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Ramadan in West Africa

Living in a country where over 90% of the population is Muslim is an interesting thing during the month of Ramadan! For those of you who don’t know, Ramadan is a month-long period during which Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. Ramadan’s date, similar to Easter, is based on the lunar calendar, and thus shifts by 12 days each year; this year it started on May 26th, Bethany’s birthday!


One day at the beginning of June, Bethany and I were taking a taxi somewhere and we got to talking with the taxi driver about Ramadan. He described how the women here get up early in the morning (around 3am) to prepare a big meal for their families to start the day. Then everyone heads off to the mosque for the morning prayer. After sunrise, everyone fasts, but I was surprised to discover that fasting also means no drinking – no water, no nothing (the really serious people even avoid swallowing their own spit)! Try to imagine going from 6am to 7pm each day without drinking a drop of water… and now add in temperatures between 30 and 40 degrees!


We only really knew the basics about Ramadan before experiencing it in West Africa, as Muslims are a minority in Canada, so I asked the taxi driver a little about why they fast and he explained how following the rules about fasting all day as well as going to each prayer (there are 5 required prayers throughout the day) make it more likely that you will go to paradise because it counteracts the bad things you do. So, I then asked him if as a Muslim, you could ever be assured that you were going to paradise. His response was essentially no; according to him, even if you follow all the rules perfectly, you can never be 100% certain because in the end it is up to Allah to decide if he will have mercy or not. This conversation was very interesting as it gave us a bit of a glimpse into the life/mind of a Muslim believer. It also gave us an opportunity to explain a bit about what we believe as Christians. We explained that we believe that no matter what we do, no matter how many good things we do, it will never be enough because we always fail and fall short of God’s perfection. However, God’s unconditional love and grace cover over a multitude of sins and through His resurrection we can be assured of an eternal, personal relationship with Him. What an awesome God we serve!


A few weeks ago, we were taking another taxi home after the trauma healing group that we were leading at church. Soon after we got in, the taxi man stopped at the side of the road to buy some coffee and water. He put it beside him in the car and we continued on. The coffee was in a plastic sac, so I wasn’t totally sure what it was, so I asked him if it was coffee. He said, “Yes, for breaking my fast.” About five minutes later he asked me what time it was and I responded that it was 6:55pm exactly, realizing that he was counting down the last few minutes before he could finally drink again. A few minutes later, he saw a man walking along the side of the road drinking water, so he yelled something out the window at him in Bambara. The man made an affirmative gesture and the taxi man immediately reached for his water and started drinking… I can only imagine how refreshing that must have been for him after 12/13 hours with nothing!


As we continued to drive along, we noticed that he wasn’t the only one. All along the road, groups of people were gathered together talking, joking, laughing… and finally eating and drinking. After a long, hot day of fasting, all these people now tasted the refreshing water and began to fill their empty stomachs with some coffee and a bit of bread, looking forward to the big meal that was sure to follow (everyone here in West Africa buys more/better food than normal during Ramadan because they’ve fasted all day, so they have enough money to buy some special food to break their fasts).  Although I felt sad while looking out at these hundreds of people who don’t know the freedom I know in Christ, I couldn’t help but recognize the beauty of the situation. There is something truly beautiful about seeing the joy of hundreds of people sitting together with their families, friends, coworkers, and neighbours talking, laughing, and communing together after a long day of fasting as the light slowly disappears from the sky.


Ramadan ended this past weekend. On Saturday evening, right before the end of the very last day of fasting, I was biking home from the store when I passed a group of people around a cow that had just been killed. A little further along, I saw two more cows being killed and cut up in preparation for the large party that would soon happen. The next day, while driving to Sunday morning church, everyone we saw was very well dressed and gathering together with friends and family for a joyful day full of celebrating.