When it came to fasting as a kid, I remember being such a late starter. Most of the other kids I knew had started fasting for half a day (to practise) when they were seven years old. But not me. These kids were starving themselves to prove to the adults that they were not kids anymore, that they were now big and tough. They were trying to prove this by offering to starve themselves. Voluntarily. For kids, fasting apparently, was the type of activity that would put you in the visible league of ‘grown-ups’. Not me though. I refused. They thought it was badass; I thought it was dumb. I remember starting to think that I’d rather starve my ego than go through with such a ridiculous plan.
Naturally, my folks and everyone expected that I should have started fasting long ago. But I was taking my sweet time because I was suspicious of the whole exercise― it looked painful, judging from the way the other kids were handling it. I mean, in my defence, I loved tormenting the adults by tempting them with food they couldn’t have. Besides the Garissa weather is not the most conducive when it comes to staying long hours hungry and thirsty. Errrm, you might die. Ok, you won’t, but at least it seemed like that back then, again basing my theory on the way the other kids were looking. My folks were getting alarmed at my lack of fasting. And as you would expect, a meeting was soon called an intervention― chaired by my parents and also conveniently graced by the duksi (Quranic school) teacher. This was for enforcement (read: intimidation) purposes, in case you are wondering. It was decided, inn hushed tones, beyond my earshot, that I was too old not to be fasting. My input on the matter was deemed unnecessary. The other kids effectively made me look bad.
Soon, I was being dragged out of bed in the middle of the night, like at 4 a.m. to eat as much food as is possible to sustain me until sunset. I tried to protest. Hello, I’m freakin’ 10! Isn’t this illegal or something? Nobody listened. I would wake up really cranky and swollen-faced. I would be too sleepy to eat, and my eyes would be closed and my hand always missed my mouth and it would mostly hanging in the air and someone would startle me out of my dreams. It wasn’t a nice meal generally. I’d go back to sleep and as soon as the sun came up, I would be very alert, immensely famished and very much ready for breakfast! I tried my best with the new order of things, but by mid morning I was convinced fasting wasn’t for me: the emptiness of my tummy. The dryness of my tongue and lips. The lethargic feeling of having no energy.
But as I wobbled in my misery, I discovered that the other kids were stealing food and were only trying to look hungry and thirsty to dispel any suspicion. How could I have not suspected this? So I did what any reasonable person would do, what I had to do to survive: I joined the sneaky thieving bastards. We would go through three meals a day, with refreshments in between, because, temperatures, and still look as starved as possible. It was important that we looked famished. By the time it was evening, the toughest time of fasting, you would think our eyes had disappeared into their sockets, or to use the Somali phrase, “our eyes were broken,” meaning that we had gone through a lot of hardship. Unspeakable horrors. So this continued until I was about thirteen when I finally started fasting for real. Cammaaan folks, cut me some slack here, I am sure you’ve all done something you are not proud of. Give me a break.
When I look back on my childhood memories of Ramadan, different images flash through my mind. Childhood world is unimaginably rich in fond memories and the presence of Ramadan evokes warm reminiscences. It was an exciting time. It was magical: the eager thrill that comes with the sighting of the almost invisible crescent moon that marked its beginning; the assortment of well prepared food we would have; refreshments, the pastries, sweetmeats and all kinds of delicacies just waiting to be devoured; the running of errands for mom as she prepared the iftar which you hated because you wanted to do other things, child stuff. The ice block was a vital part of Ramadhan culture in Garissa; drinks were chilled with an ice block because of the heat and the thirst. Without this, it just sucked. We would cause a fracas. I remember after iftar, our families gladly allowed us to spend hours out, we would roam the streets of Garissa, after which we would go for taraweh prayers (nightly prayers observed during Ramadhan) but instead of praying, we would cause mischief and get reprimanded by the imams.
And as the fasting drew to a close, the eerie feeling that came with the coming Eid festivities was just magical for a kid. We would start pressuring our parents about new clothes and shoes. It was the only time of the year they felt morally obligated to provide us with a very important universal human right. The right to clothing. For the rest of the year ati we recycle. We would be so excited about Eid that we could not sleep the night before. On the morning of Eid, parents would unwrap the new stuff for the kids and we would have snacks and cakes before the entire town headed to the Eid grounds to pray. People filled the streets, in great hordes, from the kids, the elderly, the women, the men. Some on cars, others on foot. Everyone was nice to each other and offered lifts and refreshments and candy. Fathers carried their children, their little feet and shoes dangled as they sat astride their fathers’ shoulders. Everyone had nice well pressed or new clothes. Kids flaunted their new toys and brand new outfits; which they’d continuously and mercilessly wear for an entire week. I always envied them: the kids with the cool stuff; those little rascals who boasted their cool capes and sunglasses. My folks would only buy us little matching kanzus and kofias every other Eid. Man, I hated those. Since then I’ve always been skeptical about their style of upbringing. Bieige kanzus every other year. What the hell? *Eye Roll* But I wonder if kids feel the same way about Ramadhan anymore. Does it still have the same thrill and excitement?
Fast forward many moons later, and we are in another Ramadhan. A lot has changed since. The inexplicable appetite, however, still remains. I should point out that I am and always have been a good person; I think “altruistic” is the word I’m actually looking for. I have never let good food go to waste, at least not when I can help it. The guilt alone would eat me alive and I couldn’t live with myself. I mean how could I? I believe that good effort demands reward and appreciation― that because good food is a work of art, it naturally requires appreciation. This is just a principle I live by. This altruism is one of those things that remind me that there are still some decent people left in the world. That there is still some humanity left in us. It is just who I am.
Despite this amazing relationship that I have with food, I should also point out another important thing: that I am and always been as skinny as a rail. Like the Standard Gauge. It is just one of those wonders of the world. And this has led to anyone whom I’ve honoured with the privilege of sampling (read devouring) their food, to feel, a little, eerrmm, wasted. My Hooyo (mum) has never hidden the fact that she has always wanted a plump boy, not some twig with a ravenous appetite. She has over the years tried everything from hospitals to traditional medicine. She simply doesn’t get it. A lot of people don’t actually, and there’s a slim chance we’ll solve this peculiar case. I suspect that whenever she prays at night, especially during the Holy month of Ramadhan like now, she prays for her son to get beefy (read healthy) and also for the bushy hair to disappear. Beefy and hairless; a look that would earn me the lead role in the next Shaolin Soccer flick without any auditions required. There is, as you can see, a lot of wisdom in the way things are, in the status quo.
Coming back to the topic, foregoing food from dawn to dusk for a month is not easy, especially for a foodie like me, especially for skinny folk like me. It is no lean task, pardon the pun. But many years of fasting means you get used to it. Besides, you don’t really have a choice, well unless you want to go to hell. For starters, waking up to eat the pre-dawn meal is one of the hardest things known to man, right behind winning the Tour de France without artificial help; like without steroids or blood doping. The alarm goes off and I immediately hit snooze, with surprisingly very good reflexes for someone who was out cold for a good six hours at least. Then I start to have a minor referendum on whether to eat or sleep; to #Brexit or to #Remain. I usually have this debate when I’m murmuring something inaudible as I turn to my favourite sleeping position of all time: lying on my back, arms askew, with one leg perched against a wall and the other herding camels on the other side of the Sahara. When you are in this position, you know you cannot have any logical debate. This is how you know you’ll definitely vote #Remain.
But as I slide back into dreamland, an annoying sibling or an unusually alert cousin grabs me by the ankles and drags me out of bed, forcing me to #Brexit. You know those super alert cousins who have come home on holiday from high school, who you suspect are up to some dark witchcraft, who wake up in the middle of the night, taken a cold shower, have already brushed their teeth, finished all the food in the fridge and are now looking for something to do? Like drag folks out of bed or iron all the clothes? But all the same, thanks to Cousin Boris Johnson, I eat something quickly, even though at 4.30, my appetite is terrible. I try to beat the call for the morning prayer marking the beginning of fasting.
Usually, energy levels in the early morning hours are very high, giving me some airs and braggadocio (I’ve always wanted to use this word― it is so full of itself). The mood at this point of the day is “Relax, I gat this!” like Denzel would say, before blowing up some bad guys, or some good guys; you know with him you can never be too certain. I also try my best to resist the temptation of saying (presumably to hunger) something like “Sit back, relax and enjoy, it is going to be smoking,” in Jeff Koinange’s voice. But modesty reigns.
This is of course the hours before 10 o’clock, before they serve tea and snacks at the office. But I’m a very strong person and it is too early to be envious of other people eating food. Fasting in Nairobi is easier because of it’s favourable weather; I describe the experience of fasting here as “cloudy with a chance of samosas”. Besides, snacks at the office means ndumas and ngwaches: lately I have developed a certain list of foods that if taken a little too regularly I might start to lose my Somaliness. I have told myself that if I keep a regular diet of sweet potatoes and arrow roots, I will start to subconsciously develop a Kikuyu accent. I have already lost a big chunk of my Somaliness thanks to my campus-acquired expertise in making and eating Luhya ugali― the big hard mountain that is served with a little amount of greens and is taken in chunks that you squash and poke in the middle to accommodate the said little amount of greens. I’m told the little amount of sukuma wiki costing at most five shillings is a more of a formality because the main focus is the ugali, and the sukuma shouldn’t take away its lime light.
The office keeps me busy and this is a good thing for the fast. Time flies when you are preoccupied. Clients come and go and soon it is lunch hour. My energy levels drop significantly, my mouth starts to dry. My stomach starts to make loud annoying noises, demanding to be fed. Folks will have gone for lunch, except those two or three evil ones who opt to order from Debonnaires and remain in their desks eating pizza and watching Kevin Hart stand ups and inboxing on Facebook. At this point I can only leave for midday prayers murmuring a prayer while trying to figure out which flavor the pizza is. Gulp. Ya Allah give me strength!
By mid afternoon, my stomach growls so loudly, rudely interrupting the serious discussion I’m having with the boss. It is awkward and I can tell he wants to talk about the elephant in the room but he thinks better of it.
Clients, for some reason, start to walk in at 4 o’clock, as I imagine why samosas have three edges and not four or five or any other number. I’m usually a very patient person, but sometimes you almost get hangry and irritated and you can’t help but wish some clients be struck by lightning, or fall off the stairs or get stuck in the lift. But you offer to smile and show kindness instead. Not today Satan, not today. Nice try though.
Office hours gladly end and traffic jams await you. Ordinarily, when I’m not fasting, the sunset is a phenomenon that I romanticize. I find it beautiful and wondrous and indescribable and somber. But when I’m fasting, I really don’t care how it looks. It takes its sweet time and its colours seem weird. I find it creepy and an invasion of my privacy as it peeks through those lazy clouds, taking forever.
When the creepy sun is out of sight, it is time to break the fast. Sometimes, this will find me in the bus, stuck in traffic, watching the traffic cop caress his belly. Someone shares dates; thank you, thank you! Bless you. Such kind and organized people. The first thing I eat or drink is just heavenly. It is recommended, however, when one is breaking fast, that you break with a glass of water and a couple of dates, which was a practice of our Prophet Muhammad (p.b.u.h.), because the date is a simple sugar that easily gets absorbed into the bloodstream, giving you instant energy. It is meant to help folks like me not to jump the gun and start with the big boys, like the chicken or the chapatis or the meaty stuff, because the body can’t handle large amounts of food after staying hungry and thirsty for long periods. I guess this is why ugali is rarely seen in iftar menus; it can kill you. But soon I have my revenge, and it is sweet and delicious. The bhajias seem beckoning; the chicken curry delightful.
Many minutes later…
I am seated on the rug leaning against something, anything, legs and arms akimbo and I cannot move a muscle. My breathing is not very good, and I have a toothpick dangling from the corner of my mouth. I realize that I cannot stand up to go for taraweh prayers my attempts to stand up is similar to the movements of a seagull, and when I finally manage to get up, my attempts at walking are penguin-like.
But folks, Ramadhan is not just about the food and the change of eating habits. It is about spirituality as well. After iftar, the taraweh prayer begins and it is usually long, and your feet begins to hurt from the standing. But it is immensely rewarding. A billion other muslims from all over the world stand for prayer every night, arm to arm, toe to toe, all praying to Allah, all reciting the Quran, all praising and giving thanks to Him. It is the most beautiful and amazing of things. The imaam’s sweet recitation of the Quran rings the air, with such beautiful cadence that you get lost in its beauty, meaning and power. It’s all worth it.
It is also a month of sharing; it is meant to equalize between the poor and the rich. If it wasn’t for fasting, the rich would not feel the pain of hunger and be kind to the poor, or merciful to the weak and the needy. They invite them to their homes and eat with them from the same plate. They will all stand up in prayer, regardless of status.
It is a time of foregoing those bad habits like snacking non-stop, Facebook stalking and swearing. It’s a time of exercising restraint, of experiencing and appreciating hardship, when you try to be the best person you can be, not the monster that you are all year. A time when even the least religious people come out of hiding and fill the mosques and take part in something spiritual, in something greater than themselves. A time when everyone comes together, eat together, stand together, pray together. A time when our non-Muslim friends invade our homes and finish our food, like they’ve been fasting for days. It is only sad, though that when the fasting is over, we go back to our usual routines and pray less and forget about the poor and become selfish and get subsumed by the dreary drudgery of everyday life.
This month, I have given thanks for a lot of things; the gift of life, for living to see another Ramadhan, for being a little more productive that usual, for health, friends, family, samosas… Last Ramadhan, I was in KSL trying to juggle work and school and life. My life was vicious circle of constant firm meetings (which we all hated), the looming multiple project deadlines, assignments, incredibly boring lectures, the impending and dreadful oral exams, nightmarish traffic jams, horrible weather, and laziness. A year later, all of that is behind me, so I have to give thanks for that and for all the other things, good or bad, that happened since. At the same time, I pray for more and more blessings. I pray to see many more Ramadhans.
I also have to seek forgiveness for all the sins I have committed along the way, consciously or unconsciously. I know they are many; the people I may have wronged, things I may have said on this blog or in my daily activities, the sexual innuendos especially, for enjoying Game of Thrones a little too much, for wishing death on clients and the boss, for graphically picturing it, and generally for all the times I may have damaged my relationship with God. As this holy month comes to an end, I’m reminded of how essential this relationship is and how much I need to improve it. How, a life without spirituality, is an empty life. May we keep the spirit of Ramadhan until the next one, God willing.
Ramadhan Mubarak and early Eid Mubarak folks.
Image source: earthsky.org