Ramadan started last Wednesday. People started rushing into various markets and supermarkets to buy the necessary food for the feast before the fast. In Mayotte, celebratory foods include mabawas (chicken wings), green bananas, cassava, breadfruit, goat meat and alcohol. Mothers spent ages cooking for their families, and the evening before Ramadan, everybody got together to have a whopping meal. Rice isn't a popular food any more, as it's considered as a "staple" food and therefore not worthy of Ramadan fare.
During Ramadan, those who fast and those who don't aren't quite on the same wavelength. Some people ask everyone to avoid consuming alchohol, restaurants and brochettis (kebab stalls) are closed at lunchtime, some colleagues take a lunch break whereas others continue working. Administrative buildings change their opening hours, opening later and closing earlier but staying open over lunchtime, to accommodate those who only eat under the cover of darkness. In Mayotte, the sun rises at 5.30 a.m. but sets at 6 p.m., so most fasters eat a lot in the evening to avoid having to get up very early. Children only go to school in the morning, and women and girls spend all afternoon cooking the evening meal. Life on the island, which wasn't exactly fast-paced to begin with, slows down even further.
The other day, on the beach with a group of friends and colleagues, I saw a group of women obviously performing some kind of ritual. My Ethiopian colleague told me that they were opening their bodies and minds to receive the spirits before Ramadan. They were all wearing salouvas and petticoats, but no bras, t-shirts or shoes. First, one sat on a rock and another pushed a pot of incense around her head, then they all went into the sea. The waves represented the spirits, who had understood the ladies' requests and who were coming towards them. When they came back, the first lady sat on the rock again while the others prepared concoctions of leaves and herbs in big buckets of water... which they then proceeded to tip all over the her head while singing to themselves. Finally, they all went to purify themselves in the river. The first lady then either went into a trance or pretended to, as she was singing, doubling over, coughing and twirling around.
Mayotte has a mixture of so many religions, cultures and various animistic rites and rituals that it's quite hard to tell what belongs where. A Moroccan pupil of mine explained that rituals before Ramadan month are common, either to welcome spirits or to drive away the evil eye, or even just to purify oneself by going to hammams with friends. Ramadan is a month during which people open their minds to spirituality, modesty and patience.
Ramadan is one of the pillars of Islam, and therefore obligatory for those who practice Muslim faith. However, not everybody must fast. Pregnant or breastfeeding women, sick people, women or girls on their period, travellers or anyone whose health may be threatened by the fast do not have to respect Ramadan. This said, they are supposed to "catch up" on their fasting when the illness, period, baby or whatever has passed.
Ramadan is a month for fasting in the daytime and eating heartily at night. At the end of Ramadan is the Muslim New Year, the Aïd-el-Fitr. This is the day the fast is broken. It is a bank holiday in Mayotte and most Muslim countries, although not necessarily on the same date in each because it depends on the sighting of the moon by the Cadi, the grand Muslim religious authority. Aïd-el-Fitr is a day where everybody must wear new clothes and redecorate their houses with new furniture, appliances, carpets and curtains to welcome in the new year. Therefore, the month of Ramadan is also spent in preparation for the Aïd-el-Fitr. An outdoor market springs up out of nowhere, selling new and sparkly things for people and houses. Shops have Ramadan special offers and Aïd special offers. On the day of the Aïd, the women look their best with sequinned salouvas and lots of gold jewellery, the men have brushed their hair and shined their shoes, and all the children have new clothes.