Starting at dawn, before early morning prayer (Fajr) and ending with the sunset, just before Maghrib prayer, fasting in The Gambia lasts about 14 hours. Indeed we are lucky that this year's weather is still favouring us with the temperatures being relatively low. Going through the day without food is one thing, but being without water is really not so easy, especially when you have to do some physically challenging work under the midday sun. But I realized the secret lies in solid will and determination.
For me, the key point of fasting is becoming more humble and grateful. As we all might realize in one moment of our lives, you don’t miss a thing until it is gone. So after the whole day without water and food, the first sip of hot tea and the first bite of bread brings the most precious feeling. We really should be more grateful for all the goods we have and share with others as Gambians do. Even though they don’t have much, they are always sharing with others whatever they have. Sharing is deeply imprinted in the culture of the Gambia, being even more evident in the time of Ramadan.
I have been a part of Jallow’s family since I first set my foot into their home. They welcomed me with open arms and, to be honest, made me feel I really am part of them. Although we still have some language barriers with our mama, we never have a problem with communication through laughter. Whenever I sit in front of their house with them, I remind myself that simplicity and love are worth more than all the money in this world.
Iftar, for me, is like a small ritual. Many people break their fast with the eating of three dates, as Prophet Muhammad used to do. Drinking hot water meaning tea or coffee, is the next thing to do, with the addition of a few bites of bread and butter. After that, it’s time for prayer, followed by dinner with the family.
Having a modern or international lifestyle in The Gambia, my iftars are more of a solo version, so I was really excited when I got a chance to break fast with my Gambian family.
As usual, my arrival started with many hugs from family members with endless questions about how am I, followed by I miss you and long time. I was happy to see upgrades in their home, their blooming garden and new domestic animals.
Girls have already prepared everything for dinner by 5 pm. When they uncovered the pots, my hunger became stronger. They have prepared some of my favourite meals, including domoda (not really typical for iftar) and churaa gerte. One by one, working family members started to return home, and the whole family began to gather for dinner.
Mama invited me to break my fast with dates. Boys and men started with preparations for the prayer, including washing a face, hands, feet and teeth and putting on a long kaftan. Before they finished with the prayer, girls have already served churaa gerte, a type of porridge served with sour milk. A hot meal with family members eating from the same bowl warmed my stomach and my heart. Without much delay, the second dish was served. We were again eating from the same bowl, spoon or hand, making space for new coming members and spreading around the bowl again when somebody would finish eating.
There are certain rules when it comes to eating. The first ones to eat are parents (or elders in the compound), then guests, male members, kids, and ladies. The reason for that lies in the roles in the family. Girls are responsible for the preparation and serving of the food and therefore cannot join until all members were served. The rest of the order depends on the level of respect which is increasing with age and the role of providing for the family.
Being done with the second course, everybody found their space on the porch to sit down and relax while talking to each other. For me, this was the most beautiful part. Being in The Gambia, away from my biological family and always lacking time for conversations that are not connected to my work, talking with my Gambian family made me feel truly happy.
As day turned into night, I tried to know more about how habits should change during Ramadan. After all, I have learned, I would describe it as shifting between day and nighttime. The only exception is people who still have to do all their daily activities, such as work and other responsibilities. Many people are praying throughout the night. Secondly, with the preparation of the breakfast to be eaten before the beginning of the next day’s fast, night becomes too short. This is also why many people feel exhausted during the day, and in general, life in The Gambia is very slow and calm.
As we enjoyed sweet fruits under the stars, girls brought the third course, being a mixture of chips, spaghetti, meat, onion sauce, mayo and cucumbers. We ate it with bread. As I ensured everybody my stomach was full, they kept on saying, add more. When pointing out, I didn’t expect so many meals in such a short time, they answered: ‘this is the beauty of Ramadan’ and smiled.
I left my family a little after papa left for prayers at the mosque. Before that, he asked his son to translate his words for me. He told me how happy he is to see me in their home, how grateful he is for the gifts I brought, how proud and glad he is to see me fasting and saying bismillah before my first bite and that he wants to remind me that I am not a guest but family member in this house.
I am constantly reminded I still have many things to learn, not just about the culture of The Gambia but also about the Muslim religion. Exploring it little by little makes me understand certain things I might find confusing or initially don’t see any meaning in. The nicest thing about The Gambia is, people will accept you for who you are and see you as a human being first. And this is yet another thing we should all strive to learn.