Written by Harpreet Singh
I was in Zanzibar for a little over two months; most of it spent working with YCI. In the midst of my time there was the month of Ramadan. This was one of the most memorable parts of my stay. During Ramadan, people who practise the Muslim faith fast every day for the duration of the month. The fast lasts from dawn to dusk and excludes all food and drink, even water. Islam is so ubiquitous in Zanzibar that mostly everyone participates in the fast, so much so that all normal food venues were closed for the entire day. And eating in public would be considered very impolite and could even get you in trouble, being such a blatant violation of what local cultural norms are.
By Ramadan, I had been in Zanzibar for long enough that I felt comfortable asking if it would be okay if I fasted as well. Everyone I asked was very encouraging and assured me that it would be perfectly alright. I wouldn’t be in Zanzibar for long enough to celebrate the end of Ramadan at Eid. From all I had heard, Eid in Zanzibar was something people traveled from far and wide to celebrate. But despite this, I decided to fast. I would try fasting for one day first, and then continue for as long as I felt I could.
The first day of fasting was hard. All I could think about was the moment the sun would set and I could eat food. Yet, I felt this amazing sense of camaraderie in living this shared experience with my colleagues and local friends. And everyone was amazing in their encouragement. It was probably the greatest bonding experience I had in Zanzibar. At the end of the day, we went down to the water in Stone Town, to the night-time food market at Forodhani Gardens. There we waited for the sun to set on the water. It was one of the slowest and most breathtaking sunsets I have seen. As the last sliver of sun slipped under the horizon of the Indian Ocean, I could finally break my fast. One of my students from the YCI English classes spent his evenings working at a food stand at the market and when he saw me, he insisted on sharing the food his mother had packed for him. It is customary to break the fast with dates, and then a series of deliciously rich dishes to follow. That first taste of the date was so sweet and perfect after the whole day of abstaining from eating. I was surprised by how little I ended up eating, and yet I can remember the vivid flavours of each of the different types of food.
I ended up fasting for only two more days, both times breaking my fast with my home-stay family, which was also a wonderful experience. I won’t ever forget that Ramadan; that gorgeous Zanzibari sunset; or the friends, students, and colleagues who were so supportive during the time I spent in Zanzibar.