Ramadan is a Muslim holiday season based on the lunar calendar. With a few exceptions most people fast while the sun is up and eat after the sun sets. Fasting prohibits drinking water. It lasts approximately 30 days starting anytime from May/June. This year we started on June 7th. This is the first time in my life I have observed Ramadan so I just want to tell you about my experience.
In Wolof, Ramadan is called “koor.” So if I wanted to ask how Ramadan is going, I’d ask “Naka koor gi?” Naka meaning how, and gi being the article. In the past month, all my conversations have floated around fasting, the season of fasting, work, exhaustion, and giving alms. No doubt it’s been a hard month. My family has been resting all day every day. The women in my house bring mats outside to where they sell stuff to rest on. I’ve walked into my garden and seen all my work partners resting in the shade. Resting and taking naps is an all day occurrence. But what do I expect? Food is difficult to live without. From my understanding in the religion, Ramadan is about learning discipline, kindness, and sharing when we have more than enough.
The meal for breaking fast in Wolof is called “ndogou.” It happens right as the sun is setting. Breaking fast is pretty similar across the city and Wolof people. We eat dates to start, and then have coffee/café touba and bread. Sometimes our bread has beans, pounded fish, butter, etc. Then we have bissap juice. The dates are typically imported from Tunisia. Café touba and bissap juice are both local to Senegal. Café touba is made from a root of a local plant. It has an herbal taste but has caffeine. Bissap juice is made from bissap flowers. The flowers are put in with boiling water to make the juice. Bissap and hibiscus is the same thing, though local bissap juice is made with hints of ginger or mint.
After we break fast, my family does a family prayer. It’s led by the head of house, so my uncle and the other members of my family follow him in prayer. It seems that it’s vital that children engage in prayer during the season. Children don’t usually pray 5 times a day like the adults, but they are highly encouraged to show respect for Ramadan by praying.
About an hour later we eat dinner. Though dinner is just what we used to eat for lunch. In my case, that means we eat a lot of chebujin. This is the time to drink water and fuel up to prepare for the next day.
My family will sleep pretty late, around 11:30pm or 12:00am. At 5 am they get up to eat what’s known as “xudd.” It’s the meal before the day begins. My family typically has millet or thiakary.
There are exceptions to fasting. These include pregnant women, breast feeding mothers, the sick, and children (anywhere under the age of 13 and… me!). Earlier I gave the topics of conversation, and as you can imagine, it’s been a struggle explaining why I am not fasting considering I’m in a 90% Muslim country. On top of that, people tend to be less patient because they get hangrier as the month continues. As a Christian in my service I choose to not fast for 2 reasons. One, I find that it’s disrespectful on both ends celebrating a holiday related to a god or belief I don’t believe in. It would be like a Christian celebrating Hanukkah even though they have no history with the culture or religion. Two, as an agriculture volunteer I still need to eat to be effective in what I do. This country is approximately 10% Catholic, so they understand that not everyone fasts, but they don’t really understand that. Does that make sense? No, not really. Let me explain. Every time, without fail, that I asked someone “Naka koor gi?” I get asked in response “are you fasting?” and when I reply no, I typically get reprimanded for not. “Why are you not fasting, you’ve been here for 9 months, you are Senegalese, you should be fasting.” This makes me think, hmmm…but fasting has nothing to do with being Senegalese, it’s a religious observance. I believe there are 2 main reasons for this. In areas of the country where it’s heavily Muslim, i.e. the northern part of the country (where I am), there are very few Catholics, so people encounter much fewer people who do not fast. Because of this low exposure, locals have a hard time understanding that there are people in Senegal don’t fast. Second, I don’t think locals often second guess each other by asking “are you fasting.” I have never heard two locals share a conversation that goes the way mine went. I think they mostly just assume each other are fasting, and obviously since I am not a local, people don’t assume this about me. For those reasons, I think it’s rarer to encounter the idea that there are people who don’t fast. It’s exhausting to keep having this conversation, so many volunteers have just said that they are fasting to avoid dealing with this frustration, however I think it’s a unique opportunity to share my background. I tell them I am a Christian, that’s why I am not fasting, and sometimes it ends well with understanding, sometimes it ends “that’s not a reason; even so, you should be fasting,” but however it ends it’s always interesting to try having that conversation.
Things in the culture have changed too to honor this month. For example, more people travel earlier in the day because they have more energy, and since there’s no lunch hour anymore people do whatever they choose to do during those hours whether it’s going to the market, resting, or traveling. As you can imagine, if you weren’t allowed to eat and I ate in front of you, you would be a little bit uncomfortable. It’s just rude to eat in public. This is true whether you are on public transportation or in your own home. When I eat lunch with the kids and my nursing aunt, we eat indoors in a dark room where no one can see us.
Thank goodness, the end of Ramadan finally came on July 6th. We celebrated by having a party called “korite.” Korite is a day of eating, basically. I walked downstairs to greet my family around 10:00am to see them preparing ngalax- one of my favorite foods. The only other time I’ve eaten it was on Easter with a Cathloic family. Ngalax is millet with coconut, raisins mixed with peanut butter, chocolate, sugar, and baobab juice. All topped with diced banana and pineapple. Yup! Doesn’t it already sound delicious! Plus, it’s served COLD! We filled pitcher after pitcher, while my sisters delivered it to our neighbors and friends. We made so much we had to mix it in a bucket… When my “help” was becoming more of a nuisance my family sent me out of the kitchen with my own bowl. Yum. This is definitely my favorite Senegalese dish to date. For lunch, we had 2 lunches. We had chicken with noodles, and chebujin right after. SO FULL. My brother went back to his daily attaya making post- lunch and my sisters brought out cold soft drinks. The last time my family gave me a can of Rani-a local juice softdrink- was when I installed, so 8 months ago on my first day here. So Korite is a big deal. At 6:00pm we hopped in my uncle’s car, and we drove to see all of our family in Saint-Louis. We went to 5 houses. When we got to each house, we were given more drinks, and as we left my grandpa would lead the family in a blessing, and prayer in forgiveness. When we got back we ate more chicken, and finished the night with more Ranis and attaya. What a day!
Korite, like Tabaski (another post to come in September/October) is the time when locals ask forgiveness from others, and give it away. We visited the all of my grandpa’s children in Ndar. Though we didn’t stay long, at every house we visited, my family always greeted each other by asking for forgiveness. Similar to other greetings we’ve learned, these have Arabic and Wolof mixed. The first 2 exchanges are asking for forgiveness. The 5th line is Arabic for “may god forgive us.”
“Baal ma ak”
“Baal naa la”
“Yalla nanu yalla boule bal”
Let me end with this. My first observance of Ramadan has been very eye opening, especially since I’m in a West African Muslim country. I know Islam is not practiced like it is in the Middle East, but I still learned a lot about the Wolof culture and how they observe Ramadan. It really does take a lot of discipline to fast and still be kind and generous. If it weren’t for being in Senegal for my Peace Corps service, I probably would have never formed my views and opinions about Ramadan. It’s been a very eye opening month. If you wish to ask about my views and opinions contact me privately.
Until next time!
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