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Sunday, July 13, 2014

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!