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Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

The Eve of the Festival of Ramadan

Africa, Cameroon
Personal Essay

The Festival of Ramadan, more commonly known as Eid al-Fitr, is a Muslim celebration that marks the culmination of the holy month of Ramadan. The month of Ramadan occurs each year and lasts for 28 days, as Islam, like Judaism, functions on the lunar calendar. This means that each month lasts 28 days, just like the cycle of the moon. For this reason, Ramadan and other Muslim and Jewish holidays fall on different days every calendar year. For example, one year the month of Ramadan may begin in October, while the next year it would begin in September. It changes by approximately 11 days each year.

During the month of Ramadan, Muslims do not eat or drink from sunup to sundown. It is a month dedicated to prayer wherein they are expected to ask forgiveness for their sins, pray for guidance, refrain from self-indulgence, and purify themselves through self-restraint and good deeds. They customarily wake up early in the morning, before the sun has risen, in order to eat breakfast, and they break the fast at night, after the sun has set. For Muslim communities that live in the desert, much like the community I write about in this story, the daily fast is very difficult, especially in that people are not able to drink water during the day. People get very tired and are unable to function at full capacity, which is why one can find students falling asleep in class or adults lying around. I did the fast for a few days with the members of my community, and it was quite difficult, to say the least!

As one can imagine, after fasting for 28 days, people are excited about ending the fast with a celebration. Every Muslim man, if he is financially able, is required to sacrifice a goat that he will then share amongst his family. In my village, located in the northernmost province of Cameroon in the Sahel, an arid region just south of the Sahara desert, people congregate on the morning of the celebration at the “big prayer” which, according to custom, takes place in the fields outside of the village. People pray together, the men and women remaining separate as tradition has it, and a goat is sacrificed at the end of the prayer service. This first goat symbolizes the chief's sacrifice for the whole village. As soon as the chief's goat is sacrificed, this gives the signal for everyone else to go home and sacrifice a goat for their families. For people who do not often get to eat meat, as it is very expensive for the average villager, they feast on meat that day and for weeks to come. The leftover meat is smoked—no one has refrigerators, so it is an effective preservation method for meat— and people eat the meat little by little over the next few weeks. Families traditionally also offer their friends some of the meat from their sacrificed goat as a sign of respect and in the sprit of giving. As a schoolteacher, I was given a lot of meat over the weeks following the Ramadan celebration.

If you know someone or have a friend who is Muslim, ask them about Ramadan and the celebration that marks its end. Ask them if they have any special traditions in their family. If you encounter someone during the month of Ramadan, ask them how the fasting is going; they'll be surprised you know so much about it! If you want to wish someone a happy end-of-Ramadan celebration, just like wishing someone Merry Christmas or Happy Hanukkah, you can say, “ Eid Mubarak. ”

Le Réveillon de la Fête du Ramadan—The Eve of the Festival of Ramadan

The end of Ramadan was approaching. You could see it on the henna-decorated hands and feet of the women, with their freshly braided hair, with the men's extensive purchases of fabrics for their entire family, with the tailors laboring day and night, desperately trying to finish everyone's new outfits before the festivities. Depending on when the first sighting of the crescent moon occurred, the big celebration that concluded Ramadan would be either Friday or Saturday. The villagers who had left for the city to find work were coming back home and were bringing all sorts of fabric for everyone in their family: their wives, their kids (an average of seven per household), nephews, nieces, cousins, families-in-law, neighbors...the list was endless. It seemed like it was going to be quite an event, and despite the almost unbearable heat during the last few days of this month-long observance, people were really excited.

Use. Kava Balaiye. Kakara N'dra? (Hello. Good afternoon. How is the fasting going?) People had been exchanging these greetings for about 27 days now, almost a full month in the Islamic calendar. During the month of Ramadan, Muslims fast from sunup to sundown. The mini-hot season that sometimes occurs in the fall had coincided with Ramadan this year, and as a result of the heat and the fast, students at school had been falling asleep in class, and men and women around the village could mostly be found sleeping or lying around in a comatose-like state. But the knowledge that the end of Ramadan was just around the corner was reviving people's dedication to the fast and making me anxious to see what exactly this Fête du Ramadan looked like.

I was at the chief's house for the initiation of the festivities—for the beginning of the wonders I was going to witness. The chief was the head of the village. He was the man who made decisions for the village, who acted as a judge, whom people came to for advice, and whose approval was needed before any project or new action took place. He was the point-person for outsiders and the patriarch of the village. He was part of the royal family, but was voted in as chief by the elders of the village. I had dropped by earlier that day for my weekly visit, a courtesy that I was told was necessary in order to maintain a good relationship with him, and I ended up staying for dinner, not being able to excuse myself beforehand. (Apparently it is possible to work the timing of these visits in order to avoid being overfed, but I hadn't quite mastered that yet, as I was still in my first few months as a Peace Corps Volunteer.)

Bismillahi Rahman i Rahim, the chief's cell phone sang out in Arabic, reminding him and everyone around him that Allah was most gracious and most compassionate. He picked up. Allo? Ah, use. Kava balaiye. Kakara N'dra? Tawara mdanga? Use. (Hello? Oh, hello. Good evening. How is the fasting going? How are your people? Thank you.) He chatted for a minute or two; conversations were always brief, as phone use was expensive and there were no plans with unlimited nighttime minutes like in the United States. Apparently the chief of Mora, the highest chiefdom of the Mandara people in northern Cameroon, had called to say that they had seen the crescent of the moon. “Tomorrow is the big celebration. The month of Ramadan has ended,” the chief said.

He excused himself for a minute, went into a back room that I didn't even know existed, and fired two shots into the air on his simple hand revolver that he kept just for occasions like this one, to announce something to the villagers. The two shots took me quite by surprise, as this is not a common custom in the United States. The signal was followed by the eager shrieking of children running by the half-open door of the chief's living room. “You will see the big prayer tomorrow. You will see one of our traditions here in northern Cameroon,” stated the chief with pride.

When dinner was finished, I was escorted back to my home by one of the chief's older sons, who was overexcited about the announcement his father had made and who could not stop grinning and talking to me about how happy he was that the celebration was finally here. He left me at my door, bid me goodnight, and walked away smiling broadly, probably on his way to share his enthusiasm with his friends. I quickly went inside, got my flashlight, and set off to the home of an other family I had befriended. I found them lounging, satiated after breaking the fast for the last time with a plentiful and savory meal.

“Did you hear? Did you hear?” I asked them.
“What?” they replied.
“You didn't hear the signal?”
“What signal?”
“The signal that the chief gave; Ramadan is over! Tomorrow is the big fête!”

The children squealed, jumped up, went inside, and ran all around the compound, not being able to contain their excitement. “We have to go to the tailor's house and see if our outfits are ready. We have to go get shoes to go with our outfits. We have to go! Can we go, Daddy? Please, pleeeeeeease can we go?” they sang.

I was in a whirlwind. From being ten feet away from two shots fired into the air to seeing the reactions of the kids—even though I understood only half of what was going on due to my limited Mandara language skills—I was beginning to feel the excitement of the village. The children soon whisked me away with them, accompanied by their father, to discover the spectacle of the night before the celebration marking the end of Ramadan.

We arrived in the center of town. By that time, the chief's musicians had already started playing. The drumsticks were being slowly but steadily dropped on the center of the drum to make the traditional, calm, and rhythmic beat. Struggling to be heard over the resonant drums was an untraditional (to my ears) but melodious tune, created by an instrument sounding like a snake charmer's flute. The woman who my villagers referred to as “the crazy lady,” whose thick long skirt was made out of plastic bags strung together, was dancing to the music in front of the chief's compound with closed eyes and a contented smile on her face. As people gathered in the center of town, the sound of motorbike engines was rampant. Despite their small size and the fact that they were held together with not much more than duct tape, the noise of the engines competed with the music.

Anyone and everyone gathered in the center of town as the merchants, who seemingly appeared out of nowhere, unveiled their precious cargo of plastic shoes and purses and prayer hats. This was an unusual occasion for our village. We had a big market, one of the biggest in our area, but as far as clothes were concerned it just sold fabric, not accessories. Only the city markets ever had these types of goods. So as kids dug into each pile, trying to find that perfect pair of shoes, fathers and young men swarmed the merchants, haggling for the best prices on the items they had selected for their wives and children. I saw some of my students from the secondary school; they had come by the twos and threes on their skimpy motorbikes just to watch the scene and enjoy the celebration that had already begun.

The kids who I had come with each picked out a pair of shoes—their father was the bursar of the high school, a man who could afford the luxury of new shoes for all his children. They then went around the corner to tug on the sleeve of their tailor and remind him, in case he had forgotten, that they were now, more than ever, impatiently awaiting their new outfits. All their outfits were not yet ready, but he assured them that by morning he would have them done so they could go to the big prayer and be seen with brand new, clean, crisp, and colorfully bright outfits—blouses and skirts for the girls and long embroidered boubous, or long tunics, for the boys.

Mission accomplished for the kids, and with the treat of witnessing such a celebratory scene for me, we headed back to our neighborhood. I was dropped off again with a promise from the kids to be picked up in the morning so I could accompany them to the big prayer. This time I went inside to go to bed—anxious for the next day to begin and feeling like the luckiest person in the world to be in a place where people went out of their way to offer me a window into their culture because they genuinely wanted to share it with me. 

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