“Pains from hunger, thirst-
Let this be how I hunger,
Thirst for righteousness”
-Austin Strzelczyk, PCV and good friend
As many of you know from my previous posts, a few short weeks ago, the month of Ramadan came to an end. To be completely honest, it was of great debate in my mind and religious morals if I would or would not participate in fasting. Ramadan is rooted within the Quran, the holy book that Muslims believe is the word of God handed down to the Profit Muhammad. The first lines of the Quran are actually believed to be revealed in the month of Ramadan. So, the recognition of Ramadan signifies the genesis of the Islamic faith.
Fasting, during this time, is an added ‘burden’ so-to-speak, to an already difficult religion rooted heavily in self-control and discipline, as shown by the act of praying five times a day. Basically, fasting requires the denying of man’s natural urges to satisfy his or her appetites, further strengthening the person in their daily lives. The one fasting is also called to do this without retaining his or her negative behaviors, not only to test your physical limits…although it often times felt that way!
During the month of Ramadan, it was very visibly clear that this month is rooted in prayer. First and foremost, it is especially important to keep the five times of prayer. The Serahule tribe in general is known for being the most traditional and conservative. Within my compound, in the evening, my family performed tarawih, a prayer done only in the month or Ramadan. This prayer is repeated thirteen times for the purpose of being able to be even stronger in the following days of fasting. Repetition of this prayer is not required for the ability to fast the next day, however, in my Tourey Kunda (the name of my compound), my entire family faithfully laid out their prayer mats every night with live action call to prayer by my brother. He generally leads the prayers normally. In fact, one of the younger brothers even called the out the echo and was always directly behind the one leading the prayer. My family never has an issue with me quite observing, perched on my cement slab with a book in hand. They understand our religious differences and we respect each other very much, a unique experience in all of the Gambia, actually. It is very accepted for religions to work peacefully together.
Along with prayer, it is common to see individuals read the Quran from beginning to end, signifying the genesis of the faith and ‘part two’ of why Muslims fast: to strengthen and connect with God. Although fasting may sometimes seem like a face in the community to be kept or a show of strength, the whole act is meant to be very personal. An act between you and God.
Completing Ramadan is also one of the Five Pillars of Islam that makes a Muslim more spiritual, more conscious of God, and, as I have heard often, “A better Muslim”. The Five Pillars of Islam reflect a perfect path of faith. Here is a quick overview of the five below:
- Shahada (Denying that there is any other God but Allah and believing in the profit Muhammed)
- Salat (Prayers 5 times a day)
- Zakāt (Charity if you are able to give)
- Ramadan (Fasting)
- Hajj (Pilgrimage to Mecca)
These Pillars are situational sometimes. The first and second are supposed to be followed 100% all day every day. Ramadan is also supposed to be practiced. However, if you are a child, an elderly person, menstruating, sick, traveling very far distances, or pregnant, you are technically not supposed to fast or fast in smaller doses. Pregnancy is not necessarily said to be band from fasting, HOWEVER, I definitely got on all the women in village about fasting pregnant and when breast-feeding. The women in my compound got an earful! Zakat is performed when you have enough to perform charity and Hajj is not expected because of cost and availability.
This is a very brief overview of Ramadan and the Islamic beliefs/structure, but you can probably see why I was a little torn about participating for the reason of, well…I am a Christian. I waited until the day before to make my final decision on whether I would or would not. After prayer and reading my own Biblical text, I decided that I should respect the culture that I was in and partake in Ramadan…in my own way that is.
The first book that I read in country was called 7-An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess. In this book, it talked about fasting and prayer within the Christian text. Christian fasting is not commanded in scripture, but it is recommended as a part of our spiritual growth. The Book of Acts records believers fasting before they made important decisions (Acts 13:4; 14:23). Fasting and prayer are often linked together (Luke 2:37; 5:33). By taking our eyes off the things of this world, we can focus better on Christ. “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:16-18). I can’t promise you that I did not disfigure my face from time to time. Fasting is hard, ok?
I decided that if Muslims fast to increase their faith and spirituality with Allah, I could use this month to do the same with my God. And so I prayed. I prayed a lot. Constantly I consciously prayed at the waking hour, in the afternoon before lunch, around five in the evening, before bed, and around midnight if I was having trouble sleeping which I often did during this hot season.
Like the Muslims who confessed sneaking food or water to me, my Ramadan was also not perfect. Kind of a nice reflection of spiritual life in general. We cannot achieve perfection. I didn’t always walk around jolly, I may have missed a prayer when I probably should have looked to God for more strength or patience, and I often times ‘accidentally’ poured water into my mouth as I washed my face. What? Bath time was the ultimate temptation! However, besides a few water incidences (no food cheats) I was able to complete 23 out of the 29-30 days of Ramadan. Here are some selfies of 19 days that I was fasting (I figured that maybe if I selfied it, it would hold me accountable)…
So, “how was it?”, you may ask. Well, let’s just say that I think I will try and go on a vacation next year! Ramadan could also be called “mass hibernation” not to be disrespectful in any way. It is an extremely unique experience to partake in fasting with thousands of other people. In a way, it wasn’t that bad because of that fact. There was no food being waved in your face, no food vendors out and about, and for most of the day, we slept. Boy did I learn how to nap. Let us all recognize that Ramadan fell on the hottest part of the year this year.
Everything kind of shuts down. A volunteer once advised me, “Either you are lying around not eating with everyone or you are laying around eating plain rice. Between the heat or the fasting, you will definitely be laying around.” Ain’t that the truth.
I napped in my hut, outside, on the floor, on my bed, on cement slabs, on my neighbors cement slabs, sitting up, laying down, in my friend’s beds, at the school, in the clinic, with my eyes open…in fact, when the feeling of sleep came on, I couldn’t fight it. So, I didn’t. I still ran in the morning, too. Not smart. DO NOT RECOMMEND.
This is what a typical day looked like:
5:00AM- wake up, zombie walk outside to eat breakfast that consisted of plain bread and tea that tasted like fruit loops.
5:30 – Pray and go back to bed
7:00- Wake up and run
8:30-8:00- Come home, bathe, sleep
Mystery time…when will she wake up? 9? 10? 11? 12?
12-3:00- Pray, Work, Read
3-4:00- Probably sleep..maybe even until 5…
5-6:00- POWER HOUR so close to break fast so its the time to pray and keep my mind busy. Maybe work or do yoga.
6-7:00 Maybe Yoga, help with food prep, and bathe
7:30- EAT!!! DRINK!!! BE MERRY!!! (AKA Breakfast)
9:00- Second dinner
Break fast was such a joyous time. Cold water and food galore.
In the end, I did feel refreshed in my faith and reliance on God, felt closer to my community, and was able to immerse myself into a culture and experience that I otherwise would not have. It is hard to explain how I felt once things went back to ‘normal’. More grateful, stronger, more confident? Whatever it was, I did and do feel changed by the experience. Plus, you don’t even know fasted cardio until you are actually fasting…that’s a joke. AGAIN, DO NOT RECOMMEND.
The truth is that this time was not easy. It was miserable sometimes, my temper was short, I cried a lot more over pretty stupid stuff (more than usual…if you know me, you know I am a free and proud crier), and this may be TMI, but I was never so happy to see my period in my life. That week of excused non-fasting was all too quickly welcomed.
In our last Peace Corps newsletter, PC volunteer, Hamza Ahmed wrote a wonderful reflection on Ramadan and our Peace Corps Service. It read…
“Now, in theory, Ramadan is supposed to make us Muslims stronger in faith and character. However, sometimes I feel as if all that I get out of a day of fasting is misery and a short temper-no impressive boost of character. In this way, I feel Ramadan is very similar to the Peace Corps experience. We joined the peace Corps knowing that it wasn’t going to be easy- we volunteered to be in this sometimes very difficult situation. And yes, some days are harder than others and we truly feel driven to out limits. But isn’t that the point? We strive to sweat to bring change in our communities-sometimes overcoming hurdles, sometimes not. At the end of our two years here we hope to not only have imparted some good to our people, but to have come out a stronger, better person. Ramadan and the Peace Corps experience really are similar. It’s about embracing difficulty, not shying away from it, and rather than being weakened through hardship, we come out stronger because of it.”
Where am I now? I am currently happier than I have ever been to eat food and, even more, drink water. I have a new level of respect in my community, and I have regained precious energy. Honestly, I began to think that napping 4, 5, 6 hours in a day was normal…
Between the questions that I was able to ask, the experience I was able to be a part of, and the ability to have a deeper understanding of religion, motivation, and life, my own beliefs and cultural understanding grew tenfold. My life here is not always pretty smiles and adorable babies as proven by this past month, but I really am finding more and more reasons as to why it is all worth it.