I think it might be the same here.  Yesterday, I met four people that said they were done fasting.  All said they were tired and they had a lot of work to do, so they needed energy.  They were upfront and non-apologetic.  I told them my plans to take a break from Ramadan, too, and they were totally supportive.  I think most people appreciate any Ramadan effort, no matter if it’s incomplete.

Not too much else is new.  I’m still continuing my routine of studying in the morning and trying to talk to people in the afternoons.  My language is slowly, slowly improving, but not as quickly as I’d like it to.  I wish I could just load a Pulaar cartridge into my brain, Matrix-style, instead of messing with flash cards and a faulty memory.  I have an agriculture training in Kolda next week (with the aforementioned brunch) and the week after that I head back to Thies for a 2-week technical training on the health system in Senegal.  There, I get to learn more nuts and bolts about what my job here actually is.

Until next time!


Hunger Games: Ramadan 2014, week one

I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised that my village decided to start Ramadan a day later than my page-a-day calendar told me we should.  Africa Time governs everything here in Teyel, and the slow, relaxed, tranquil manner of a town where no one has jobs or appointments to keep is incomparably different from typical American bustle.  Ramadan is supposed to be a month long, stretching from new moon to new moon.  We didn’t start on Sunday because Tidiane, my host brother, didn’t see the moon the night before.  By definition, a new moon is the period in the lunar cycle where the moon is not visible from Earth because it occupies the same position in the sky as the sun.  By waiting to start until the man of the house saw a small sliver of moon at sunset, we were actually starting at a waxing crescent, not a new moon, making our celebration of Ramadan one day short of a full moonth (err, month.)  I don’t know if waiting until they see the moon is the way most people determine when to start Ramadan, or whether most people go by what the calendar says.  I’ve never done this before. I’m just going with the flow of my village.

In any case, I was selfishly delighted to delay the start of Ramadan.  I had been treating the previous week as an extended Fat Tuesday of sorts, feasting in anticipation of future deprivation.  There are dozens of Peace Corps volunteers in Senegal, and everyone chooses to do Ramadan a little differently.  Some don’t fast at all, some fast for part of the day, and some fast for part of the month. Some abstain from food only, some from both food and water. I decided to do the whole kit n’ caboodle.  No food, no water, sunup to sundown, all month (if I can).  Millions of people do it, so I know it’s possible.  What’s more, they do it while preforming the grueling physical labor required to scratch out a living here.  If they can do it, I can do it too.  My “job” right now is to study Pulaar and greet people.  Not exactly strenuous compared to subsistence farming and millet pounding.

At just before 5am every morning this week, in the enshrouding blackness of moonless nights, Tidiane, his wife Kadiatou, my brother Oussamon, and my nephew Bubocar silently gathered around a bowl of leftover couscous or rice from last night’s dinner, lit by my cell phone’s backlight.  Tidiane heated the sauce on a propane burner, which I didn’t know we had before Ramadan.  I’d never seen anyone cook with anything other than fire.  I guess they were saving it - who wants to start a fire at 5am?  Like most meals in Senegal, the breakfast bowl was completely silent.  The first day, when I said I was full, Tidiane put more food in front of me, and said no, I was not full.  There would be no lunch.  Eat until I threw up.  I laughed and repeated that I was full, but then took a few more nervous bites before getting up anyway, a futile internal food-storage attempt.  I worried about how hungry I’d be in 12 hours when I got my next meal.

Contrary to what I expected, I’ve found it’s the mornings that are the hardest part of Ramadan.  When you eat at five, you’re hungry again by around eight – at least I usually am, with my bottomless pit of a stomach.  The hunger isn’t urgent, but it’s there, taunting you, reminding you of how much of the day is still ahead of you.  Sunset (around 7:45) seems impossibly far away, intolerable, insurmountable. Since everyone is fasting, there’s no activity in town to distract you from your growling stomach.  No one’s making tea, no one’s preparing lunch, no one’s throwing parties.  No one’s doing much of anything but working in the fields, visiting their neighbors, napping, and praying. 

Muslims pray 5 times a day: at sunrise, at 2ish, at 5ish, at sunset, and at night.  I do not take part in this component of Ramadan because I’m not a Muslim, but I do gladly participate in the visiting the neighbors component (and I’ve gone to the fields a couple times).  While visiting the neighbors, conversation (of course) revolves around Ramadan.  About 70% respond favorably to the fact that I’m fasting, another 20% don’t believe me, and 10% get angry, saying that I don’t pray, and I shouldn’t fast if I’m not praying.  My response to that is the Pulaar proverb “Wiso wiso buri hokkere” – a light sprinkle is better than a drought.  An imperfect Ramadan attempt is better than not attempting at all.  They usually smile to that, but I don’t know if they buy the argument or not.

Six to 7:45 PM is the best part of the Ramadan day.  Anticipation hangs in the air like a thick fog – you can feel it.  The collective will of everyone in the village seems to drag the sun faster and faster to the horizon.  I break the fast with my family about half the time and at a sandwich stand by the side of the road the other half.  Vendors are set up and ready to serve by six, even though their first customers won’t be eating for almost two hours.  Hungry fasters walk down the street, shopping around, choosing whose wares look most delicious and plunking themselves down on the benches to wait.  At 7:30ish, the vendors start assembling the sandwiches, and the purchasers hold them, waiting until it’s dark enough to be considered twilight.  The anticipation is beautiful.  Sitting on Tako Mballo’s bench yesterday, holding my bean-and-mayonnaise sandwich, smelling, salivating, waiting, was more delicious than any sandwich could ever be.  Maybe I’m a little masochistic.

For those that break the fast at home, this is also the best part of the day.  At my house, Kadiatou (Tidiane's wife, and my namesake) makes “cafĂ© haako” (which translates to “leaf coffee.”  I have no idea what plant is boiled in water to make this, but it’s so sugary it just takes like hot nectar anyway) and passes out chunks of bread.  Just like fasters in town, my family holds their food, salivating, anticipating how it will taste, waiting until the head of the household makes the executive decision that it is dark enough to be considered “futuroo” (twilight) before they dig in.

About 2-3 hours after breaking the fast comes a normal dinner.  I usually don’t take part in this meal because I often still feel full from the twilight meal, and I don’t see any reason to eat a lot right before you go to sleep, especially when you’re getting up early for the explicit purpose of eating more.  

One week down, three to go!  Thanks for reading!