With Rohey Samba
Ramadan came upon us in Ghana during our cadetship training at the Regional Maritime Academy. The year was 2003; location, Nungua-Accra.
On my part, marching was a drill that was quickly learned. I loved marching, and was subsequently chosen as a member of the flag party for the two consecutive years I spent in the Academy as a cadet. Graduating from a ginger cadet to a junior cadet was an easy ride. In Academy parlance, a ginger cadet is a brand new baby cadet, who is taught everything; how to trot, to salute and to march. A junior cadet ranking was a gradual advancement on the status of the ginger cadet. Although, it did not indicate exceptional talents in marching, it graduated one from a novice to one with knowledgeable skills in parade drills.
After the arduous task of daily jogging across the city of Accra, which I encountered with a minor hitch, circumvented by the occasional trick on my menstrual cycle. This was a trick that I got privy of by accident, when I eavesdropped on one of my senior cadets telling another that she would seek permission from the Cadet Captain, CC, not to jog the following day by stating she had started her period. Phew!
That was all I needed to know. Every two weeks or so, I would religiously fake a menstrual agitation, which I did not feel at all.
I got a lot of amusement from this unusual disclosure to the CC because I only needed to mention menstrual cramps for him to yield to my wishes and turn the other way. He was very uncomfortable talking to female cadets about ‘the girl thing’. So much the better for me!
One day it occurred to me that the senior cadets might seek to verify my claims on the phony periods I invented. I decided to wear sanitary towels all the same, in case they asked a senior girl to pad me up in order to confirm my claims. You know, take one step ahead. Fortunately, they never minded to confirm. To the seniors, I was a strong runner and appeared very genuine. They did not feel the need to ’embarrass’ themselves or me. My integrity remained intact.
Dodging the early morning trotting gave me a little more time to sleep before the cadets came back from their daily trots, singing their Jaama songs. I pitied the boys for not having any excuses to give but they were mainly glad that I missed certain days, because I led the trotting as a female cadet, and I just did not know how to trot for I ran. Trotting at a slow pace hurt my tendons, which running did not.
For the boys, trotting and singing mainly vulgar songs about women set the pace for them. I was always mightily smug when I ran and one or two of the male cadets behind me would beg for me to slow down. Feigning ignorance, I would say, ‘Man up Charlie…can’t you run a little bit like a woman?’ The other boys would roar in laughter behind me.
Vital though as the parade and trotting drills were to the cadetship training, the classroom work needed attention in order to ensure vital academic success. When Ramadan came upon us, the rigors of life under cadetship were not missed. The most pious one amongst us Gambians, my very good friend Abas Saidykhan, led the lobby to exempt Muslims from the cadetship drills in order to concentrate on classroom work and fast as our religious duty.
Abas had a very strong personality, which did not augur very well with most of the senior cadets, but he knew how to take a stand on his beliefs without having to compromise. After a major tussle with the cadetship chief, and even the cadetship commander, we were given reprieve from cadetship drills for the month of Ramadan.
This was a major achievement. It was unprecedented in the history of cadetship to exempt any race, tribe or religion from cadetship drills. Abas was a hero. Our hero.
In fact, he had been so from the onset of our training, bringing to the fore the need for us Gambians in the Academy to be united and work together. Because of him, we were assigned a praying room, that is to say, his own bedroom to pray our five daily prayers in jama’ah salat, that is, congregation. He was a religious zealot alright, very meticulous and God-fearing. I have deep respect for him, to this very day. Indeed he remains one of my best male friends.
Because of Abas’ fervent preaching, I was encouraged to wear the hijab in Ghana during Ramadan. This was a trend I continued up till my final year for each Ramadan. Moreover, as Ramadans are always a matter of tradition for Muslims world over, all the Muslims in the Regional Maritime Academy, decided to converge to break their fast and contribute towards Suhur. This was the first time in my life that I partook of suhur, called haydah in Wolof. I continue the practice to this very day.
Madam Goudrow, the Academy’s matron, would give us our combined breakfast and dinner for breaking the fast behind the canteen, because meals were already paid for in the all-inclusive cadetship package. Still we contributed towards preparing dishes other than those served in the canteen to supplement what we were given.
Behind the canteen, each day after Asr prayers, I would head to begin the meal preparations. We prepared mainly pasta with stew, white sauce, tuna or minced meat. Fish was fried and coleslaw or salad made as the side dishes. There was no objection to swapping duties with others in order to cover special events like mid-semester assessments or exams.
For the period ascribed, my services for Ramadan consisted of wangling exchanges for various duties, between Abas, Mam Pateh and Sumaila, a Ghanaian Muslim senior cadet. I ensured that as the only female, Ramadan dinner was served by me each day, even when I did not fast. Because Fajr salat was prayed much earlier in Ghana, well before 5:00 a.m., I chose to study after Fajr salat till my morning classes began at 8am. When my lessons for the day ended, I slept till Asr salat at 3pm. After Asr prayers, I would head along to the canteen and play an audio recording of the Qur’anic recitations while I did my chores.
Abas would always come before everybody else to help clean up and light the fire, if we needed to grill something. Sumaila, who was a good cook, would sometimes prepare the pasta whilst I found other chores to do. In the evenings, to complete the day before nafila salat, we would have open discussions and sometimes we would invite eminent Muslims in positions of responsibility in the Ghana civil service, like the deputy director of their National Electric Company to come over and give a talk on Islam.
I learnt a lot about my own religion from those discussions. It impressed me no small bit that people could be highly educated and enlightened about deen at the same time. I was always a religious person growing up, but my religious growth and opening really took a firm grasp during my time in Ghana. I did not need to listen to Scholars only, I was given the means to learn on my own using religious books I never thought existed before. By no small feat, the religious books and the Qur’an illuminated my existence. I remember vividly when I started reading the Qur’anic translations of Suratul Rahman, so enthralled was I by the Surat, that I could not stop crying the whole day.
To date, I put religious belief in the same fold as self-respect, integrity and peace of heart. Yet I abhor religiousness and denigration of others due to one’s religious beliefs. Life is a working progress. There is no one who can claim to be sinless. We can’t all be pious Muslims. We all have our faults and weaknesses we need to work on. Before we cover our bodies, we must cover our bosoms and cleanse our hearts from hypocrisy, greed and jealousy. Only then can we find peace.
As for disagreements during the period of Ramadan, there were few. I always felt mad, when other Muslim cadets did not come over to assist with the meal preparations, but Abas in turn would be mad at me, and tell me that we were doing for Allah’s sake, not looking at what other people were doing or not. Although he was older than me by only one year or so, Abas was ahead of me by ages in imaan and ishan. He always claimed I had more patience than anybody he had ever come across, but I always say he has more deen than anyone I have ever met, scholar, charlatan, Oustass or Serign…
The important thing was to get the Ramadan tradition going, keep the hot cocoa drinking and conversation good natured, and allow everyone to let their hair down, because life is all there is. I accepted that I am weaker in faith than most but stronger than others too. And it was still OK.
It is still OK! I guess.