Twenty-nine Days of Hunger: Stories from Ramadan
Originally sent August 24, 2011
The spate of driving rain lashing the corrugated tin roof sounded like ever-rolling thunder inside the house, an unremitting growl matched only by the incessant rumblings of my stomach. Together we sat, my host family, my hunger, and I, as the failing light of day slowly diffused and left the room, leaving only a small rechargeable LED lamp to light the sparely furnished chamber. Several covered bowls, of various sizes and designs, laid scattered about the floor, its dressing of blue-checkered linoleum peeling up at the edges, and a large medal cauldron sat in the center of the room, surrounded by a kaleidoscope of mismatching plastic cups. The din of the cloudburst notwithstanding, the room was utterly silent.
“Time be naadi?” my host father, Sidat, asked, breaking the silence.
“It’s seven thirty-five,” I answered, and again the room fell taciturn.
Time marched slowly, painfully forward. Outside the heavens unleashed hell and the compound became a river, a torrent of muddy water threatening its low banks.
“Waati jumaa le?” inquired Mama, my host mother, some minutes later, again breaking the cacophonous silence.
“Seven forty-two,” I replied.
Time had slowed to a crawl, and I turned my attention to the second hand of my watch. Tick… tick…
“Seven forty-five,” I answered.
Seven forty-five… nightfall.
A subtle, yet discernable wave of relief swept through the room. Mama began pouring the already sweetened tea into the carnival of cups while several loaves of bread were distributed and the bowls uncovered.
It was the first day of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, and it had been nearly fifteen hours since I had last eaten anything. The dull, aching feeling in my stomach resembled hunger, but was different: it had moved past the pangs of discomfort and had settled in my core—an incessant yet surprisingly undemanding urge to eat. “I have to remember not too eat too much,” I thought to myself as I shoveled that first glorious bite of chicken, noodles and bread into my mouth…
Twenty minutes later, my first bowl empty (the sungtero, or break fast, bowl) and my second bowl half eaten (the dinner bowl), I put down my spoon, clutched my now protruding gut, and admitted to the room, “I ate too much.”
The moon has since filled out and is now waning, meaning that Ramadan is more than half over. I, meanwhile, continue my daily fast, not in deference to any religious practice but simply as a test of my own willpower (which, I must admit, is sometimes found to be wanting). The experience has opened my eyes to many things, the most obvious being that a hungry man is an irritable man. More often than not, I find myself in a sour mood, and a quick survey of my surroundings reveals I am not alone in that. Despite this, sharing in this hardship with my host nationals has, thus far, been a very rewarding experience and has furthered my immersion into this alien culture.
This season of hunger is not one to remain sedentary, however—Ramadan sits at the height of the rainy season and there is work to be done. After months of drought-like aridity, rains come to The Gambia, usually starting in June or July, and “the grass flames up on the hillsides like a spring fire; not yellow but green is the color of its flames…, the grass blade lifting its spear of last year’s hay with the fresh life below.”* Coinciding with this greening of the landscape is the start of the year’s agricultural cycle, and the lassitude that characterized village life during the hot dry months is suddenly replaced by a widespread vim.
What the future holds for me I do not know, but I am quite certain that I will not become a farmer. Nevertheless, as Henry David Thoreau said, “We should be blessed if we lived in the present only, and took advantage of every accident that befell us, like the grass which confesses the influence of the slightest dew that falls on it.” Thus, when the opportunity arose some weeks back, I took up the crude wooden spade, or dabang, used by the women here and accompanied Mama to the rice fields to do some good ole’ fashioned manual labor.
There are three principal crops grown in The Gambia. Groundnuts, or what Americans call peanuts, and millet are grown by the men, who rely on the obstinate strength of donkeys to help till their fields. The other crop, easily the most labor intensive of the three, is rice, and this is grown by the women. Rice is first planted on dry land, where it is grown for up to six weeks, and then is pulled up and transferred to the tidal swamp lands that lie beside the River Gambia. All this land must first be tilled, but, unlike the men, the women do all the work themselves, with nothing to rely on but their own strength.
It takes much more than just strength to work the rice fields however. As I quickly found out, it takes a great deal of endurance as well. With my dabang in hand, which is nothing more than a check mark shaped tree branch with a metal spade attached to one end, I worked the fields with Mama and my host sister, swinging my crude implement up and down, up and down, up and down, each blow loosening just a small chunk of earth. After an hour of this, my back and shoulders were killing me; after two, my hands were covered in blisters. Half hour more I was completely spent and Mama made me stop. I returned with Sibo, my host sister, and greedily consumed a can of baked beans to regain my strength. Mama returned an hour and half later, sat for 20 minutes, and then left again, dabang in hand. And some men here have the gall to call women lazy!
Between these major crops, the vegetables they grow, and the livestock they keep, most Gambian households produce enough to sustain themselves, if only just so. But after eight months of being neck deep in it, I sometimes forget how merciless and pervasive the poverty strangling this country is. That is, until I witness something like I did last weekend in the nearby town of Soma.
The day was gray and murky and there was a light drizzle in the air when I stepped out of the internet café and onto the second story balcony overlooking Soma’s main drag. Below, a mass of people was building like a storm front, its eye centered on the several large military vehicles parked along the partially flooded street. There was an electricity in the air, an undercurrent surging through the as-of-yet tranquil horde, and I settled down upon my perch and waited for the spark that would set it off. As it happened, the catalyst was to be found stacked neatly in the back of the army trucks: boxes and boxes filled with 8-ounce cans of condensed milk.
The force with which the crowd surged when finally the storm broke and that first can of milk was given out was more than I could have expected. The throng of desperate Gambians closed in on that first generous truck and did everything they could to get their hands on eight ounces of precious milk. Some stood back from the vehicle and waited for a can to fly in their direction, conscious that they would have to fight off a swarm of competitors if ever it came, while others fought their way to the vehicle’s edge and reached out with their hands like baby birds desperate for their mother’s worm. Some were lucky enough to be given an entire box but then were forced to face the gauntlet on their way out of the crowd; on several occasions I watched as such a recipient had their box ripped to pieces by those around them, its precious contents scattered on the ground for all to fight over.
The milk was a gift from the president, His Excellency Sheikh Professor Colonel Alhaji Dr. Yahya Abdul-Azziz Jammeh, an annual offering commemorating the month of Ramadan, and there was an entire convey of trucks loaded with milk. In other words, there was plenty to go around, but this fact had absolutely no bearing on the multitudes present. Like ravenous dogs, they jockeyed and wrangled for their share, while the soldiers giving it out only fed the hysteria by chucking entire boxes up into the air and onto the crowd, with no regard for whose head it may land on.
One by one the trucks would start to roll away, raining cans (or boxes) of milk as they went. This would cause the raucous crowd to split as some would make to follow the departing vehicle. After several stops, the truck would finally light out upon the open road, headed toward Farafenni, and those who had yet to get their hands on some milk (and some who had) would sprint back to the next vehicle and the promise of eight ounces of bliss. After about a half hour of this, only a small number of trucks remained, so I descended from my perch and journeyed home to Si Kunda, where I keep my supply of powdered milk always stocked.
No matter how thoroughly I immerse myself in this adopted culture, however, I will never be able to truly share in the unqualified poverty I find all around me. Nor will I ever really experience malnutrition. And, God willing, the Gambia will keep its distinction as the only African nation to have never known war, so no armed conflict either. How, then, can I say I ever experienced the real Africa? Well, through an encounter with a dangerous animal, of course.
hat encounter came about two weeks back, when the moon was at its fullest. It was a disgustingly warm night, with air so thick and soupy you could practically see it, and despite having moved my mosquito net inside I decided I had no recourse by to sleep outside in my backyard. So I lathered myself in bug spray, grabbed my pillows, and went out to catch some z’s beneath my mango tree.
By the time my watch struck three, I was thoroughly regretting my decision; the mosquitoes were relentless and I was stuck wandering in and out of a fitful sleep. By 3:30 I had made up my mind: I was moving indoors. Groggily, I sat up and started gathering my belongings, completely oblivious to how precarious my situation was.
I got my first clue moments later, when I was struck in the face by what felt like a water gun. Confused, I looked up to see if it was raining, but it was not. Then, again, the “water” hit my cheek, just below the eye. “Weird,” I though, still half asleep, and then swung my feet down to stand up. But before I could, my senses were jolted awake by a most terrifying sound—similar to a cat’s hiss but singularly more sinister—coming from the head of my bed. Instinctively, I grabbed my flashlight and swung its beam in the direction of the sound, and there, no more than a foot or two from where my head had been resting, sat curled a three-to-four foot spitting cobra.
I jumped to my feet and moved toward my bathing area while the snake moved in the opposite direction, toward the corner of my corrugate fence. With a distance of roughly six feet between us, I focused my light on it and studied it, with its slippery black scales and distinctive diamond-shaped head, and knew that it was a cobra—the “water” I had felt hit my face had actually been venom it had spit at my eyes. After some time—I honestly can’t tell you how long—the cobra turned from the corner and started toward me, at which point I turned and ran, by heart jumping clear into my throat.
I have not seen the snake since, and hopefully never will. I told my family about it that morning, when I met them for breakfast at five, and they were horrified. (Gambians, in general, have an irrational fear of snakes. A cobra, however, deserves all the fear it can muster.) When the sun was kind enough to light my way, I aggressively weeded my backyard, as well as the area around the outside of my fence, and that evening my host father returned with an especially fragrant tree root, what they call juuto but what I thought smelled like wintergreen gum, which he sprinkled around the inside of my fence to ward off the snake’s return. It was all very tribal, but whatever works!
My encounter with a deadly snake aside, all is well. The end of Ramadan is rapidly approaching, and it couldn’t come soon enough. The great feast, Koriteh, looms just past the horizon, followed by eleven months of three meals a day. And what could be better? (Answer: the food.)
As always, I hope all is well back at home. Keep sending those letters and/or emails, and I’ll do the same. Fo ňaato.
With love from Africa,
*The quotes are from Thoreau’s book Walden.