My friend Renee recently offered to send us books and popcorn in the mail, the two things that she knows will sustain my sanity and my children’s, respectively. It’s been two weeks now that we’ve been trying to procure a post office box in the nearby city of M’Bour, but like everything else here, you need an inside connection to make it happen. It turns out we have one. As fate would have it, our friend Zorro’s second cousin is the Assistant to the Manager of General Sorting, who apparently has some influence with the Director of the Processing Department. Score. Or so we thought. The paperwork alone involved in securing the right to send and receive mail in Senegal is downright mind-boggling. “We don’t want to adopt the P.O. box”, I told Zorro, “just foster it for the time we’re here.” Apparently, we’re still under consideration.
When I enthusiastically thanked Renee for the popcorn suggestion on Jamie and Sunny’s behalf, she asked innocently, “You have a microwave, don’t you?” The “PussshhHah!” that inferred my “are you kidding?” response sent spittle onto the computer screen (we were skyping). As I began describing what we were living with, or without, I realized we had indeed embarked upon somewhat of a survival adventure, albeit a mild one. There are many people here who live with much less than we do, in conditions far worse, and certainly less sanitary. What I did realize, as I was describing our necessary inventiveness, is that most of us humans are quite adaptable when faced with less than ideal circumstances and that we were among them. It’s not that we’re suffering. Far from it. We have three meals a day, comfortable beds and a roof over our heads which happens to pitch out over a breathtaking beach on the Atlantic, whose waves lull us to sleep at night. “You should really write about this,” said Renee.
Let’s begin with the hotel kitchen. “Le Rayon du Soleil,” (the ray of sun) as our small Inn is called, boasts a rather well-equipped kitchen. There is a large refrigerator with an adequate interior freezer compartment, several nice prep counters and a commercial-grade oven with four gas burners, a separate deep frying section and a pizza drawer. The day I first wandered into this homey kitchen with it’s quaint round wooden breakfast table, I knew I would willingly assist Daba, the cook, as sous-chef every night if she would have me. My culinary fantasies got fast put up in the larder when I noticed that Daba wasn’t setting foot in the kitchen. She was squatting outside over a low pot set on a small gas tank which was making more noise than a blow torch. While the smells emanating from that pot were undeniably wonderful, I couldn’t help but thinking of my dashed dreams of cooking in that kitchen: two women, one American, one African, side by side over simmering pots, dicing this, chopping that, exchanging techniques, recipes, small talk, united across continents and cultures by the universal act of nourishing our loved ones (and the occasional summer client who would surely savor the melting pot.)
“What’s wrong with the oven?” I asked tentatively.
“Nothing,” she replied defensively. “It’s an excellent restaurant-grade gas oven. No one else, not even the French restaurants, have this good of an oven.”
“If it’s so good”, I ventured, “why aren’t you using it?”
She narrowed her eyes at me. “Because last year when there were no clients we sold the oven furnace to get money for food.”
“Oh . . . Well, can’t we replace it?”
“Not unless you’re planning a trip to France any time soon.” So that ended that.
Now on to shopping. The aisles of the local grocery store (which are patronized almost exclusively by “toubabs”, or white people) serve as a good barometer for everything else that’s going on, or not, at any particular time of year. In the produce section this week, which in fall and winter hosts an impressive array of vegetables and fruits, I found only a few wrinkled potatoes, a smattering of bruised apples, some potent sprouted garlic bulbs and a small basket of large dates, I think, left over from the week before. The IMPORT section (OK, so it’s my favorite) was utterly void of triple cream French cheese, cured Italian ham and Swiss yogurt. Packaged cookies were nowhere in sight and milk was past it’s due date. “What’s going on?” I asked Umi, the impossibly beautiful Senegalese owner of our local grocery store. “Did the delivery trucks get stuck in the mud?”
She laughed at me and glanced around the store. I was the only patron there. In fact, she and I were alone. Her staff was nowhere in sight. “Ramadan starts today.” She explained. “Few people work during Ramadan, so nothing can be delivered. I only stay open for the few toubab clients who are around, like you. I can’t bring in a lot of produce because it won’t get consumed. We don’t eat during Ramadan. It’s a fasting period.” It looked like I would need to get creative with her offerings for the next several weeks.
For one month, the ninth month in their calender year, the Muslim people refrain from eating, drinking, smoking or any other such consumption from sunup until after sundown. This includes water. It is permissible to rise at 5:00 am, before the call to morning prayer, to eat a small meal, but the daylight hours are to be passed in quiet repose and contemplation of Allah. (Pregnant women and nursing mothers, the elderly and infirm are exempt. Children strive to complete as many fasts as possible.) The month of Ramadan is considered penance for all the sins one has accumulated during the rest of the year, a fast which theoretically cleanses the body, so that one is free to in turn purge the impurities of the soul. I hate to think of the general health consequences of daylight fasting. In the past few days, I’ve witnessed more marital arguments, fist fights (the Muslims are typically non-physical) and general crankiness than ever before. Even the stray cats and dogs are on edge, deprived of the left-overs they would normally receive. Blood sugar, it appears, is immune to religious dictates.
I knew girls in college who sinned aplenty during the week, only to head to church on Sunday to wipe the slate clean, the religious equivalent of “I’ll start my diet tomorrow.” Their means of recompense seems like a get out of jail free card to me compared to the austerity of Ramadan. I admire the Muslims’ adherence and dedication to written creed and respect their decision to honor Allah, but I am by no means prepared to follow the fast out of solidarity. However, I’m also not one to flaunt my exemption by religious choice and so I find myself sneaking the gas burner into our apartment pre-dawn, squatting over the burner to heat water for coffee and scramble a few eggs as the sun comes up. We eat sequestered indoors, quietly, hoping the smells and jostling of pans won’t set off contempt for our irreverently full stomachs. If I happen to come back from the grocery store (with my bruised apples, large dates and pungent garlic), I skitter back to our rooms quickly, head down, keeping my purchases discreet.
Coinciding with the austere month of Ramadan is the violence of the rain storms. While the mortals have been accumulating their transgressions, the skies have been storing up rage, heat and humidity. Into the silent void that is particular to lethargy and spiritual contemplation, the storms come fiercely, especially since they originate and gather force at sea. Since our windows open out onto the beach, the impact of the crashing, churning angry waves and the deafening thunder that accompany it, make for a pretty intense storm. Anyone who has seen a Broadway production which featured rain as an integral part of the plot knows what I mean. Cue lightening stage left, (the entire theatre up to the balcony lights up) cue thunder stage right (a clack, although you expected it, jolts you from your seat). Cue rain patter ( surround sound) and you want to open your umbrella right there in row 22C. Storms in Senegal have the same effect. They are a theatrical production.
The electric company also appears to be fasting during Ramadan, conserving precious gas during the day, (i.e. no electricity) and allowing it only at night when electricity may be needed to cook the one meal of the day and ceiling fans are essential if one wants to sleep. (Did I mention that airconditioning is a luxury known only to certain expats and luxury hotels who can afford the outrageous electric bills, despite the outages, in addition to a generator which is needed at least a third of the time.)
I spent this particular day of Ramadan outside in a quiet contemplation of my own--that of our dirty laundry. I wash it by hand in a large basin filled with water and suds and hang it to dry in the sun. Kem, one of the girls who works at the hotel, could certainly do it for me, but I hesitate to tax her energy during the fast. Besides, the whole process takes less time than most rinse cycles and is surprisingly satisfying. There is no sarcasm in my statement about contemplation. Washing clothes by hand with no distraction is a great way to be alone with your thoughts, spiritual or otherwise. An added benefit is the muscles that get used. Who needs a membership to the local gym (hypothetically speaking) when washing clothes, squatting over a gas tank and carrying heavy grocery bags has made me aware of muscles I never knew I had, or could hurt so much.
There are a few who do not adhere to the fasting rules of Ramadan, namely manual laborer, like the small crew working with Richard to repair the earth house. I asked one of them about it today and this was his response: “My commitment to Allah lies in my heart, not my stomach. If I don’t eat, I can’t work and if I can’t work, I won’t make money to feed my family when Ramadan is over.” Practically speaking, this made perfect sense to me.
My curiosity about Ramadan, my desire to understand these people’s willingness to give up basic nourishment in honor of their God made me take stock of the small luxuries we ourselves have given up. Ours are not sacrifices, just inconveniences and ones that have us thinking differently about energy consumption, both physical and practical. I suppose it’s easier for me to do things the simple way here both because I don’t have a choice at the moment and because its’ the norm. If everyone else had a washing machine, I’d surely feel put out. But I don’t, not here. The spiritual punctuation to witnessing Ramadan is that I am thankful for what we do have.
Zorro is the one person who I can talk honestly and openly to about the Muslim religion. I like to debate with him on certain issues, which always leads to a deeper understanding of something I might otherwise have judged superficially. I am certainly capable of getting up on my high horse and trotting him onto a soapbox, (which if opened would contain a rather terse op ed), in order to make my opinion known. But I am here to learn. Today I asked him if he thought Ramadan still made sense in the modern Muslim world. He said for some it still did and others not (I thought of the laborers.) I guess my need to challenge the concept of fasting is born of my personal fears not only about deprivation, but forgiveness. I wondered aloud if there might not be a sliding scale for Ramadan which correlated directly to the degree of one’s misdoings, as in, sin a little, partake in food; sin moderately, drink water and so forth. I even went so far as to suggest that one could reasonably and consciously fast reversely. Why not give up the temptations that might lead to sin or focus on doing good deeds throughout the year so that the penance of Ramadan would be unwarranted? He pondered this for a moment, his willingness to consider other’s ideas one of the things I love most about him. But finally he explained that sins, transgressions, whatever we choose to call them cannot be easily defined and the gamut is too wide to categorize and chart on my theoretical sliding scale. He told me I was thinking practically about a spiritual subject, which seemed incongruous to him.
“Plus," he said, "we are all human and therefore prone to mistakes. Trust me when I tell you that it is easier to abstain from eating than sinning.” Food for thought, I’d say.