Sunday, August 7, 2011


As many of you probably know, Ramadan is an Islamic holiday that takes place during the ninth month of the Muslim calendar.  It is a month long devotion to prayers, fasting, and goodwill.  Children and pregnant or breastfeeding women are exempt from fasting, but the women must make it up and fast later on in the year.  Children are expected to fast when they hit the age of puberty, and many younger children will try fasting for a day or two to practice.  People must fast from sunrise to sunset, and they cannot consume any food or drink.  While not eating or drinking, Ramadan is a time for Muslims to analyze their lives and rid themselves of bad habits.  It is a month to cleanse oneself, and Muslims are supposed to refrain from evil actions, thoughts, and words.  It is a time to practice restraint.

What makes Peace Corps Volunteers different from other aid workers is that we really integrate ourselves into the communities that we are helping.  With that in mind, I really wanted to experience Ramadan and be able to relate to the people in my village.  It’s an opportunity for me to bond with my villagers and for them to see that I am making an effort to integrate.  My body has definitely taken a nutritional hit, but I think it’s been worth it since I’m gaining credibility points with my villagers.

Here’s what my first day of fasting looked like:

The night before, my host niece, Jaboo, said I should set my alarm for 4am and that we would be eating breakfast at that time.  I double checked the time with multiple family members and they all verified.  My alarm went off at 4am and I woke up, got dressed and waited for Jaboo’s knock on my door to tell me it was time. 4:30 rolled around and I wondered what was going on.  I walked out onto the compound to complete darkness and not a soul awake.  I was very confused and figured maybe they had eaten without me and decided to go back to sleep.  Finally around 5am, a call on the loudspeaker from the mosque alerted people that it was time to eat before sunrise.  Of course, then came Jaboo’s knock on my door, and we were ready to eat.  In general, I put very little weight on any specific time someone in my village tells me since they usually schedule meetings for general time frames such as morning, afternoon, evening, or night, instead of a specific hour.  Lesson confirmed.

Since there are 3 pregnant women in my compound and lots of children, there were only 5 others in my family who were fasting.  The fasting group consisted of myself, my elderly host parents, my niece Jaboo, my nephew Saibo, and Lagee, a middle schooler who lives on my compound.

At 5am, I groggily made my way over to the chief’s hut to eat breakfast, and everyone looked exhausted since this was their 4th day of fasting.  Usually when you walk into a room, there is an exchange of a long list of greetings, but that morning, I said a brief good morning, and they all mumbled an acknowledgment of my greeting.  I sat on my host dad’s bed as we all huddled around my niece who was making coffee.  Being part of the fasting group made me feel like we were on a sports team, gearing up for a big competition.  We all sat silently and ate bread with our coffee and then dispersed to our rooms to get a little more sleep.

The first day was not as hard as I had imagined.  When you don’t eat all day, your stomach shrinks, and I got to a point where I didn’t even really feel that hungry.  The not drinking water part is the hardest.  I lied under a tree with my family for most of the afternoon, and villagers would approach me and congratulate me on fasting.  People in my village have been very impressed that I’ve been trying to fast with them, and we have common ground that we can talk about.  When I walk around the village, I ask how their fast is going, and they ask how mine is, and we complain about how hungry and tired we are.  On my second day of fasting, Sarr could see how exhausted I was and asked if I wanted to play a board game with him and his daughter to take my mind off of fasting.  It was cute and a lot of fun. 

As great as the bonding was, on my second day of fasting (yesterday), I decided that I needed to stop fasting for day 3.  It was very hot yesterday, and I had a productive morning and afternoon, but by the end of the day my body was not doing well.  I had made plans to go with Mamadou, a local farmer, to his fields to see his garden and crops.  He had been asking me for a while and it seemed very important to him for me to see his work.  So I met him at 5pm while the sun was still blazing, and we walked deep into the bush towards his garden.   His garden ended up spanning acres, and he wanted to show me every plant and tree and describe the work he had been doing.  After an hour of walking around in the sun, I felt like I was going to pass out.  I hadn’t had any water or food since 5:30am.  I finally described how tired and weak I felt, and he took me back to the village.  It was great to be able to see his garden and to see how passionate he is about his trees and plants.  He manages the entire piece of land with only the help of two of his sons.  It’s impressive!  If I hadn’t felt like I was ready to die, I probably would have enjoyed the visit more.

Breaking fast is a great moment and a highlight in the day.  Around 7pm, all the fasters were sitting around in the compound, waiting until 7:30 when the sun would set.  At the moment the sun starts to set, the mosque loud speakers announce that it is time to eat and drink again.  My first day of fasting, I was so dehydrated that I downed an entire half liter of water as soon as fast was over, and my host brother-in-law started yelling “dondin, dondin!!!”  After the body hasn’t had anything in it for 14 hours, eating or drinking anything too fast is a terrible idea.  To break fast, my villagers eat sweet things that are easy for the body to digest.  We drank coffee with lots of sugar and powdered milk in it, ate bread, and ate sweet millet porridge.  I felt an amazing feeling of accomplishment as I sat and broke fast with my family members.  They were all patting me on the back and telling me how courageous I was to fast.  They understand that I’m not Muslim and do not need to fast for religious reasons.  After breaking fast, the family sat around the compound chatting under the moon and stars for a couple hours.  Around 10pm, we ate dinner, since the body is ready to eat a normal meal at that point.  I was expecting people to eat a huge feast, but dinner was not much different from what it normally is.  I ate rice with peanut sauce with my family for dinner the first night, and last night I got some good meat and vegetables since I ate with Sarr and his wife. 

Today I’m not fasting, and my body is thanking me.  I’m glad I tried it, and it felt amazing to be a real part of the village.  Participating in this enabled me to have more empathy for those who are fasting for the entire month.  Sarr described to me that it is much different for them to fast though, since they do it every year starting at the age of puberty.  For me, I’ve never done this before, and my body was confused as to why I was starving it. 

I’m really happy to be back in my village.  This place feels like home now (not that it can ever replace my real home though!).  I love my family here, and I feel like I’m part of the village now.  My Malinke has gotten much better, and my villagers recently have been telling me that I “know Malinke” which means I’ve made great strides in language.  It’s weird, but I feel like I don’t need as much privacy as I initially did.  I used to shut my door a lot when I was in my hut to get some alone time, but recently I’ve been letting the little girls come in and color in my room.  They love to color, and I’ve been teaching them how to write their names.  I feel really comfortable here, and it’s hard for me to imagine living anywhere else right now.  It’s funny how being away from this place for only a few weeks made me realize how much I love it!


  1. Its really wonderful to read your blog. It's like being transported to another world where all the values are different but you make them seem reasonable because it's clear how much you care about the people around you. You are a very good ambassador to the people of Senegal. I wish we had a larger Peace Corp and a smaller army to impact the world.

  2. It's not until you step inside someone else's shoes and walk around in them that you really learn where they are coming from. I am in awe that you are doing this every single day. We should all be so brave. xoxo Mom

  3. Hey Marielle---Just got back from Liberia and caught up on your blog (spent the 3 weeks writing mine!). Lot of overlap in our adventures except yours is longer and except you aren't staying in a cushy resort like I did (never again). Issues we focused on were female empowerment and keeping girls in school.....sound familiar! Anyway, good to hear your 'voice'; I have even more respect for you after my small taste of Africa 'lite'. XOX/Kevin

  4. Kevin, my mom forwarded me some of your email updates from Liberia and it sounds like an incredible experience! You're such a great writer! And I enjoyed the photos as well. I can't wait to check out more on your blog!