The end of August has brought with it an amplified reminder of the cultural divide between America and Tanzania. The sighting of the first crescent of the new moon signified the beginning of Ramadan and because Tanzania has a sizable Muslim population the effects are quite noticeable. Ramadan is a Muslim holy month meant to cleanse the soul and express repentance for all the sins committed during the rest of the year. Muslims must, amongst other things, fast from dawn to dusk everyday for the duration of the holy month. The goal is to be pure in thought and deed, which means Muslims give up behaviors that are thought to be sinful, negative, or distracting from spiritual introspection and closeness to God. Less orthodox Muslims who usually don't are now wearing traditional Muslim clothing and in many parts of the city where there are concentrated Muslim populations you will find restaurants closed during the day and open late into the night. In Zanzibar, where something like 98% of the population is Muslim you can be fined if caught eating publicly during daylight. The most orthodox Muslims are so strict about fasting that they spit on the ground all day to avoid consuming their own saliva.
In my office this translates into about 1/3 of my co-workers skipping lunch while the rest gather together in the staff kitchen eating traditional foods and inquiring after one another's families. Personally, I'm amazed by the determination of Mariam, the office lunch lady. Because she is Muslim, she is also fasting but she still shows up everyday like clockwork to cook lunch for the office. Even though I eat breakfast every morning, my stomach always rumbles around 2 o'clock when the smell of fried fish, ugali (a stiff porridge) and pilau (a spice rice dish featuring potatoes, meat, and a tomato salad on the side) wafts its way up to my office. I ask myself daily how someone who hasn't eaten since before dawn can stir a pot of delicious smelling food at 2 p.m. and not partake.
I usually grab lunch outside the office at one of the local restaurants, but nowadays I feel guilty knowing that my chips (fried potato pieces similar to french fries) and mishikaki (meat skewers of either beef or goat meat) are stirring stomachs and tempting my co-workers from their spirituals paths. Out of respect for what my co-workers are trying to achieve I've taken to quietly sidling out the door for an eat-in lunch or consuming something non-fragrant at my desk. This is, admittedly, lonely since my usual lunch partner is unavailable because he is fasting.
Ramadan will end on the first day of the next lunar month with Eid-ul-Fitr or The Festival of Breaking Fast. I'm not exactly sure how Tanzania will celebrate Eid. I've heard there'll be everything from gift giving, to visiting neighbors and friends, to money and toys for the kiddies and the widespread buying of new clothes. I'm not sure how much of this will pan out but one thing's for sure-Christians, Muslims, and school kids alike will have the time off because in Tanzania Eid qualifies as a public holiday. Since the Muslim calendar is a lunar one the occurrence of Eid is dictated by the phases of the moon. No one knows yet exactly when Eid will be but its predicted to fall on September 20th and 21st. Everyone is hoping that it'll be on the 21st and 22nd, creating the ever-so-rare four-day weekend.
I'm keeping my fingers crossed for a wonderful Eid celebration bur for now I'm enjoying the heightened visibility of Muslim ladies wrapped in beautiful scarves and men sporting tennis shoes under traditional Muslim dress, as well as the respectful and supportive solidarity showed by their Christian counterparts.