“Oh, that smells awesome. I’m so hungry!”
I said it without thinking and immediately wished I could have swallowed my words before they made it out of my mouth. Today was the first day of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting, and less than six hours into it, I had already goofed and said something rather inconsiderate in front of my Muslim friend who was abstaining from eating or drinking from sunrise to sunset for the next 29 or 30 (depending on the moon) days.
The conversation that followed though really helped me to understand some ways that we as non-Muslims can respect Ramadan and our fasting friends. In a country that’s more than 95% Muslim, Ramadan is a big deal and affects nearly every aspect of life for one month a year.
Here is some information on how Ramadan is observed in Senegal and also some suggestions below, but I’d love to hear from others too!
– Families wake up early to eat breakfast together before the sun rises. For moms, this means about a 5am wake-up to get the meal ready. If women around you seem sleepy, they probably are!
– From sunrise to sunset, no water or food. Some who take fasting regulations very seriously won’t even swallow their own saliva, so watch out for spitters.
– The five prayer times are a crucial part of Ramadan. My friend brought her prayer mat with her to our house so that she can pray at 2pm.
– Modesty is also very important. If you went to the beaches in Dakar last weekend, you saw that they were packed. Some of that is due to the heat and some is the ‘last hoorah’ before Ramadan. Running around in a bathing suit and pareo wrap is not considered acceptable during this time. (In addition to her prayer mat, my friend is also keeping her head covered when she leaves her home.)
– All men are required to fast. Women should fast as well, but if they are pregnant, breastfeeding or on their period, they do not have to. The fasting days can be made up at another time. One friend of mine who has an eight-month-old and is breastfeeding is choosing to fast this month even though she could delay it because it’s much easier to do in community than alone.
– Breaking the fast (ndogou) at sunset is a family event and many people will leave work early during this month in order to be home in time to eat in community. (For those who can’t make it home in time, there are vendors selling dried dates along the streets.)
So how can we respect our fasting friends, colleagues and workers?
– Avoid eating or drinking when you’re out and about. Eating lunch in a restaurant is still fine of course, but be discreet with those sips from your water bottle as you’re running errands around town.
– Be aware that people may want to take time to pray at around 2pm and 5pm. This may be your house-helper, your taxi driver, your electrician…
– Ladies, consider wearing longer hemlines and opting for short sleeves rather than spaghetti straps on tops.
– If someone comes to visit you during Ramadan, ask if they are fasting before offering a drink or something to eat.
– If your visitor is at your home around a prayer time, they may ask where they can go to pray. Have a place in mind where you are comfortable letting them pray and know which direction Mecca is so that you can help orient them.
– Consider letting your workers leave early to be home with their families to break the fast. This is very appreciated. For women, this may mean leaving as early as 4 or 5pm if they are the ones preparing the food.
– If you can’t let your workers go home in time to break the fast with their families, you can offer them an ndogou, such as coffee or café Touba with milk powder and sugar and some bread with butter or mayonnaise. If you have a worker staying on through the evening (nanny/babysitter, for example), offering them a meal as well would be appreciated.
– Don’t schedule appointments in the evening, if you can avoid it. (Or if you do, don’t be too surprised or annoyed if the plumber arrives late!)