As the days pass in a drowsy blur of donkeys and bui buis, Ramadan blows in like a whirlwind of spiritual whoop-ass. Islam’s holiest month arrives with the new moon, on a festive night where the sky is cluttered with stars and the locals are boisterously out in the streets. There’s an odd ceremony by the waterfront at dusk, where a group of men are standing at attention. They dip their heads and wring their hands and shuffle a bit from side to side – perhaps anticipating, with the pure, holy anguish of faith, the trials of the month ahead. I wait for some sort of signal to mark the start of Ramadan: a thunderous call to prayer from the mosques, or a harsh siren wail, like the one that rings in shabat every Friday in Jerusalem. Instead I notice a soldier gravely lowering the Kenyan flag from a pole in front of the District Commissioner’s Office – a solemn daily rite that I’ve somehow managed to miss for the past two weeks. All along the waterfront, and around the nearby square, the locals respectfully wait for the soldier to perform his duty. Then they start up again, laughing and talking politics, while little kids whirl by with toy cars made from empty milk cartons and bottle caps.
By day the men sit hunched in the shade, listlessly staring at the waves or furrowing their faces over the Koran. You can practically hear the hunger pangs rumbling in their stomachs and chasing me down the street. It’s a curious time for me to be surrounded by such asceticism. For the past month, working my way up the coast, I’ve enjoyed my best dining in Kenya. Gourmet pizzas in Watamu, fresh grilled fish in Malindi. Along the waterfront in Lamu, where the restaurants Bush Gardens and Hapa Hapa compete for tourist traffic, I’ve gorged on prawn curry and barracuda kebab and garlic kingfish for under five bucks. So while Ramadan will hardly be a test of my faith, it’s sure to be a trial for my unruly appetite. Most of the restaurants around town are closed till sunset, prompting the humble recognition of just how grumpy I can be without a nice sit-down lunch and my afternoon banana-coconut milkshake.
So I’ve made the acquaintance of the few upmarket places in town: the New Lamu Palace; the Swahili-styled boutique hotel, Lamu World; the trendy Whispers Café, which shares real estate with the overpriced schlock at the Baraka Gallery next door. A week ago, when cheap eats were abundant around town, a cappuccino at Whispers or a frutti di mare pizza at the Palace was the stuff of the occasional splurge. But now, with the local haunts shuttered from dawn to dusk, I’ve been forced to play my white-man’s trump card: a bashful acknowledgment that, if the occasion demands, I can eat a $12 lunch with the best of ‘em.
That’s not to say I can do it with a clear conscience. For the first few holy days I navigate the busy streets with my head hung low, avoiding eye contact and fidgeting with my fingernails and briskly ducking into the first place that’s willing to feed me. I eat with the guilty relish of someone who’s enjoying a hearty meal in spite of the hungry faces on the other side of the windowpane. Afterward I hustle out the door and turn the first corner I find, anxious to dodge any disapproving stares: afraid that my dirty, sated little secret will give me away with a content gurgle of the stomach.
It’s not until late in the afternoon, as the sun begins to dip beneath the minarets, sending long shadows down the street, that Lamu’s collective appetite really begins to stir. The locals set up food stalls in the narrow alleys: men selling grilled meat skewers and fried, doughy bhajias and meat-filled potato katlisses. Boys sit Indian-style in the dirt and hack at piles of coconuts. The streets are filled with smoky aromas. Fathers buy great bundles of food wrapped in newspaper, bringing their booty home to break the fast when the sun sets.
I stock up, too, carrying my greasy pages from the morning’s Nation in the crook of my arm. Even as dusk approaches, even as lunch lurches and settles in my stomach, those plump packages are urging me toward all sorts of indiscretions. In just a few minutes the call to prayer will blast through the streets; the faithful men of Lamu, lean and sun-battered and wilting after another long day, will tear into their samosas and chapati and guzzle tamarind juice with a youthful recklessness. But those few minutes are more temptation than I can stand. I slip into an open doorway, creep up a flight of stairs, and turn a few corners until I’m hidden from eyeshot. And like the fat kid who buries his head in the fridge after midnight, hoping no one will miss a few extra drumsticks, I prove to myself what a horrible Muslim I would be.
For two months in Kenya, I’ve done my best to blend with the locals: sleeping in a smoky cow-dung hut with a Maasai family; bumping along a rocky road for fifteen hours in the back of a lorry truck; braving the grim, monotonous cuisine of ugali and nyama choma – the grilled meat that has, in your average Kenyan chop-shop, all the taste and texture of an 18-inch Pirelli. Certain cultural gaps between us can never be bridged; but in whatever small ways, inching closer till I can dimly see the far shore, I’ve tried to see for myself what it is to live in a Kenyan’s shoes. And so it is during this, my first full-fledged Ramadan. I’ve exchanged salamu leikums with the men on the street, woken to the call to prayer blasting from the mosque outside my window. How hard can a day of fasting be?
I wake to a bright Ramadan morning, the birds twittering in the casuarina trees and the donkeys braying and clopping by the waterfront, intent on making a statement – if only to myself. I sit with my laptop on the terrace, a warm breeze rattling the makuti thatch. It’s a few minutes shy of nine. The tortoises are prowling under the tables, nipping at my toes and making their gross, lusty overtures toward each other. It’s just past nine. Already I’ve lost my focus, my eyelids are heavy. I don’t know how I’ll make it through the day. Hardly twenty minutes after I’d woken with steely resolve, I order a cup of Nescafe and a Spanish omelette. I’m a long way from salvation, I’ll be the first to admit, but even I’m disappointed by such a sorry showing. I’m sheepish again as I walk through the streets, the men following me with hungry, drowsy eyes, thinking pious thoughts and dreaming of Paradise.