Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Ramadan 9.23.08

One of the perks of this job is to attend events that I would otherwise never get a chance to do. Today our Political Affairs department arranged for us to visit a Mosque and attend a prayer service. We also distributed bags of food items for the people to utilize when they break their fast at the end of Ramadan; which will be in about 5 days. People who strictly follow the traditions of their faith are fasting and praying. Before taking this job, I really didn't have much experience with the Muslim faith. Ramadan means that for 30 days, the people fast from sun up to sun down. That means they don't eat or drink anything during those hours...for 30 days! They also give up alcohol, smoking, and sex (if they are not married). It's quite strict and since over 60% of Sierra Leone is Muslim, most of the people are in a state of prayer and fasting.

About 10 of us from the Embassy attended the service. It was voluntary, and I went because I have an interest in relating to other cultures and religions. I had visited a Mosque in Turkey, so I knew I had to cover my arms and legs. The organizer of the event wasn't sure if the women had to cover our heads as well, so we did not prepare for that. At the last minute she found out that the women needed to cover their entire head and hair, so we rounded up some pretty scarves from people at the Embassy, in an attempt to comply with the strict Muslim rules for modesty. We arrived at the Mosque and apparently our attempts to cover up were inadequate, so some Muslim women handed us beautiful black scarves that totally covered our hair, head and shoulders. We removed our shoes at the entrance. We were told there was a possibility that our shoes would be stolen while we were inside (they were not). The service began with prayers in Arabic, which of course we could not understand. We sat on the ground inside a cement building that was open on the side with windows; no coverings. The walls were hand painted with murals and designs; very elementary. There were prayer mats on the ground; basically thin woven mats that apparently stay in the Mosque all the time. We sort of crouched on our knees most of the time; occasionally getting up to stand and chant and then kneel back down again to pray and kiss the ground. This went on for 10 or 15 minutes. Now I understand why all non-Catholics complain about the standing-sitting-kneeling routine that I take for granted when I attend mass. It's one thing to do something out of tradition, but when you don't understand what's going on, it seems a bit strange to get up and down and up and down. The Mosque was not air conditioned and it began to get pretty hot. There were probably 300 people inside and it was quite crowded. I could feel the sweat trickle down my back under the two head scarves and the black sweater I wish I had not worn. After prayers, there was a speech by the Imam and then a speech by our Charge' de Affairs (my boss). Then we proceeded to hand out the bags of food stuffs we had prepared. The women were very orderly. They stayed seated, reverently, and waited patiently while we went around and handed them each a bag. We ran out of bags and we felt terrible! More people showed up than we expected. The women did not seem too upset; this is Africa and things in short supply are normal. Luck plays a big part in who survives here. The men, on the other hand, were a different story. I should mention that the men and women are segregated inside the Mosque. They enter by different entrances and they are separated inside by a low cement wall that has carvings carved into to it; so you can sort of see through the wall to see what's going on but you are segregated. The Imam prays to the men; the women are allowed to participate but the feeling is one of second-class citizen; at least that's my impression. I also noticed that the women have about 1/3 the physical space inside that the men have. Back to the food distribution - remember I mentioned that the women sat quietly on the floor while we handed out the food bags. The men stood up in lines and they were orderly at first. Later, as the food source dwindled, the men became aggressive. They began to push and shove each other for the bags. At one point, fights almost broke out and I could notice the level of danger rising. I felt uncomfortable - even behind the low cement wall. I was pretty astounded at the level of selfishness and greed that occurred inside the Mosque - a religious place where equality and harmony should reign. Again, this is Africa. I don't know if it was because food is scarce, or the men were overly pushy, but I remember clearly wanting to leave the scene as quickly as possible. We are trained in FS to remove ourselves from escalating situations of danger and this was quickly becoming one. We scurried out the back door to gather our shoes. We removed our lovely black scarves and handed them to one of the women who appeared to be an organizer at the prayer service. We headed back to the car to wait for the men, who exited from another part of the Mosque. Everyone was safe. On our way home in the car, the local radio station called our Political Officer (who was riding in the car with us) and asked for an interview. She answered the questions and another Embassy employee translated it into Krio, the local language. The interview was live, so in a way, we were all on the radio! All in all, the day was a rewarding experience and highlights one of the reasons I chose this job. The world is a big place; there is much diversity in people and religion and it serves me well to learn more about other people and places in hopes of uniting us by our commonalities and not dividing us by our ignorance.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Full of surprises

I know, I know, it's been almost a month since I wrote last. Several of you wanted to verify if I was sit alive....yes! I think as you become comfortable in a foreign place, things begin to seem more normal and then there is not as much to write about. Anyway, the theme of the blog today is surprises and I have quite a few.

Good surprise #1:
I may have mentioned that I've been losing weight. I cannot explain this unexpected bonus, but I'm certainly enjoying it. I would be even more excited if I had the opportunity to actually go to a store and buy clothes a size smaller. Alas, there are no stores here, so I have to bask in the glory of trying on clothes from ages ago that were always too small and suddenly realizing they fit! Not only fit; some are too big! My favorite dancing jeans from 2005 fit again. Sorry, Regina, you won't get them back this time! The Nike warm-up pants that I bought for Laura that she refused to take twice...that were way too small for me....fit perfectly! All the bathing suits I wore in Austin are too big. The capri pants that I bought in DC that were just a tiny bit too tight, well they are the only pants that fit me well now. All my dress clothes are at least a size too big or maybe more. I'm telling you, I swear by running for staying fit and for exercising. I can eat whatever I want, I feel good, I sleep well, I eat healthy, and the weight just seems to melt away. I was never even heavy, but it's nice to feel slender. Ok, enough about body image.

Good surprise #2:
I finally decided what to do about the missing dishes. After hours online checking out Amazon.com and Ebay and craiglist, I decided to go ahead and have my 4 missing boxes of dishes shipped here. The shipping is free (that saves me money), I'm used to my own things, and most of all, I could not stand the hassle of bidding and waiting and worrying about shipping all the way here. My dishes will be here in about 3 months. Oh well.

Big surprise!
About a week ago, I started to randomly feed a kitten/cat in our compound. It looked hungry and it jumped up on my balcony a couple of times so I gave it some of my leftover food. Five days later I came home from work and found this same cat lying on my balcony nursing two kittens! The very next day I came home from work and there were three kittens nursing. I started to be afraid to come home! After careful thought, I noticed that the kittens looked bigger than a couple days old, so I figure she had the kittens sometime before I started feeding her. She never looked pregnant when I first noticed her hanging around. She must have started to feel comfortable around me, so she brought the kittens up one at a time in her mouth. This was no small feat since the balcony has bars and it's up one half floor from the level of the parking lot. Anyway, she stopped at three so now I have 4 mouths to feed! My boss noticed mice at his residence, so he may take them all as his new pest control program. Good for me! I joined Foreign Service to be footloose, not tied to coming home every night to feed cats. (been there, done that)

Anyway, that's about all for now. Hope all is well in your corner of the world! Becky