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.