Monday, July 28, 2014

Living in Dakar During Ramadan {And Fielding Incredulous Inquiries}

I am back from France! My trip was glorious, and per usual, it has been an adjustment settling back into life in Dakar, especially during hot season rife with power and water cuts, clouds of dust, and the usual eye sores. Not to mention, our fridge and water hose are broken, we don’t have AC (woe is me), and the normally speedy internet has been turned off, requiring administrative follow-up and it’s a holiday week here in Senegal.


BUT! I am feeling somewhat optimistic this Monday morning – probably due to the cup of coffee I just chugged - so enough dwelling on the “hardships.” Instead, I thought I’d switch gears and talk a little bit about life in Senegal during Ramadan... which ends today, with Korité (Eid al-Fitr) tomorrow!

So, what does Ramadan look like in Senegal? Well, Senegal is at least 95% Muslim so the impact of the Holy Month is most definitely omnipresent. Streets are relatively empty during the day, business is slow (but not completely dead), restaurants and clubs closed for renovation, beaches are empty... A lethargic heaviness cloaks the city during daylight hours, especially compounded with hot season. It is not unusual to spot people napping on mats in the shade in the afternoon, pausing from their work for a respite from the heat, thirsty throats, and grumbling stomachs (I can only assume).

Surprisingly, some aspects of life continue on without much visible change, particularly manual labor. I was quite perplexed to discover our neighbor constructing a new apartment building during Ramadan. The workers begin construction at 8am (right outside my window!), working diligently through the morning and afternoon. Color me impressed... and baffled at the timing.

At night, the city rouses from its slumber. Families break their fast at sunset, nibbling on a date and enjoying a hearty breakfast at 8pm. An ample dinner is served between 10 and 12pm, and adults and children filter out into the streets, socializing with friends and neighbors, running errands at the night market, enjoying the slight chill of night air.

Last night, C. and I "broke the fast" ;) with C.’s family (some members fast, some don’t... and it’s all good). After dinner we drove home to our neighborhood, surprised by the traffic at 11pm. Babies played on the sidewalk, women lined the street selling snacks and other goods. During Ramadan those who can, work at night and sleep as much as possible during the day. Children and adolescents shift their schedule to avoid activity during daylight hours. 

When I first came to Senegal to study in 2008, I arrived during Ramadan. I was curious to notice my teenage host brothers staying up until 4 and 5am (just in time for the early morning meal) and sleeping in until 3pm. Like the majority of their peers, they essentially became nocturnal. Of course my thirteen year old host sister was not privy to these hours, as she was expected to help with cooking and housework during the day. My blood boils just thinking about these double standards! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: it ain’t easy for Senegalese women. #patriarchy


On this I can’t speak from personal experience, but for believers (and thus most Senegalese) Ramadan holds much spiritual weight. While people will definitely speak matter of factly about the challenges of carrying on every day life during Ramadan, I have never heard anyone actually complain about fasting. It is a sacred part of life in Muslim society, a natural and expected phase in the yearly cycle. That being said, it is obviously an incredible test of self sacrifice and will... and frankly I do not envy anyone this yearly spiritual duty.

While in France these past two weeks, I was asked time and time again about life in Senegal: how I handle (enjoy??) living in a developing country, and a Muslim country at that. More innocent questions were aimed at the food, living conditions, past times, etc. But underneath these inquiries, I sensed a degree of incredulous confusion. Definitely not from everyone, but some. I've had friends and family insinuate that they could never live in a Muslim country, regarding my current life choice with a certain bemused reverence. And honestly, I don't blame those who are skeptical; I would be too if I'd never truly lived (drastically) outside my comfort zone for an extended period of time. I guess that might sound patronizing, but... it is one of those things I don't think you can really understand or appreciate until you've lived (and embraced) it yourself. (Plus, obviously not every culture fits every person - for example, I don't currently have any interest in living in Asia or the Middle East. I'm referring more to the ability to empathize with longterm cultural immersion/appreciation.)

So my short answer is this: while some of my values do conflict with what I witness living in Senegal, the experience of thriving in and embracing a foreign culture has stretched me in 2394884 ways and led to immense personal growth. The connections I've made are irreplaceable. I don't imagine living in this constant state of "stretch" forever, but for some of us wanderlust-inflicted folk, identities strewn across multiple borders, there are foreign cultures that simply resonate within us, inexplicably and completely separate from religious label or skin color or any other external indicator. 

I was reminded of this truth, yet again, on my recent trip back to Senegal. On the flight to Morocco, I enjoyed people watching for sure, but it was on the plane from Casablanca to Dakar that I felt this sense of home (one of many!) wash over me. The familiar vernacular, the palpable sense of community even within the confines of a plane, the baby resting its head on my shoulder throughout the flight: I was on my way home. 

Photos in this post are from my trip to Touba for Magal in 2011. More on that adventure here!

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