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Observing Ramadan in Tanzania

From Khartoum, to Riyadh to Washington DC, my entire life feeding off the energy of fast living, tall buildings, overcrowded buses and busy streets. A city girl living in the village has been quiet of an adjustment. Surprisingly, I have adapted well to the slow pace of village life, surrounded by mountains, trees, cattle and roosters in the early mornings. One of my favorite childhood memories was watching my grandmother and family gather every year, cleaning, renovating, preparing food and sharing positive energy during Ramadan. As the Holy Month arrives I find myself longing for home and anything familiar.

Sitting at a village café as we all gather around a small television screen watching the world cup. My mind wanders into dark sky, embracing the presence of the crescent moon as I try to shake the feeling of distance. Ramadan for me is a time of spirituality, togetherness, fondest childhood memories, peace, charity, and family. In Tanzania, Religion is a major part of culture; it shapes the language, interaction with one other, the way Tanzanians dress and daily activities. Living in the coastal region of Tanga, Islam dominates. I observe family structure, community interactions and the inclusions of studying the Quran in Madarasa. It is difficult to separate religion from culture. Most Tanzanians ask what is your father’s religion since they view religion as an ethnic identity rather than a personal spiritual journey between an individual and God. Religion and culture are not one in the same and even though Islam is a major part of Tanzanian culture, it is practiced differently than my upbringing. The foundation of Islam embraces five main pillars: submitting to the oneness of God, obligatory prayers, fasting of Ramadan, giving to charity, and performing pilgrimage. Ramadan is an important aspect of Islam, a full month abstaining from food and water beginning sunrise to sunset. A month to increase personal reflection, participating in charitable acts, transforming bad habits and adopting a healthier lifestyle. It is the month of Quran and spiritual strengthening. By abstaining from the physical and worldly possessions, people learn to focus on inner energy, relationship with God and the universe.

As a Muslim Peace Corps Volunteer in Tanzania, I am afforded the unique experience to witness Ramadan in a culture different from my own, a culture that regards religion as everything. For the first time, an ocean apart from family, friends and all that is familiar and while distance poses challenges for me living and working in Tanzania, I am grateful it is ‘winter’ this time of year, considering I live in one of the hottest regions in Tanzania. Temperature often dances between 90-105 F with high humidity. Drinking 2-3 liters of water daily (minimum) and transitioning to no water during the day will be difficult. I have a considerable amount of work to do during Ramadan, with Early Service Training, new school semester starting in two weeks, involved in building a science lab for secondary school, and working at the clinic as well as teaching after school health clubs to youth. Also my village and I are preparing a major HIV/AIDS event in just a few months. While my busy schedule will keep me occupied during the day, I fear being too occupied to find time for worship. The thought of coming home at the end of the day, cook dinner alone over an open fire seems daunting. Perhaps this is a great opportunity to bond with my community and understand more of Tanzanian culture and tradition by inviting myself to have iftar with neighbors throughout the month. Perhaps this is a challenge and chance for personal growth, to trust that God has placed me in this position for a reason, a higher purpose.

I spend first day of Ramadan traveling to Dar es Salaam for a doctor’s appointment. I arrive to the city as sun fully collapses into night sky; calls to prayers roam the busy streets, people rushing home from work to join family, the aroma of food vendors fill the city air, and the greetings of peace, alsalamalikum. I am welcomed with affection, offered water and dates to break fast. I enter mosque, wash up for prayer and sit with an overwhelming feeling of tranquility. In the midst of a foreign place, an ocean away, I find comfort in eyes of strangers. I am reminded the beauty of this religion, no matter where you are, who you are and where you come from, Islam unites under one God, a religion that greets even enemies and strangers with peace.

Ramadan Kareem!

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