The month of August was quite slow at site – the height of rainy season kept people inside far more than normal and the time of Ramadan in the Muslim calendar spanned the month. During Ramadan, Muslims fast throughout the day, eating only at morning prayer call (4:30 am) and after sundown (around 7 pm). This fasting not only limits food intake, but also dictates that they not drink water. As you can imagine, this regimen makes rest much more desirable, and necessary, than work.
Last year, Ramadan fell at a time when I was adjusting to Mali. I had only been in country for a little over a month and was in training at my homestay village. I remember my host mother and grandmother passing on lunch and walking to the mosque together for evening prayer, but my recollection of other Ramadan traditions was crowded out by all of the other new material I was trying to take in at the time. This year, now that I am more settled, I was able to see the Ramadan traditions and better understand their role in the lives of my Muslim neighbors.
Each morning at prayer call I would hear the rustling begin in the concession. People were up praying and eating before the sun rose, and as the roosters and donkeys chimed in with their calls I was treated to quite a lot of racket before 5 am, haha. The morning meal consisted of rice and sauce that had been prepared the previous day. For some (mostly men), morning prayer and meal were followed by a bit more sleep, but for others (mostly women), Ramadan just meant that the work day started a few hours earlier than normal. I am always in awe of the women of Mali, but especially during a time when they are asked to work as normal, but aren’t eating or drinking throughout the process. I am certainly not that physically or mentally strong.
By mid-morning, the women’s morning chores were completed and they started preparing for the meal that will break the fast – a traditional porridge made of millet called “moni,” and the early morning meal for the following day. You can look at pictures of this process in my most recent photo album. From start to finish, it takes about 2 hours to make the pounded millet into bowls of little millet balls that resemble Dippin’ Dots and are boiled in water to make the porridge. For some concessions, this process is far less time consuming, but the women in my host family are cooking for about 50-60 people.
The afternoon brought prayers (around 2 pm and 4 pm) and as much rest as possible. Once the afternoon prayer passed, the women would begin to prepare the porridge and ration it out into bowls that would be delivered throughout the concession to break the fast. Although I didn’t fast, I got my own bowl too (I really like this porridge)!
I found Ramadan a hard time to be at site. Usually there is always someone willing to sit, chat and have tea, but Ramadan means no tea during the day and a lack of energy among the people that I typically find very lively. The rain, paired with this lack of energy, makes it difficult to do project work. I also grew tired of being asked by everyone that I saw if I, too, was fasting. Although I admire the religious dedication of the Muslims in my village, I didn’t think it would be smart for me to undertake a no food, no water regimen in a place where my body is already constantly fighting to stay healthy. And, as I explained to everyone who asked, I’m not Muslim and my religious traditions don’t require fasting during Ramadan. Some people understood this explanation, but others just thought I wasn’t doing it, because I couldn’t handle it (which is probably also true!).
Needless to say, I was really looking forward to the end of Ramadan and celebrating Seli Fitini (little feast – the big one comes in November) with everyone at my site.
Unfortunately, the morning of the feast, I woke up with an eye infection. I wasn’t going to let that keep me from the excitement though, so I put on my new Malian outfit, grabbed some tea and sugar to give to my host moms and headed out to the concession to help the women cook “basi,” a dish that resembles cous cous and is made out of millet. I had a great time sitting with the women, taking pictures and chatting. Having eaten a celebration meal that morning, they were all back in good spirits and full of energy. Right before I left to go to my work counterpart’s house for Seli lunch, I dropped my camera into a bowl of peanut butter sauce and screamed out a few words that I’m glad the women of my concession don’t know. Strike 1) Eye infection, Strike 2) Camera in a bowl of sauce.
The rest of the day was really nice, and I was able to visit quite a lot of people before my irritated eyes sent me back home to rest. But, as they say, bad things come in threes! After going to bed, I woke up to a scratching noise that sounded like it was coming from a box of goodies sent from the States. When I got up to check it out a mouse scurried out of the box and under the front door. Strike 3) Mouse in my house.
So, Seli Fitini didn’t end up being the best day, but it did bring Ramadan to an end and started a new month – thank goodness. After that day, I felt like things could really only get better.
I’m happy to report that my eye infection is all cleared up; I was able to salvage my camera and, although it is a bit sticker than it was before, it still works; and the a few mornings after Seli I woke up to a dead mouse, thanks to the Chinese rat poison I was able to find in market! You’ll see in the next couple of posts that my September did turn out to be a really great month.