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My 8-year old host aunt, Jenabu, whipping up a mean peanut maafe for lunch

Day 23 of Ramadan with one week left to go – coming down the homestretch, and not a moment too soon. During the month-long holiday, here in Sub-Saharan Africa where it’s 100 degrees on a cool day, people don’t eat or drink anything between 5:30am and 7:30pm; not a drop of water, not a lick of frozen hibiscus juice. Though everything else is business as usual. Women still go to the market to buy and sell the food that will feed the families of this country; kids go to school to learn any language but their own; and young men, wearing down jackets, taxi wealthy women around on the backs of their motorcycles.

And then there’s me: the only white person in a town of 30,000, just trying to blend in. Biking to and from my garden each day, pedaling as fast as I can through the deep layer of sand that blankets the streets (in other words, not fast), so as to avoid being noticed by anyone and draw unwanted attention. If there were simply a handful of folks who wanted to greet me, or a harmless few children shouting toubako at me, then I would gladly stop to greet or engage in the tomfoolery, but it’s literally everyone. Every single person who sees me biking or trotting past needs, just needs, to be greeted; or to ask me for money, or my bike; or tell me a story about their interaction with another Peace Corps volunteer six years ago; or shout toubako, repeatedly, until I respond, so that they know that I heard them. But, I digress.

Ramadan is a month long holiday, in which people who observe it deprive themselves of food and drink for the purposes of cleansing their souls and fortifying their will power under the gaze of Allah. Observers wake up at 5:00am each day to cram as much water and coffee and bread into their faces before the first call to prayer, and before going back to bed. But I’m Jewish (or any other excuse to skip this part of integration), thus I still eat and drink. I begin my sacrilege each morning by going to my usual greasy spoon. Blandine, my breakfast lady, is Christian and therefore doesn’t observe Ramadan (or Soumai, as it’s known here), and so she’s open for business. Blandine, known to other volunteers as Blondie (photo here), is a 250 pound Senegalese woman, so only loosely resembles Debbie Harry. She makes a mean “omelet” sandwich, which is my usual. An oily scrambled egg with chopped onions, ketchup and seasoning, on fresh handmade bread, and a small cup of Guinean spiced coffee will run you 0.60¢ at Blondie’s. And for an extra 0.15¢, she’ll throw on some fried bean nuggets (like dense tater tots made with mashed bean). Though lately I’ve been getting just the bean nugget sandwiches without the omelet to save money for lunch.

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Enjoying my “omelet” sandwich and café touba beside Blandine

Normally one of the women in my family (and I include 8 year-old Jenabu here; photo above) will prepare lunch for all of us.  But since they are devout Muslims (my deceased host father was a marabout), they’re fasting, and I’m on my own for lunch as well. At first I was a bit lost, not knowing what to eat or where to eat it. I thought about Abu Dhabi. I didn’t have this problem there because there were plenty of restaurants that catered to expats and heathens. However, I did eat my bags of raisins under the desk in my office with the blinds drawn, lest I offend anyone. But here, I don’t have an office or blinds, and I haven’t seen a raisin in months.  So I bike through the market on the hunt for lunch-esque items.

Even though many people are not preparing food during the day, the market is still bustling with townswomen, buying and selling food for dinner. And I find my lunchables here as well. A large banana (0.15¢), a small baggy of peanut butter (0.15¢), a small loaf of handmade bread (0.15¢), a 250 gram bag of yogurt (0.50¢), and who knows, maybe even an orange (0.40¢) or some packaged dates (0.80¢). Spread it all on the bread, or just mix it in a cup – it’s pretty much what I’d be eating for lunch in the States anyway. I take my bounty back home and hide in my room amongst my blasphemy. And as I eat my peanut-butter-yogurt-banana concoction, I think to myself: am I avoiding integration? Part of being here is understanding the people whom I live with by doing as they do, adopting their culture and behaviors. Maybe I’ll try this fasting thing for a day, and see how it goes… Next year. Insha’Allah.