Failing to Fast

Since I was thirteen—bat mitzvah age—I always looked forward to the annual Jewish day of fasting, Yom Kippur. My mother and I would attend temple services, reflect on our sins, and break the fast with friends and family after sundown. The feeling of being cleansed, of starting anew, helped me keep from eating or drinking and made the fast seem like a wonderful accomplishment once it was over.

When Ramadan came this past summer, I was living in Senegal as a researcher. Muslims, who make up 95 percent of Senegal’s population, fast every day for the whole holy month, from dawn until nightfall. I thought it would be a worthwhile challenge to participate, and my Senegalese friends warned me that I would be missing out on a cultural experience if I didn’t at least give it a try. It had been years since I had fasted. My life as a graduate student in New York had overcome my spiritual habits from childhood. I took the arrival of Ramadan as an opportunity to make up for those missed fasts, and to take part in what was around me. But actually fasting wasn’t as simple as just wanting to.

People had been talking eagerly about the fast for weeks before it began. A few days in, I watched them transform. An aura of piety filled daily life in the capital city of Dakar. People became superhuman, resistant to physical suffering, averse to complaining, and completely dedicated to the fast. My dance teacher, Djibi, insisted on holding classes during Ramadan, though he was clearly exhausted. This was the kind of teacher he always was: one who dared us to impress him, to match his energy and charisma. In every rehearsal, we would repeat the dance until we got it right, carried by the rhythm of the djembe and a faint breeze cutting into the sweltering Senegalese afternoon. Not having eaten since the 5 a.m. chudah meal, and after laboring all day in a door-building workshop, Djibi led us through the difficult moves. Only momentarily did he lean his head against the bars of the window, drinking in the cool air, mumbling casually in Wolof, “Defa meeti.” Meaning, it hurts.

Fasting hurts. After the pre-dawn meal of bread and tea, Senegalese Muslims go through their normal daily routines without eating or drinking. The injunction to fast also means refraining from idle talk, sexual relations, and listening to music for simple pleasure. People’s prayer sessions, five times a day, grow louder and longer during Ramadan, as they chant through and with their hunger. When there is traffic on the road to Dakar at sundown, drivers leave their cars and share bread on the curb. Friends ask each other upon meeting, “Danga waar tey?” Are you fasting today? Often you know just by noticing that someone is chewing on a wooden stick, or clutching kuruss, the prayer beads used as a tactile aid to accompany recitation of the Qur’an.

Remembering my fasts growing up, and the atmosphere of piety in Senegal, made me want to fast, to experience this devotion myself. Every few days, I would declare myself a committed faster, and wake up before dawn for chudah with the family that was hosting me. After the bread and hot milk, I would return to bed, and then something would always go wrong. One time I woke up at nine feeling like the dawn’s bread was stuck in my chest, and I immediately had to drink coffee to wash it down. It stayed there for a week, a hard lump, a reminder of my failure.

Not fasting cast new light on my relationships in Senegal. Before the start of the fast, we had all been united, Senegalese and toubabs—foreigners—by eating together. The midday and evening meals are served in a big bowl placed on the floor. Everyone crowds around, either kneeling (generally for men), sitting on low stools, or sitting on the ground with legs angled to the side (for women). The traditional way to eat is with the right hand, rolling the oily bits of fish and rice into your palm to form a ball, then popping it into your mouth. In order to make sure everyone gets the same amount, each person eats from the invisibly-bordered, triangle-shaped portion in front of her. The head of the household, usually the mother, uses her hand to tear apart the chunks of fish or meat and vegetables. There is an order to who gets served: guests first, followed by older men, then women, then young men and children.

Before Ramadan, religion had never divided us. Senegalese friends of mine would share their faith with me in a spirit of hospitality. From the day I arrived in Senegal, I was literally slammed with God’s presence, in every conversation I had, every home I entered, every mosque I passed by, every ceremony I was invited to. Again and again, people talked about knowledge of the Qur’an and the genealogies of marabout, their spiritual guides.

When Ramadan began, the midday meal disappeared, and a barrier formed between my Senegalese acquaintances and us toubabs. Those who observed the fast shared a daily struggle of emotional and physical discomfort; they underwent that trial together, in the name of Allah. It is normal in Senegal, when walking by a group of people eating in public, to receive an invitation to join them. “Kay ayñ!” Come eat! Perfect strangers, who have no idea who you are or where you are from, offer to share their meal with you. The meaning of this invitation changed during Ramadan. Once an expression of solidarity, a way of letting you know that you are not alone, it suddenly signaled a difference between those who waited all day to share bread and those who had been snacking or having lunch in one of the toubab restaurants.

After each failed attempt to fast, I told myself that I just wasn’t as strong as I had been when I was younger, that my self-control had become weaker. But then I began to wonder where the motivation to fast really comes from. First, I asked one of Djibi’s brothers.

“The fast comes from up here,” he explained to me calmly, gesturing to his head and his heart, “not here,” pointing toward his stomach. I had been thinking of the ritual as if it were a test of my metabolism, or even my character, when it was really a matter of faith.


A few weeks after returning from Senegal, on the eve of Yom Kippur, I sat in an old church in downtown Washington D.C., alongside my mother and a chavurah, an informal Jewish community that gathers to observe holy days. With the memory of Ramadan fresh in my mind, I looked around at the crowd of liberal Jews: kippah-wearing feminists, born-again mystics, and long-bearded men who resembled Richard Brautigan and sang the hymns at the top of their lungs. After leading the congregation through traditional biblical prayers, asking God to pardon our many sins, the rabbi took us in a different direction.

She asked us to supplement the prayers by shouting out sins we had committed over the last year. An uneasy silence filled the room at first, punctuated by a few murmurs. Gradually, people began piping up with their confessions: too much time spent at work instead of with family; driving to a destination that was within walking distance; feeling jealous toward neighbors; and so on. After each, a ripple of nervous laughter moved through the room, as the crowd seemed to collectively give a public shrug, diminishing the seriousness of these quotidian sins.

Sitting there, I remembered one of my last days in Senegal, when I traveled with my host-brother Masse to the holy city of Touba. A vast, marble-laden mosque, standing tall amidst an open sky, is the main attraction there. It was built with the sweat and strength of 19th-century Muslims who worked in the peanut fields and handed over their salary to their marabout. Touba’s wealth today continues to be generated by the earnings of devotees who, through labor or begging, accumulate money that is used to build mosques and Qur’anic schools throughout Senegal. Masse was one of these devotees.

The Senegalese sun was, as usual, unkind as we strolled through the mosque, visiting the tombs of Senegal’s Muslim saints. Masse wore an all-white boubou, with photos of his marabout dangling from his neck and his wrist. Small boys holding bowls for change swarmed around us as we entered the complex. Masse explained to me that, by visiting the mosque and giving alms to the begging children, we were bringing ourselves closer to God and rewarding his disciples for their labor and piety. He seemed proud to have brought me there, and he radiated contentment during the visit.

We returned to Dakar on another bus. Upon approaching the city, we hit the traffic jam that is to be expected of a large national capital that has only one highway leading in. As the bus inched along, the time to break the fast grew near.  I grew nervous. I had taken sips of water and nibbles of dates throughout the day, but Masse, of course, had fasted. The Qur’an says that it is permitted to break the fast during long, arduous journeys, but for Masse our journey was not hard enough to merit such leniency. He sat next to me, perfectly serene, not a visible trace of frustration, but he was coughing incessantly. I felt anxious just knowing how hungry and parched he must have been. The dusty air was sticking in his lungs after not a single sip of liquid since dawn.

The sun was going down. As the bus inched along through the traffic, a hoard of women approached carrying mangos, cold bottles of water, peanuts, and hot coffee. People started passing money to the bus driver’s helper, who reached out the back door and returned with the goods. I handed over some bills, and when he gave me the drinks and food, I passed them out among those in our section of the bus.

Earlier, halfway to Dakar, a group of young men had come aboard and taken seats just behind Masse and me. They were loud, dreadlocked, and rowdy, and they smoked cigarettes out the window. These men belonged to a sect called the Baye-Falls. They are known throughout Senegal for having a distinct set of beliefs, based on the claim that universal spirituality trumps the burdensome rules of religion such as fasting and prayer. Thus, during Ramadan, instead of being pious, they were making jokes and singing reggae songs while chain-smoking.

As Masse and I broke his fast with the water and peanuts, we felt a tap on our shoulder from the young Baye-Falls behind us. They handed over a plastic cup of “café Touba,” a spicy and sugary coffee that is blessed by the marabouts of Touba. Soon we were all passing around our treats, and it didn’t seem to matter that neither they nor I had been fasting. A spirit of sharing—sharing the food, and sharing this moment of Ramadan—moved through us.

We also were together in the nightmarish traffic of Dakar. The cluttered highway reminded everyone who was stuck on it, waiting to get home for a proper meal, of the corruption and insolvency plaguing the Senegalese government, only fifty years old and still wresting itself away from centuries of exploitative French rule.

Back in Washington, we in that Yom Kippur service shared our sins and repented for them. While we said our personal, daily errors, I thought of the mundane and chronic sins that are a fact of life back in Senegal, from a four-hour traffic jam at the entrance to Dakar to the children begging on the streets. Far away from all that, in Washington, we looked within and asked forgiveness; I looked down at the prayer book in my hands and asked myself what the point was.

That Yom Kippur, despite another well-intentioned attempt, I failed to fast—even though, this time, it was in my own religious community. I barely listened to the chanting. Instead, sitting there, I remembered Djibi, exerting himself during our afternoon dance classes on an empty stomach and a parched throat. I could see Masse, in his white tunic, walking through the mosque of Touba and handing coins to the children. I felt the warmth of the bus back to Dakar, and the cigarette-smoking Baye-Falls who passed their coffee to us with a smile that said, ñyo far: we are together. We are all waiting, patiently, in this chaotic, pointless, screwed-up traffic jam, together.

Rachel Signer is an anthropologist and journalist who lives in Brooklyn, NY.