Continental Drift

September 11, 2010


Filed under: Uncategorized — unaleona @ 7:33 pm

That’s right, its sounkalo, translates to fasting month, aka Ramadan. I can tell how long it has taken me to write this post, because I first wrote that sentence when I was worrying about the start of Ramadan coming the next day, and now I am sitting here with complicated henna happening to my feet, and an imam announcing on TV that someone has seen the moon and the month officially ends tonight and the big party is tomorrow. For some of you out there in the JudeoChristian world, this whole Ramadan issue may not figure high in your consciousness. But here in a country so Muslim that Islam seems often to be not a religion, but simply standard, Ramadan is not to be ignored.

People began telling me about Ramadan in early June. “You know,” they’d say, “soon it will be the month of Ramadan.” “Soon?” I thought to myself? “Doesn’t it start in August? “ But a month of not eating or drinking water from sun-up to sun-down is no joke, and I somewhat understand the need to psych yourself up for it. Particularly in a place where eating and drinking is as hard as it is to begin with. Particularly in a place where dehydration is such an intense reality on the best of days.

But that’s the wimpy toubabou talking. Malians say that fasting is no big deal. I can’t count how many people have explained to me that, “It’s all psychological.”

What has surprised me is how much everyone’s life is completely turned upside down by the religious requirements of this challenging month, but how little I hear about the religious aspects of things. Perhaps it’s because no one feels comfortable talking to me about the truly spiritual aspects of their religion. I am after all, white, and therefore Catholic or Evangelist (these are the only options). But I don’t know that the white-card can fully explain it. So far, based on “the popular discourse” this is what Ramadan means:

1) Starting in late July, people began to complain about how expensive everything was getting, and how expensive it would get. And truly, food prices soared. The stack of four tomatoes that would have cost 100 CFA in July costs 200 CFA now. The kilo of onions that would have cost 250 CFA costs 500 CFA now. For people truly just hanging on, doubled food prices mean you can only buy half as much as usual, or you proportionally drop down in quality. I asked Dr. Diak the other day why the food prices are so high this month. “is it because it is so much harder to work now that people are fasting, so they charge more for transporting the food and selling it?” “No,” he said, “you might think it would be that, but it’s not. It’s because Ramadan is, above all, the month of consumption.”

2) “Consumption?” I can hear you asking, “But aren’t they all fasting? Not consuming?” But once he said this, I realized that it is completely true. First of all, you don’t actually eat any fewer meals than you normally would. Instead of waking up at the call to prayer, starting the fire, sweeping the courtyard, making breakfast, feeding the kids, sending them off to school, fetching water, going to the market, and then starting to cook lunch at about 9AM, everyone wakes up at 4AM to eat a large meal before the call to prayer. Where normal breakfast in my compound is only seri (rice porridge), the 4AM meal consists of last night’s dinner leftovers, kankeliba from the thermos I was cajoled into buying as a present (Malian herbal tea), moni (millet porridge), and pieces of bread absolutely slathered in mayonnaise.
Usually lunch is the big meal of the day, and then the leftovers become dinner. But since no one is eating at midday, dinner is the big meal of the day, and those leftovers become breakfast. That isn’t enough though, because at the end of the day, but before dinner, you have to break your fast. The break fast meal happens right at sundown (announced on TV with an abrupt switch from Malian Arabic hymn singing to a picture of palm trees and the river Niger and weird ‘tranquil’ themed background music’, which is met with shrieking of children “Soun-tigena!” (the fast is broken!)) and is kind of like a normal breakfast. You have a nice cup of sugary kankeliba (which Mama calls Farafin (black people) coffee), you have moni (millet porridge), you have gnomi (little rice pancakes with sugar), and maybe some doughy bread whose name I can never remember. Then everyone goes off to pray at about 7:15, and when they come back they eat dinner (rice and sauce) per usual at 8:00 or 8:30 or 9:00 depending on how long their trip to the mosque takes.
What really seems different is that people demand a much higher quality and variety of food than they habitually get. I suppose it makes sense, if you spend all day fantasizing about food, then when you get to eat some, it better be tasty. But I feel like, isn’t the point of fasting supposed to be that you are sacrificing and cleansing?

3) Fasting is a competition. As soon as I got back from the states, everyone started asking me, how many days are you going to fast for Ramadan? “Assa (former fellow MHOP volunteer and previous occupant of my room, Devon) did only one day. You have to do two days, to beat her.” At this rate, in 28 years the MHOP volunteers will be up to a full month. Unless it multiplies exponentially…

But really, everyone is in on the competition, and you are a much more attractive competitor if you are a toubaboo. Random acquaintances on the road between home and work constantly stop me to ask if I am fasting. Children love to gloat to you about how many days they have lasted, and see if they can beat you. With my meager single Sunday of fasting, I am an easy mark. “Only one day?” everyone says, “Moona?” (why)? A normal dialogue might go something like this:

“Maimouna, are you fasting today?”

“No, I’m not.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know how, I just can’t do it.”

“Why not?”

“It’s hard!”

“Ahaha, the toubabou thinks its hard! Fasting is sooo easy.”

OR, to spice things up, with generally unsuccessful results.

“Why not?”

“Because I’m not Muslim”

“Why not?”

“Where I come from, my people are not Muslim.”

“Eh Maimouna, you’re Catholic!?”

OR to shut people up, but only if they are really total strangers who I will absolutely never see again

“Why not?”

“Because I’m pregnant!”


4) Gas stations are really good places for praying. This is because they are paved. Mosques must be too small for all the people who show up for the evening prayer during Ramadan, because this seems to be a universal solution across the city. I hope I can get a picture for you.



    How could you forget furu furu that’s the only thing about Ramadan I liked… 🙂

    Comment by Safiatou Coulibaly — September 13, 2010 @ 2:03 pm | Reply

  2. I find this analysis very relevant, specialyy after just one Ramadan there, I’ve never been to Mali, but I think the situation is the similar in all Muslim majority countries.

    A precision, Ramadan comes once each year and lasts 29 or 30 days, it follows the lunar year which has 355 days, so it’s not necessarily starting in August or July, but every solar year it fells 10 days, this year Ramadan began Aug. 11, then next year it will begin on 1 or August 2.

    Comment by loukal — September 17, 2010 @ 4:37 pm | Reply

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