A few days ago my downstairs neighbour, Salim (of goat slaughtering renown https://twendevso.wordpress.com/2014/02/22/42/), cornered me on the way past his front door. Before I could protest I was being ushered into his living room to taste the vast array of Indian treats arranged on the table. The slightly awkward thing was, it being Ramadan and only 4.30pm… the rest of the family were going to just have to stare at me as I tucked in. But it was barbecued paneer kebabs. And bhaji’s. And “sweet balls”. I couldn’t resist.
Salim’s tiny living room was chock ‘a’ block full of people whiling away the hours until dusk fell and the fast could be broken. I ended up perched on a bed next to a tiny lady who seemed to be Salim’s sister and who excused her excitable chatter saying “fasting makes me hyper”. I didn’t mind. For the next three hours she kept me in stitches and then somehow convinced me to try out a bit of Ramadan fasting too…
Cut to 5.00am yesterday morning (Saturday) and my alarm sounding to tell me I had to get up to eat and drink something or else that was it until 6.45pm that evening. Amazingly, my wonderful houseguest Rebecca was up already brewing us some Uji (Kenyan porridge). As total novices we spent a frantic 15 minutes gulping down water and trying to cool our boiling porridge to the point of being edible without burning our tongues then marking the ingesting-deadline with Rebecca spitting out a last, coveted cashew nut popped in the mouth a moment too late.
And so began the fast.
Typically, neither of us thought that a day of fasting should get in the way of a day of productivity and set off to run around town in the brilliant sun on our various missions. I felt irritable from the word go. My tummy was rumbling in an almost painful way by 11am and the fact that I hadn’t been able to have my usual two cups of Yorkshire Tea to start the day had pissed me off immensely. In all honesty I spent most of the day being irritated at my irritability.
But hunger is manageable. Who hasn’t gone a day with skipped meals? No food. No problemo. No water… turns out that is the tricky bit. By 4pm I was obsessively focussed on my thirst. I sat baking in the sun next to the window on a crammed bus home and let my mind settle on dreams about buying a cold can of coke. I had a vague headache (not sufficient malady to break the fast; you have to be near collapse my tutor had informed me) and by the time I got home had decided the only way I was going to last the next three hours was to take to my bed.
Soon it was almost time to break the fast. Rebecca and I stood on the roof of my apartment block with the sun going down and waited for the call to prayer from the neighbourhood mosque. 6.45pm on the dot: we clinked our water bottles, downed the contents and feasted on bananas with chocolate cubes shoved in the centre. Too good.
So what did I learn?
1. I am physically a bit weak. This is not really a surprise. I often think I am weak in comparison to people in Kenya who seem to manage just fine in excruciatingly hard jobs, on minimal sleep and food, and with next to no “lazing around time”. But the fact I had to nap my way through the fast to cope with being thirsty was a new low.
2. I very rarely exercise my will-power in terms of self-deprivation. I’ve been on a tight budget out here as a volunteer but if I want some chocolate I’ll buy it. If I want a second Tusker beer, I’ll have it. In general I live a pretty luxurious and indulgent kinda life, more than I had realised.
3. I don’t really do “slowing down”. The idea of doing a little less with the day to accommodate the reduced amount of fuel my body would getting seemed a major inconvenience. I couldn’t bear the idea of not being “productive” in a physical, tangible sense.
4. I didn’t do it right. Fasting is not about deprivation for it’s own sake. It’s about slowing down and using the experience to get in closer contact with your God. Without a God to try get to know, my fast was pretty empty and a bit meaningless.
Luckily I managed to partially rectify this after a chat with my tailor who, upon hearing I was fasting (another mistake: you shouldn’t really bang on about the fact you are fasting to people), gave me a little lesson in how it should be done: when you find yourself thinking about being hungry or thirsty you should use that as a prompt to reflect upon God.
So I decided to use my rumbling tummy and dry mouth as a prompt to think about the millions of people around the world doing Ramadan and that amazing simultaneity of experience. It was kind of brilliant. I know I can’t claim to be “doing Ramadan”(please don’t get me wrong!) but it was quite special to feel just a tiny bit in common with people whose lives I previously thought of as so different to mine.
In summary, it wasn’t much fun but on reflection I can see how a modified-fast-for-secular-beings might be quite useful. I can definitely see a day spent quietly resting and contemplating something purposefully chosen in advance might be a very worthwhile change in pace. And the tailor said I could think about giving something else up like internet for longer periods of time.
Now to work out when might be convenient to fit that in…
OK OK… I get it, just joking! Final lesson: Ramadan being at a fixed time of year eliminates all those excuses about being too busy to make time for something that is, really, way more important than all those things you’re supposedly busy with.