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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.