Friday, September 20, 2013

19 Sept - Ramadan in Peonga

I’ve been in Benin for a bit more than a year now.  That means, that I’m experiencing holidays and seasons for the second time.  Last year, when I went for my two week post visit, my community (and all Muslim communities around the world) was fasting for Ramadan.  It was the end of the fast, and my host mother wasn’t fasting so it didn’t really impact my life much.  I ate and drank throughout the day as usual.  This year, however, I was in village for pretty much the entire fast.  I knew I wasn’t going to fast for the entire month, but I learned that children learn how to fast by doing one or two days at a time.  Early on during Ramadan (which lasted this year from July 9-August 7), I asked Nafisa (the 10-year-old) if she was fasting.  “Not today,” she said.  “But I am going to fast tomorrow.”  So I decided I’d try it the next day too.

Some background for those not all that familiar with Islam and with how Ramadan works: fasting for a month doesn’t mean you don’t eat or drink at all for the entire time.  The fast applies to daylight hours only.  So during Ramadan, those get up early before dawn to eat and drink, and then usually go to the mosque to pray.  Then they don’t eat or drink the entire day, until sunset.  At sunset they break the fast by drinking something, and then eat.  There are certain things, like oranges or dates, which are particularly traditional for breaking the fast*.

The night before my first day of fasting, I cooked extra dinner to set aside and filled up a large bottle of water to be ready for me the next morning.  I wasn’t exactly sure of the right time to eat in the morning, but I knew it was before dawn – so I set my alarm clock for around 4:45.  Early the next morning, I was woken by the call to prayer at the closest mosque – at 3:30 in the morning!  Was it time to get up?  I lit my kerosene lamp and opened my front door, and there was no sign of movement from anyone else in my compound.  It sounds silly, but I wanted them to know I’d gotten up – otherwise they might not believe I was really doing the fast correctly!  So I walked around a bit with my lantern, then sat, tired, in my front room waiting for time to pass.  By about 4:15 my tiredness was getting the best of me, even though they still didn’t seem to be up, so I ate and drank my morning meal and went back to bed.

This ended up being my pattern on days that I fasted.  Get up and eat and drink a bit before 5 (the 3:30 call to prayer was an anomaly), go back to bed to get up again at 7, my usual time.  I’d try to do my most active things, like working in the garden or studying Fulani with my tutor, in the morning.  Rest during the middle of the day, then maybe go out again in the evening.  In my village, everyone broke the fast at 7 pm.  On days that I was fasting, my compound gave me roasted corn, bouillie (porridge), and other delicious things right at 7.  And kids went from house to house selling additional snacks for breaking the fast; here are some cute boys who sold me peanuts one night:

As I’ve mentioned before, greetings are very important in my community.  “How’s your family?”  “How’s the heat?”  “How’s the rain?” During Ramadan, another greeting was added – “How’s the fast?”  On days I was fasting, it was nice to be able to reply – “The fast is going well.”  “Are you really fasting?”  “Yes, today I’m fasting.  But not tomorrow, I don’t know how to do it every day!”  It made me feel closer to my community, and many people seemed to really appreciate it.  “You try everything!”  I was told.  As someone working here, it was good for me to experience a bit of it firsthand.  It’s one thing to be told that meetings should be kept short in the afternoons because everyone is tired from fasting, and another thing to know how that part of the day feels.  Of course it is very different to do the entire fast.  I got a break every few days, which makes a big difference.  But I’m very glad I tried it like I did.  

Like many people in America, I have almost never had the experience of not eating when I was hungry.  If we’re only slightly hungry, or even if we’re bored, we reach for a snack.  So ironically, the hardest part of fasting was remembering not to eat. The first day, a kid came to my door to offer me some roasted corn in the afternoon.  I almost ate it before I remembered!   One day, I actually did forget.  I was in the garden, and some kids were looking at my cucumber plant.  “Do you eat that?” they asked.  “Yes, try it!”  I picked a cucumber and cut it up with my pocketknife to share, eating half myself before I remembered.  So that afternoon, when people asked me if I was fasting, I had to tell the truth – I was, but then I forgot!  Everyone got a big kick out of that, and it became a joke for the rest of Ramadan.  “What about today?  Are you fasting, or did you forget?”

Unfortunately, I had to miss the big end of Ramadan celebration since I was at a girl’s camp in Parakou for the last week.  But I did get a new Ramadan outfit!  I’ve mentioned Habilou in other blog posts, the baby who is officially my “husband” in village, according to a joke with my women’s group.  I was over at his family’s house (they are some of my favorite people in village), and a man came by selling fabric.  All the women went over to browse the selection, and I went to look to.  “Hey mom” I said to my “mother in law”, Habilou’s mother, “Are you going to buy me some fabric?”  “Sure, which one do you like?”  she said.  I pointed to one with butterflies, thinking we were just joking around the whole time.  But then she actually bought it for me, “from Habilou”!  I was really touched she would buy fabric for me.  Apparently, it is traditional for husbands to buy their wives fabric at the end of Ramadan since the wives have been working hard to make good end-of-fast meals every evening.  When I was told this, I pointed out that I hadn’t cooked for Habilou once – but was told that’s ok, he wasn’t fasting anyway.  

When I had my outfit made, I asked the tailor to make a little shirt for Habilou as a surprise.  It was a big hit with his family!  Here’s a picture of the two of us in our Ramadan outfits.  

*Since I’m not a Muslim, and since I’ve learned about Ramadan mainly by observing others in my community (most of which don’t speak French), I’m not a very accurate source for information.  There could easily be mistakes in this.


  1. Wow. This is so beautifully written, and so beautifully and gracefully lived. I am so grateful for this window into your experiences, Bethany, and wish you all the very best of health, good fortune and happiness throughout your remaining months in Peonga. You are one of my heroes. You go out and do what's needed, without psyching yourself out. You embrace the culture and let yourself be embraced. You participate in the present moment, and save precious moments to share with us back home. Thank you so much.


  2. This post brought me much delight, and the photo at the end was the perfect touch. Thank you for taking time to compose and share these posts. See you soon on your visit home!

  3. What a lovely adventure, Bethany, It is a special gift to be able to feel "at home" whereever you are.

    Love, Grandma B