RAMADAN IN DAKAR
Although 92 per cent of Senegalese are Muslim, the Ramadan experience is vastly different from that of Malaysia
FACE it — when Ramadan rolls around, we Malaysians are one of the happiest people imaginable. Everywhere we turn, there are street vendors selling food, hotels offering buka puasa (iftar) deals and restaurants promoting mouth-watering cuisine.
This year was my first Ramadan in Africa. As Malaysians, we attach a lot of importance to this month-long fast, and with 92 per cent of its population professing Islam, I fully expected Senegal to be one of those countries where Ramadan is of major importance. How wrong I was.
FIRST, Senegal is one of the Muslim-dominated countries where Aidilfitri is secondary to Aidiladha. The haj season, including the Qurban that accompanies it, is the peak of the Muslim calendar for Senegal. This means that there is very little fanfare that accompanies the fasting month.
Wandering around the streets of Dakar, you would hardly know that it is Ramadan — cafes and restaurants are open as usual, as are the carts peddling coffee at practically every street corner. Unlike in Malaysia, where eateries operate only in the afternoon, in Senegal, it is business as usual.
SECOND, the iftar packages and deals that Malaysia is renowned for are practically non-existent in Senegal. Only the major hotels such as TerrouBi and Pullman offer buffet-style dining for the breaking of the fast, or ndogou ,as the Senegalese call it.
In Malaysia, reservations for iftar would be made days and weeks in advance because of the high demand at many restaurants.
In Senegal, if you were to break the fast at a hotel during the weekday, it is likely you can just wander in and still snag a table for you and your guests. Weekends, however, are a different matter as many Senegal families choose to break their fast by going out. Reservations are then a must at these hotel restaurants.
Then, there’s the matter of the conduct at these hotel restaurants. Malaysians normally arrive early, head straight for the buffet line, pile their plates with as many things as they want, bring it to the table, and then keep on bringing plate after plate of food until no surface of the table is spared.
Things are a bit different at the Dakar hotels. The breaking of the fast is normally around 7.30pm, but very few people would be seated at the hotel restaurants then. People wander in any time between 7pm and 9pm with the latter being the time when all tables are full with patrons.
Senegalese are more circumspect with the amount of food they take — not for them are the plates and plates of uneaten food at the table. They will take from the buffet line only what they are confident of finishing, choosing to return for the food rather than piling it on their plate.
Even though the majority of Senegalese are fasting, you would not find food sold at every street corner. The idea of a Ramadan bazaar the likes of Malaysia is unheard of, since the breaking of the fast is essentially a private affair and everyone cooks at home.
Which is why there is such a massive traffic jam in Dakar from 4pm onwards. A journey home that would in other months take only 35 minutes would now take more than two hours to complete in the month of Ramadan.
Malaysia becomes a beehive of activity even after the breaking of the fast as people continue eating, go for prayers, then go out again in search of more food. The all-night mamak shops are a particular
The similarities and differences do not stop there. At Eid (which in Senegal is known as ‘Korite’), everyone still goes back to hometowns to celebrate with families. In Malaysia, we take days and even whole weeks off; in Senegal it is a oneday celebration with no ‘open houses’ the way we understand it.
favourite for those who find renewed energy after dusk.
But in Senegal, the same eateries that are in other months open until 10pm are suddenly closed early. Very few establishments are open after 10pm, and none after 1am. As I said, eating during Ramadan is a private affair.
The similarities and differences do not stop there. At Eid (which in Senegal is known as “Korite”), everyone still goes back to hometowns to celebrate with families. In Malaysia, we take days and even whole weeks off; in Senegal, it is a one-day celebration with no “open houses” the way we understand it.
This year’s Open House for the Asean community will be hosted by the ambassador of Indonesia. With no other options available, it is likely that the event will see a high turnout of the Asean citizens living in Senegal with all 53 Indonesians, 20 Thais and six Malaysians congregating under one roof to celebrate Eid.
The writer is a foreign service officer and an honorary research fellow of the University of Sheffield. These days, she writes primarily on international affairs, with a particular emphasis on Africa
Members of the local community during prayers at a recent ‘iftar’ event at Rumah Malaysia in Senegal.