September 10, 2010
Yesterday was the most holy and popular holiday in Niger, La Fete de Ramadan. La fete, or party in English, signifies the end of Ramadan.
Coming to Niger, I knew practically nothing about Islam, and still don’t really, but am learning. Roughly 95 percent of Nigeriens are Muslim. Think about that for a second. I don’t think there is any one particular trait or idea that 95 percent of Americans shares, which is a pillar of America’s existence for being a country.
Because of this, Niger is in sync. Work and life stops at 2 p.m., 4 p.m., 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. for prayer because Muslims are required to pray five times a day (the other time is at 5:30 a.m.), although Niger is a more relaxed Islam nation compared to Iran or Iraq and not every Muslim prays all five times every day. The country also shuts down during Ramadan, when Muslims are required to fast from food and drink from sun up (5:00 a.m.) till sun down (roughly 7:00 p.m.) for 30 days, or one moon cycle. Most people ease back their workload during Ramadan.
Being raised Catholic in Christianity-dominated state, my exposure to Islam is limited to mostly what I learned in school. That change living with a Muslim family. My host dad, mom and uncle pray every night and live by the Koran so do most of my language instructors and training staff.
Nigeriens often ask me what religion do I practice and I tell them that I am Catholic, and they usually smile in approvingly. From what I can tell, for Nigeriens, it’s not about what religion you practice, but that you have one.
When Ramadan came around, I wanted to be respectful of my family and fast with them. In retrospect, it wasn’t a very good or feasible idea because I am in training and constantly in class, where I need to be focused and alert. But, still, I’d thought I would try.
There were four of us who claimed we would fast: the first made it till lunch of day two; I made it till lunch of day three; the third till lunch of day five; and the fourth is Muslim and has fasted since she was 11 and completed all of Ramadan. Our language immersion was during Ramadan, so I knew I would stop so I could be fully attentive during immersion, but terrible stomach cramps forced me to stop a few days earlier.
Because we were on standfast and language immersion during a good portion of Ramadan, I wasn’t with my family during the hot afternoon hours, which were the worst to endure. But, I was with them in the evening when they broke fast. My dad and uncle usually went to Niamey and bought fried dough and fruit to break fast while my mom had tea, juice and millet pourage ready. They would consume what they could, pray at 7 and 8 and then eat a regular meal with us. Then, at 4:30 a.m., they would wake up to eat once more before fasting starts.
My family has been doing this for years, but I am not sure how it gets easier each year but they said it does. They giggled me the few days that I did try to fast because I did drink water. When they said that’s not real fasting, I reminded that I am neither Muslim nor Nigerien and need a little break. Even though they poked fun at me, they were really did appreciate that I tried to be apart of their tradition.
The most celebrated part of Ramadan is la fete, which comes after the last day fasting. The women spend hours and hours making enormous food and everyone buys new, traditional clothing for the celebration. In the morning, the families go to the Mosque to pray and afterwards everyone eats. Then children will go to different houses and ask for coins and candy. People spend the day visiting friends and family, wishing them well and asking for forgiveness.
Although it’s not fair to compare to Christian holidays, but for perspective, Ramadan has the religious importance of Easter and the traditional and family aspect of Christmas (I use Easter for religious importance because most Christians, and Catholics, will tell you that the celebration of the resurrection plays a bigger role in faith than that of the birth.)
Yesterday, I spent the day eating with my family and visiting other volunteers. In the morning, I dressed up in a tunic dress I had made and wore jewelry, contacts and makeup. It’s the most American I’ve been since being here, but dressing up and putting on your best is very much part of Ramadan. We greeted my family, who all had new clothes made for the occasions. My dad and uncle and male complets, tunic-style shirts and pants with embroidery, and my little sisters wore new dresses. My mom wasn’t feeling well so didn’t wear her outfit until visiting family, but she wore a gorgeous green complet with very intricate sewing. Our dad did invite us to the Mosque because non-Muslims can go on La Fete, but it was too far away so they took the motorcycle while we watched our mom cook. Once they came back, we ate a huge meal of cuscus, vegetables, beef and chicken (The chicken was especially delicious because it was that of the rooster who woke me up every morning at 5 a.m. I don’t eat a ton of meat in Niger, but this bird was a yummy revenge.)
My darling friend Julia visited me in the afternoon and we walked to the market for a cold soda, since it was unbearably hot. I complained about the unbearable sun to my uncle and he reminded me that I’m in Africa. After I let the cool liquid swim in my stomach for a while, I went off to visit more friends. We chatted and snacked on American treats – my favorite pastime in Niger – before I left with my friend Kimmie to see more friends. In the evening, I had another delicious meal with my family and spent time before bed discussing constellations in Franglaise with my uncle while the rest of the family went off to greet more friends and family.
The holiday made me think of the ones that I’ll miss the next few years. My 26th birthday is in a month, November brings my favorite holiday and then, of course, Christmas. It’s sad, but that’s a sacrifice I made to be here.
On la fete de Ramadan, there wasn’t heapings of my mom’s green bean casserole or the sound of bells at St. Peter & Paul, but it did feel like a holiday. The soul purpose of the day was to visit and be merry with one and another, and although there are new characters in my life, I treasured the blessing their presence brings. When my holidays come around, they won’t mean a whole lot to this Muslim country, but I know I’ll have good people to share it with, and when you can’t be with family, that’s the next best thing.