Thursday, July 2, 2015

Ramadan in the United States as a Mandela Washington Fellow

Almost nothing could quell my excitement as I emerged one of the 44 young Nigerians selected to participate in the Mandela Washington Fellowship of President Obama’s Young African Leadership Initiative (YALI) in the United States. The program was to last six weeks at various academic institutions and the seventh week at the Presidential Summit in Washington, D.C. It was an honor then. It is a great honor now to call myself a Mandela Washington Fellow. There were so many things to look forward to; there were so many things that only experiencing would explain, but one thing stood out. It was the fact that the holy month of Ramadan would begin in the second or third week of our stay and end while I was in the States.

The holy month of Ramadan is that month in which practicing Muslims around the world fast (by abstaining from food, drink, sex) from sunrise to sunset. It is that month of spiritual cleansing, of giving in charity and increasing in acts of worship. Since I was going to be in a foreign land studying at a university, I asked myself many times if I could optimize my worship within the time. I wondered if I’d get the kind of food I wanted for iftar (breaking fasts), if there was special provision for sahur (prescribed eating at dawn before the fast began) at my institution which was Morgan State University (MSU) in Baltimore, Maryland. I couldn’t get the answers in Nigeria although I asked at every opportunity. At the pre-departure orientation at the U.S. Embassy, we were told even before we asked to remind our various institutions about Ramadan.

The hours. Fasting from sunrise to sunset in Nigeria has always been within a range of between twelve to thirteen hours. Not too difficult especially when the sun isn’t too hot and sahur (eating at dawn) is observed. The difference with the hours in the United States with emphasis on summer… sigh! I fasted for seventeen hours!!! It was not just fasting for seventeen hours that was challenging; it was the fact that I had only nine hours daily within which to eat my breakfast, lunch, and dinner. If I ever said it was easy, I lied. But then, there were Muslims in America and some of them did fast, I had no excuses and I didn’t complain (much).

I smile at memories of the first day of Ramadan at Morgan State. There were six of us “fasters” as Adelle, our writing teacher, fondly called us. Well, five actually as one “faster” abstained. We decided to meet at Andrew’s flat to break our fast. I remember the flat filled to capacity and there was so much food. From omelets to rice, Farouk’s macaroons, bread, tea, fruits… Sadikie (Liberia) loved rice, he wouldn’t eat anything but rice and there was enough cooked rice, but he was nowhere to be found at the time the sun had set. Halima (Niger) ate sparingly for someone who had fasted for nineteen hours. Andrew (South Africa), our host, ate “fruits.” He can survive on fruits and sweets alone. Farouk hoarded all the macaroons, including mine. The “fasters” and “non-fasters” all met for iftar on the first day of Ramadan. It was a meal to remember, a time to bond, and a memory I will always treasure.

Qimmah and Tiolu, both staff of MSU, were always there to provide information on anything and everything that concerned Ramadan. Tiolu actually volunteered to cook for us on occasion. Provisions were made for the fellows to cook their meals if they preferred, and it was preferred. Imam Derrick and others made us feel so welcome. When I look back, I feel a little sad that I wasn’t able to engage more with the Muslim community there, the time just wasn’t enough but I’m glad I met them anyway.

Towards the end of our stay in Baltimore, Qimmah introduced us to a Malian family that hosted us for iftar. They were so gracious and so kind. It had a feeling of home and not for the first time, it reminded me of how much I missed being there. The food was excellent, the company was amazing, and that spirit of Ramadan was exemplified. Aisha, our hostess, regretted that we were leaving so soon, she’d have wanted to feed us for the entire month. She gave Halima and I parting gifts, some pearl studded slippers. Such kindness is immeasurable.

Because of the nature of the program and how busy it became towards the end, it was a bit of a challenge to find the time for long recitations of the Holy Qur’an. There were just nine hours at night and the days were filled with activities I didn’t want to miss. I learned to utilize my times on the bus when traveling, going for excursions or paying courtesy calls. Bus rides were mostly fun and noisy. I’d sit at the farthest seat at the back of the bus and do the needful.

Eid was special. It marked the end of Ramadan and we celebrated it while in DC for the Presidential Summit. All 500 of the Fellows were under one roof at the Omni Shoreham Hotel. It was the day we met President Barrack Obama.

Some things are not easy, adapting to change can be challenging, but I only have fond memories of my first Ramadan in the United States, especially since I was surrounded by the most brilliant collection of Africans and Baltimoreans.

Maryam Shehu Mohammed (Mandela Washington Fellow; Associate Fellow, Nigeria Leadership Institute NLI)

1 comment:

  1. Maryam writes with exceptional descriptive prowess giving her readers scenes so vivid and entertaining. When ever I read from her, she brings to life the stories she tell...
    stylishly poetic! Bravo my Nigeria Leadership Co-Fellow!‎