After all this time I’ve spent writing more academically-toned articles for other things, I figured that my blog was long overdue for a post that was about cultural musings and experiences… the main reason I became a blogger and started writing here in the first place.
So, with out further ado, here is an original post *gasp!* about my second Ramadan experience.
As I sit here, waiting for the sun to set on the day Senegal has decided to end Ramadan, I’m filled with a lot of things: emotions… food… I decided this morning, after most of a month of solidarity, I was going to politely bow out of what has inadvertently become one of the longest months of my life, by agreeing with the places of the world that did in fact see the moon last night.
The final count rests at 24 days of fasting: 3 days I missed were legitimate travel exceptions, and a fourth was a self-declared mental/physical health day that rested between two of the travel days. I must also add the caveat that I did drink a small amount of water during the daylight hours, knowing that as much as I wanted to show solidarity, I needed to respect my work commitments and therefore needed to keep as clear a head as possible.
I’m going to take a brief pause in the story here to say a few things about the Muslim holy month, as I realize that some people reading this may not be very familiar with it. Ramadan is a month in the lunar calendar that Muslims believe to be holy. To show their devotion to god, they fast: no water or food from the time the sun rises until it sets. Because it is a lunar month it is shorter than most Gregorian months, and therefore shifts forward in the calendar each year, meaning it changes seasons as the years pass. Just like in every other religion everywhere in the world, there are all shapes and sizes of Muslims: those who fast devoutly, those who get exemption for health reasons, those who try when it’s convenient and those who couldn’t care less. It’s kind of like lent or no meat on Fridays for Catholics: some follow the book to a T, others try but have moments of weakness, and some just… couldn’t care less.
I can’t stress how little difference there is between the vast majority of Muslims and Christians… but I guess by this point in this blog you understand that point or refuse to, so let’s get back to the story.
Months ago, I had initially decided that I was going to fast just on Fridays as a show of solidarity with my Senegalese host family and work partners. For some reason, however, when the time came for me to start fasting, I just never stopped. I figured that this was probably going to be the one and only time I ever fasted for the holy month, so I might as well go big or go home. The first few days I fasted my host family seemed genuinely shocked that I was doing it, and that mix of disbelief and respect cemented my decision: fasting for the entire month it was.
I worked out my system to fast but still get work done. Skip the pre-dawn meal, sleep in late, get up, hydrate, and power through the 8-10 hours that were still left in the day. The first few days were tough, but after a while my body went into starvation mode and the hunger stayed away so long as I was able to avoid photos of food.
I considered keeping a daily log for Ramadan, but it never happened. To be honest, a few days in, the days just all started to blend into one, and I felt as though I was walking through life in a haze. I never really felt energetic, because by the time break-fast hit, my body had already forgotten that it craved food. My cycle had been so thrown off that, although I was able to complete the fast, I just was never quite able to recover from the day before… and my fatigue began to compound. I felt mentally disconnected and a little irritable, but I figured that as long as I had company, I could just put my head down and get through the month.
Thankfully a short trip away from site provided a momentary reprieve in week three, and my body sprung back. I came back and powered through the final week and a half, and here I sit. Even though I stopped the fast today, my body looks as though it’s going to need to take the weekend to recalibrate. I’m glad that I made the attempt and I’m happy I succeeded, but also convinced I never want to do this again.
I’m not Muslim. My decision to fast (like the decision of most of my contemporaries) was not for religious reasons but instead came out of a respect and a desire to stand with the Senegalese community. It provided me with a way to connect with them that I never thought possible. For the first time since I got here, I felt like I was on the exact same page as the people I sat around. Ramadan was rough, I just wanted to be left alone, and put off any non-necessary work until I could have the clarity and energy necessary to tackle it. Thankfully, most of the people around me were on the same page. When people would say “let’s have that meeting after Ramadan ends,” I was all too happy to comply.
This isn’t to say that I wasn’t productive… just that when you only have a limited amount of effective work hours in a day, you learn real quick how to prioritize your time. Wake up, work until your nerves are frayed, nap, get up and eat until you sleep, repeat. With my normal energy levels shot, I had to be much more careful about how I conducted myself. That bike ride across town to pick up groceries for later may mean that I would run out of steam too early in the day to write that report I needed to finish.
I think a lot of us take food for granted. It’s something we merely have to remember to eat, and we’re burdened with having to choose to eat healthy and nutritious food. I heard someone mention randomly one day that fasting was a means of putting yourself in the shoes of a hungry person. It did. I was irritable, found myself unable to perform at 100% physically or intellectually, and when I finally did get to eat I couldn’t really enjoy it much, knowing that the day ahead just held more of the same suffering.
Although my hunger was a personal accomplishment, for so many people in this world it’s a daily struggle. That pain and stress I felt was the result of a personal decision (not even based on my religion), but that same pain and stress is something that so many people in this world live with day to day because they can’t escape it.
Although I can safely say I’ll probably never fast for the whole month of Ramadan again, it provided me with an experience that I won’t soon forget. In hunger there is irritability, pain, suffering, but also camaraderie, vision and understanding. Through those mutual difficulties you are able to connect, and when you’re doing so purposefully it allows you to see just how lucky you truly are to have the things that you have, especially the things you most take for granted.
Muslim, Christian, Agnostic or Atheist: regardless of if you normally fast, take a day and do so. And when you’re done at the end of the day, and stuffing your face with everything you can grab, take a second and reflect upon how lucky you are, regardless of whether or not you want to thank god for it. In the end I’ve realized that as a non-Muslim, my not eating was never about anything inherently religious, but instead only about understanding… something we could all use a little bit more of.