Ramadan started this week, a holy month of fasting for over a billion Muslims around the world. Every year there is heated debate among astronomers as to exactly what day Ramadan begins, as it all depends on when the new moon of the ninth lunar month appears. Eclipses, clouds, and astronomical calculations all play a role. Religious leaders line up on opposing sides, too, albeit for different reasons. Some of them say that Muslims throughout the world should conform to an announcement coming from Saudi Arabia; others say that different regions should make their own decisions about when to begin the fast, depending on their view of the moon.
If you are a Muslim living in a remote part of Africa, all this debate doesn’t matter. I know, because last year at this time I was drawing water from a well for my evening bath in Saare Kutayel, a village in Senegal. Sherife, a little boy about 10 years old stood next to me, chatting away about his day and helping me haul up heavy buckets of water. Suddenly he grew quiet, softly touched my arm, and said with wonder, “look.” He pointed up in the western sky, over the heads of a small knot of villagers peering in the same direction. Between the thin layers of parting clouds was the smallest curve of silvery light cradled in the vast darkness. Ramadan would begin in the morning.
Living in Africa for over a year by that time, I’d already developed a whole new respect for the sun, moon, and cycles of time. More than once I’d awoken in the middle of the night to what I thought was a flashlight shining in my eyes, only to groggily discover that it was the full moon, having made its trek over the top of the big mango tree, and was now blasting into my mosquito net. And, I’d long since learned to time my arrivals back to the village before dark on moonless nights. Soon after I came to Africa, I got a late start from a faraway village. I rode my bike miles in blackness over a bumpy trail, with pounding heart, reassuring myself that the sinister clumps of trees around me were familiar patterns leading me home. Just the week or so before that, under a full moon, everything was lit up like a fairy land. I had no idea that a chunk of cold rock over 200,000 miles away could make that much difference.
In the African language that I learned, Pulaar, the word “lewru” means “moon.” I was stunned one day when a native speaker told me that he was going to visit his relative “si lewru mayii”; that is, “when the moon dies.” I had to give this long thought before I understood that he simply meant “the end of this month.” The word “lewru” works perfectly for both moon and month, because, naturally enough, the phases of the moon define the month. When the moon passes through its phases of waxing and waning, the month is over.
My African friends kindly used the term “lewru tubako” for the months in the Julian calendar. ( “Tubako” means “white person ”.) If I said something was going to be happening “next month”, for example, they would clarify, “lewru tubako?” which literally means, “the month (or moon) of the white person.’’ I was always a little embarrassed about this as it so clearly revealed the disjuncture between moon and month in my culture.
Solar time brought up similar dilemmas. There were few clocks, where I lived in Africa, and having a watch was more of a status symbol (especially if it ran) than a useful object. Since the watches were digital, many people who owned them could say the time, such as “10-30" , but it had little real meaning. For written communication about time, pictures worked the best. Often, I’d sit with someone who just returned from the clinic with their paper bag of medicine, and make little drawings, indicating when they should take each pill. For example, if the directions said three times a day, I’d draw a sequential picture of the sun rising, the sun centered high in the sky, and the sun setting.
Verbal communication about times during the day required a different set of vocabulary. Among the old people especially, all times hinged on the five daily prayer times of subaka (6:30 am), fana (2:15 pm), alansara (5:00 pm), futuro (7:30 pm) and geeye (8:30 pm). They could tell if it was prayer time by the position of the sun. Since we were only 14 degrees north of the equator, the position of the sun and the time of day was almost the same day to day. Even if people in my village didn’t personally practice the Muslim tradition of daily prayer, this rhythm of the day was ingrained. Once I said to Aawdy, an older man, that I’d be by his hut “bimmbi law” (early morning) the next day to go with him to look at his fields. This resulted in a rather lengthy discussion, as to whether that meant subaka (6:30 am) exactly, or just sometime before mid-morning. Arm-waving also worked well, to convey time of day. My villagers taught me that instead of struggling for the words or concept of a particular time, I could just say “I’ll see you tomorrow when the sun is here” and throw my arm up to point in the sky as to where the sun would be, directly over my head for a noontime meeting, for example.
My neighbor Mariama loved learning anything new, so we often had discussions about time. During slow afternoons she’d say, “let's do the calendar” and I’d go to my hut and retrieve the little boldly colored calendar with a Monopoly game theme that another volunteer had given me as a Christmas present. Mariama would patiently look at each page, clarify the name of the “lewru tabako” and count each date in that month, her finger running over the numbers in each row. She was also fascinated about how Westerner’s tell time, and liked to compare the time on her watch with mine, to see if they were the same. I knew we had made progress in cultural exchange one day (perhaps not all for the best) when we were discussing plans I had for the next day. “I’ll be leaving when the sun is about here” I said, pointing over the cornfields and toward the river. “Oh,” she said, barely glancing at my earnestly positioned arm, “about 10 in the morning? ”
When I left Africa I spent a few weeks in France before returning to the States, a long awaited reveling in luxury to offset my two years of living in a small mud hut. One day when I was sitting in soft chair a big house on Cezanne Avenue in Aix en Provence, reading a book and drinking tea, a wave of anxiety pulsed through me. I put my book down and wracked my brain as to what that was about; I had no deadlines, no appointments, nothing forgotten or undone. And then I realized; I didn’t know where the sun was. Or, what phase of the moon we were in, or which constellations marched across the sky last night. I got up and looked out the window to get my bearings and accepted that this was the first of many recalibrations my body and spirit would be making as I returned to life in the Western world.