Friday, July 19, 2013

Rules for Ramadan

Ramadan Journal, DAY 1: My first morning back in Mandama after a 3-week trip home to the States (a wedding! Whole Foods!), followed by a little travelling around Cameroon, coincided with the start of Ramadan.  Having been prepared for the last 6 months by constant reminders that my predecessor Meghan fasted for Ramadan, I couldn't very well refuse, so I dove back into village life with balls-to-the-wall cultural integration.

Today I awoke a little before 5 a.m. with the first muezzin from the mosque next door.  A new imam came up from Mayo Oulo for the holy month, and is incidentally staying in the small house on my compound.  I haven't laid eyes on him yet, but I heard his voice this morning: he projects with much more force than the usual marabout (although he also has a richer chanting timbre, so that's okay).

Although I'm sure my neighbors Howa et. al. had been up for an hour already preparing breakfast, I decidedly had not, and was in no state to go wandering in the pre-dawn darkness begging bouille and beignets, so I stumbled into the kitchen and grabbed what was at hand: an apple, tahini, a liter of water. I sleepily lit a candle and curled up on the futon to munch on my breakfast, listening to the call and response of prayer and inattentively leafing through an Intelligent Life magazine I had picked up at the Brussels airport.  When my eyes started drooping and the water was almost gone, I put myself back to bed.

The second round of waking up was far harder.  Maybe because this was my first night sleeping in my own bed for over a month,  I woke up disoriented, slashing at the mosquito net with one arm before realizing where I was.

I contemplated just going back to sleep, and had indeed fallen into a doze before resolving that I would get up; it was almost 8:00.  Even after hauling myself out of bed, sleep clung languorously to me, and I wandered about in a daze, ineffectively dabbling at my tasks of unpacking and housecleaning.  I finally decided enough was enough; I needed coffee.

I had already determined that I would ease myself into fasting by drinking plenty of water the first week; limiting my water intake the second; and by the end of Ramadan going whole hog (that metaphor seems particularly misplaced, but you know what I mean).  So, I revised my personal version of fasting: coffee and water the first week, only water the second, and so on.  There are perks to not having religious skin in this game.

Thus the first Rule for my Ramadan: BE ENDLESSLY FLEXIBLE. Feel like you're going to faint? Drink some water. Can't pry your eyes open with a multitool? Coffee might slip past the wrathful gaze of Allah, just this once.

DAY 3: As I already broke fast (iftar in Arabic; somtugo in Fulfulde) with El Hadji Moussa's family, the delicate balance of high-school style village politics required that I also do so chez El Hadji Ibrahim.

During my absence, Ibrahim got married, again.  That's right, he of the 36 children (I counted with one of his daughters today) just hasn't had enough.  As far as I'm concerned, he needs wife #5 like he needs a hole in the head, but then, he didn't ask me for pre-marital counseling (which is probably best for all concerned).

Bintou, his blushing new bride, just achieved the ripe age of 14 (to his 65), and as such spends more time with the gaggle of Ibrahim's lycee- aged daughters than with her fellow wives.  I don't blame her.  These latter are old enough to be her mothers-- or even her grandmother, in the case of the senior wife, Hadja Manga-- and accept the role, dishing her unsolicited advice in tones that brook no argument.  As they do the same to me, I can sympathize.  And as much as I like Hadja Kultchi, it's sometimes more fun to hang out with the kids (the same conversation about making couscous, which I will never do at home, wearies after a few dozen repetitions).

So tonight I made my greetings all around, then headed for Bintou's part of the concession, from whence bursts of giggles and delighted shrieks already trickled.

This is the second Rule, learned tonight through drinking deeply of the bitter cup of experience:


This is how adults handle iftar: at 6:30, you break the fast with something small.  Tradition dictates that the Prophet Mohammed did so with dates and water.  As a matter of cost, convenience, and custom, Mandamans do so with a cup of red millet bouille.  This is nutritionally not a terrible plan; millet is one of the more protein-dense grains, and if the bouille is made with peanut butter, that ups those slow-burning amino acids even more.  After drinking the bouille, you pray once, then wait.  An hour later is the last prayer, around 7:30; during Ramadan it lasts over half an hour, so it is well after 8:00 before the full meal is taken.  During that essential hour and a half, the metabolism gets a kick start, and because bouille is fairly dense and filling, you aren't starved when you finally sit down to eat.

This is how teenagers handle iftar: piled in an excitable, writhing ring, they take it in turns to produce black plastic bags of whatever they have bought that afternoon.  It turns out there is a pretty penny to be made by tempting starving adolescents during Ramadan with mouth-watering goodies; behind Idi's boutique, a brisk trade goes on from around 3:00 onwards.  One after another, to cries of delight, Bintou and her friends pour their loot into a bowl in the center of the ring.  Eager hands, hovering like so many vultures, pounce. The battle is on to cram mouths full; chaos reigns until the bowl is empty, then the next contribution appears, and the feeding frenzy starts again.

Like jackals worrying a carcass, the girls demolished enormous quantities of fried and sugary treats.  Schooled from a tender age in the agressive hospitality of Northern Cameroonian culture, the girls found time to fix me with authoritarian glares, commanding with mouths full: "Nyamu, Laura! Nyamu!" "Eat! Eat!"

And eat I did. Four types of friend beignet; heaps of fried peanut sticks, ground and mixed with sugar; fried plantains; chunks of raw manioc soaked all day in sugar water; sweet sticky rice cakes; the girls pushed these rare delights in front of me, and I did my best to keep up, punishing my no-longer-adolescent empty stomach.  At one point I took a break and reached for my water bottle.  "No!" scolded Hapsi, my 16-year-old laundress, pressing plastic cups into both my hands.  I was to wash everything down with a) intensely sugared citron, which is more or less Country Time Lemonade; or b) intensely sugared hibiscus juice.  Having long ago learned that resistance is futile, I double-fisted cups of refined sugar like it was a daily habit, ignoring my protesting stomach and growing physical discomfort.

Finally the feasting broke off for prayer.  I sank onto a couch, hoping that if I gave it a moment to settle, my stomach would right itself.  After all, dinner was yet to come.

But the damage was done.  As I stared down the line of bobbing veils in front of me, I became intensely aware that I was going to be sick.  I held myself together until prayers were done, then queasily muttered an excuse and lurched for home.

"You're leaving already?" cried Bintou, aghast. "But you haven't eaten!"


"Tomorrow," I groaned, and staggered home just in time to make it to my latrine before bringing it all back up.

Lesson learned.

Day 6: I've come to find a pattern, modeled off that of my neighbors, that works well during Ramadan.

Rule the third: WORK EARLY, SLEEP LATER.

After that first morning, I haven't been able to get to sleep after getting up and eating at 5 a.m. This, it turns out, is for the best. There's an inescapable logic to why my neighbors are tromping out to their fields as soon as the prayer is over; it's better to work while the day is cool and you still have energy from that first meal.  Later, when you're dragging, you can lie about in a stupor without worrying that the peanut fields haven't been plowed-- or in my case, that you're a day behind on your Insanity workouts.

Right, I guess I didn't mention: I decided as soon as I came back with a computer, I would put myself on a regime of high-intensity interval training, and determined to be undeterred by the fact of fasting. I was encouraged to see that my arch-nemesis and constant inspiration (it is possible to be both at once), Meghan, left this note about Ramadan: "If you're a crazy person like me and want to be Jillian Michaels, do your sport at 3:30 am BEFORE your 4 am breakfast.  Don't casually try to complete 30-Day Shred in the oppressive 12 pm heat. It ends badly, trust me.  Don't phone this one in."

So there you have it. If Meghan did it, I can do it, no?

But, as my neighbors never cease to remind me, I am not as dedicated as my predecessor, so my schedule is a little more forgiving: wake up at 4:45 or so with the call to prayer.  Make a high-protein breakfast-- my favorite so far has been red beans in peanut sauce. Eat around 5:00 (yeah, yeah, sticklers, I'm half an hour into the day by then. So sue me.) Read and digest for an hour or so.  I'm currently plowing through The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, which is about a family of missionaries in the Congo and seems a little to close to the bone sometimes. By 6:00, begin Insanity workout; if computer has run out of battery, go for a 5-K run. Work in the garden, which is luxuriously, rampantly overgrown through a month of neglect; I cried with happiness (really, not ashamed of this one, there were rivulets of tears) when I saw how the sad desert of my yard had burst into life, then scaled back my joy when I realized most of the seeds I planted had been overrun by weeds. Shoulder-high weeds, in some cases. But still, there's okra and cucumbers and green bush beans and yellow squash that survived my Darwinian experiment in farming, and nothing makes me happier than aching shoulders from an hour of bringing order to the beds and rows in the cool of the morning.

Making the desert bloom (although Ben Gurion probably imagined something involving a little more targeted Round-Up application)

Then: bucket bathe.  Head to the health center for a few hours.  Come back to repose-- an endeavor usually frustrated by the arrival of every small child in my neighborhood for playtime; I swear they post a lookout for my return.  Spend a little time visiting with people in the afternoon, for work projects or simply for pleasure.  Finally, kick all the kids off my porch and settle back into my new Eno hammock (possibly the best purchase I made while I was at home; I love you, REI) to read a magazine or a book, listen to music, or simply watch the sky darken and wait for the call to prayer.

And repeat.

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