This year when Ramadan started, my heart and mind wafted over to Nairobi, Kenya. I spent the past two Ramadans in the slum of Kibera, outside of Nairobi, at a girls’ secondary school there called Kibera Girls Soccer Academy. I was not expecting to be able to do so much inter-faith dialogue, but Ramadan opened that space up easily. I witnessed, asked questions and walked with Muslim students, teachers and administrators through their holy month. Here is a journal entry from my Ramadan time in Kibera:
In Kibera, though many religions are represented, Christianity and Islam are the most prominent. The girls all struggle with their tribal religions and how those beliefs fit. They have lived through great violence in the name of tribal loyalty. They carry varying degrees of skepticism toward belief in witchcraft. They do not want to give up their ancient tribal identity entirely, but they feel a pull toward Western ways of thinking and learning. It is easy to tell the two groups, Christian and Muslim, apart. The Muslim girls wrap their hair in pretty head wraps and wear long skirts, for the sake of modesty. On Fridays, the Muslim girls go to mosque. On Sundays, the Christian girls go to church. The two groups of girls respect, admire, and intermingle with each other effortlessly.
At the crescent moon, Ramadan—or the month of fasting—began. They did not eat until sundown for a month. The girls who fast genuinely liked it. Fasting in the slum is not that hard; the girls are used to being hungry. “I look forward to it,” Asha said. “It gives me more time to sit and think.” Freidah added, “When I get hungry, I pray, and God gives me strength. It is easier to see blessings during this month.”
Their parents have eased them into the fasting when they think they are old and healthy enough to handle it. They must wait a little longer into the day to eat every year, until they are fasting until sunset. It makes them feel like adults in their worshipping community and brings an element of mindfulness to their days. Asha said, “Fasting is good for the mind, body, and spirit. It is important in our community because there is so much poverty here. After fasting, when someone tells me she is hungry, I really know how that feels. If the whole world fasted, there would be no more hunger because fasting builds compassion. When I fast, I realize why people who are hungry beg for food.” It helps them see food as a blessing.
On Fridays of Ramadan, Abdul invites friends over to his house to break the Ramadan fast with his family at sunset. His wife, Zachia, cooks from noon to seven to prepare a feast. Girls from the soccer team come by to help her. The men sit on the floor and wash their hands, snacking on samosas and sipping homemade passion-fruit juice. Abdul’s friends arrive one by one, removing their shoes and joining him on the floor. Bowls of rice, beans, chicken, noodles and salad are passed and passed until everyone is full to bursting. Black tea is poured and mango shared to comfort bulging stomachs. Late into the evening, Abdul’s friends walk through the dark Kibera dirt roads toward home.
Fasting is about mindfulness. “O you who believe. Fasting is prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those before you, that you may become deeply mindful.” (Qur’an 2:183). It was a blessing for me to be able to witness this holy month of mindfulness in another culture and see the faith in action in young women. They truly believed and articulated how this heightened mindfulness brought blessings to their lives. For them, Ramadan is a time of sharpened prayer, and vibrant community strength.