I came to Senegal in the last week of Ramadan, the month of fasting in the Muslim religion. The country of Senegal is a secular state with guaranteed freedom of religion but a large majority of its population is Muslim. I would also say, based on my observations, that it is a very religious country where the vast majority actively practice their faith. Though I am not Muslim, Pusso and Momo, the two iNERDE colleagues I was with in Senegal, are. I decided to keep the fast to be more in sync with my iNERDE teammates as well as our local teachers of the Muslim faith, and most of the entire country.
As a practitioner of yoga I fast relatively often for its many physical, mental, and spiritual benefits and I didn’t believe that the Ramadan fast, where one can eat after sunset each day, would be difficult at all. Ah no. First, it is a complete fast – liquids included. It is hot in Senegal, air conditioning is rare, and, as we were working, one sweats … a lot … all throughout the day. I decided right away that I would drink water throughout the day, as a foreigner unaccustomed to the environment, I felt that it would be unreasonable to risk dehydration. Oh, and I have something of a chemical dependence on my morning coffee and juice, without those I get headaches during the day. So I rationalized that I needed to continue that regime, for, like my malaria pills, medical reasons.
During Ramadan in Senegal food is readily available during the day in restaurants, shops, bakeries, from street stalls, and so on. The non-Muslim part of the population does not keep Ramadan and Muslims are not obliged to keep Ramadan if they choose not to. This is an additional element that makes Ramadan more challenging in Senegal, there is food everywhere. There is a boulangerie (bread bakery) next to SABS and the aroma of baking bread wafted into our classroom throughout the day! Of course, nothing smells better than baking bread, and 10 times more so when you are fasting, so I found this to be a particularly exquisite torture. Of course, I was drinking water throughout the day while my colleagues were holding a complete fast, so I was quadrupling their torments as they had to watch me guzzling water.
Fasting ends at sunset. We would usually go to the house of a member of Momo’s extended family in Senegal for the evening meal. One breaks the fast by eating a few dates, it seems that eating not one but at least two is the tradition. I was surprised to learn that this is followed by the first of two meals, a breakfast … break – fast … food that one would normally eat in the morning. Tea, bread, juice, an omelette, maybe soup. After breakfast, there is a short prayer (I did not pray, it is a Muslim prayer, facing Mecca, with prayer mat and so on, not a general thanks given around the table as occurs in Christian tradition), and a little siesta while one waits for dinner. Dinner is served maybe 1/2 hour later, maybe longer, and will be copious.
I joked that in Ramadan one simply squeezed consumed the equivalent of three meals into the evening, so it wasn’t fasting and much as postponing. My companions were gracious enough not to counter with an allusion to my coffee, orange juice, and water guzzling throughout the day. The fact is that teaching during Ramadan was extremely, extremely difficult. One could easily see the exhaustion in the faces of my colleagues and the iNERDE teachers as the day went on, though everyone made a great effort to stay animated for the kids. Dealing with a classroom of kids is already hard work under ideal circumstances.
When I told someone that I had kept Ramadan but confessed to drinking water during the day she said, “Oh, you kept half of Ramadan”. I felt a little piqued, certainly not eating should count for more than 50%! I claimed I should get 90% “credit”. People here are quite polite, she didn’t dispute my claim, but I knew it was ridiculous when I said it. If you enjoy your morning coffee and juice, with all its sugar and calories, and drink water throughout the day, 50% is already extremely generous. Actually, my story is worse. I admit, all the world may now know, that one day I ate a chocolate during the day and another day I ate an entire chocolate croissant. Secretly, even. I rationalized that I was was sacrificing myself for the kids, to make sure that I would have enough energy to do a good job for them. Which, in its way, was true enough. If I had to eat to do a great job for my students and the Colonie de Vacances, then eating was the right thing to do. But my admiration for my colleagues who taught with the same energy and enthusiasm without secret chocolate bars and croissants is that much more.
It was good, I think, for me to make the effort, whatever my shortcomings. I participated directly in the life of the country, it gave me an understanding that will better inform my work for iNERDE and our efforts to make STEM education effective in an African culture context. I also learned about one source of the strength and determination of people in our two iNERDE countries, Mali and Senegal: the discipline that is practiced and the purpose that is demonstrated in Ramadan. That same strength and determination, channeled toward participation in the STEM economy, is creating and will continue to create economic growth and opportunity.