When Time Stands on Its Head

“Should we get some massa?” I asked the kids as we pulled up in front of our house. Every morning, a lady in our neighborhood makes this pancake-like fried food in front of our house, sitting in the shade of the tree just to the right of our gate. Since we don’t share a common language, we are not really on a first name basis. We just call her “the massa lady.”

“No! I don’t see the massa lady outside right now,” replied my daughter.

She didn’t see her because it wasn’t morning, and so the massa lady was not in her usual spot. In a sudden change of routine, she was sitting over a wood fire and iron griddle on the other side of the street, at 6:30 in the evening.

This month the city’s schedule is running on an abnormal rhythm. Why is it all mixed up right now? Because it’s Ramadan, the month of daytime fasting observed once a year (lunar year, that is) by our Muslim neighbors.

Personally, it’s thrown me out of my routine. It already took a long time to get used to the normal rhythm of life here, and now it’s off-kilter yet again. When people live cross-culturally, one of the hardest adaptations is the difference in the sense of time. Getting a sense of mealtimes, an idea of when people work and when they relax, when it’s okay to stop for a visit or to make phone calls, how long you should expect to wait at a government office or place of business, whether it’s better to be on time or to be late when you’re meeting someone – these are all aspects that vary with culture, and can leave us frustrated or disoriented until we understand and accept them.

Of course, when a Westerner is leaving for Africa, everyone warns that things will go more slowly: Americans and other westerners have a reputation for being time-conscious and in a hurry, while Africans have a reputation for focusing on relationships and moving more slowly. Interestingly, living in a large, multicultural capital city, I have found that many people here are just as pressed and time-conscious as I am.

The typical daily schedule here is greatly affected by the climate: the afternoon is very hot, and those who can work efficiently during this time of day, generally, are in air-conditioned offices. The average person, though, works during the morning, when it is still (relatively) cool, breaks for lunch around 2:00pm, naps during the hottest hours of the day, then starts working again around 4:30 pm. If you want to annoy a guy here, call at 3:00 pm and ask him to come to your house: he will be napping. This also fits with the Muslim times of prayer: The mid-day prayers happen sometime between 1:00 – 1:30pm (depending on the season), so it’s a natural time to pause from work, and afterward, break for lunch and a rest. Between 4:00 – 4:30pm, the afternoon call to prayer calls them out of their slumber and back to work for a few hours, until the first evening prayers. Since the two evening prayers (one when the sun sets, and the other at the last light of day) are roughly an hour apart, this time becomes social hour. It’s not enough time to go back get any work done, and dinner isn’t quite ready for most people; they’ll eat after the final evening prayers.

A 2:00pm lunchtime and an 8:00pm dinner time don’t sync with a typical American schedule. But some days I need to follow the “normal” work hours here, and so these are the times I eat. But mostly, our family opts to eat somewhere between the classic American 5:30pm dinnertime (although, I know, it’s not necessarily the norm today) and the usual Nigerien time (8pm) – – so we eat around 6:30pm. Our mealtime depends on another cultural schedule difference: we put our young children to bed at an “American” time: 7:30 – 8:00pm. When I tell my friends here that our kids go to bed at this time, their eyes practically pop out of their heads: “That early?!” they exclaim. We’ll hear or see Nigerien children in the street until 10:00pm or later.

So why has the normal schedule changed this month? Well, those who are observing the fast (the majority around us) cannot eat or drink anything during daylight hours. So their day starts when neighborhood kids do everyone a favor by banging pots and pans a little before dawn to wake everyone up for their final food and drink before sunrise. (Since we don’t want to avail ourselves of this service, we keep our windows closed and AC running through the night!) Once the call to maghrib prayers sounds at dawn, they’ll be suffering until the sun goes down. This year Ramadan falls during hot season, so you can imagine that those who do not drink anything on days with a high of 105° F prefer to extend their afternoon naptime!

For non-Muslims living in this environment, this has a couple of implications. First, the common wisdom during Ramadan is, “If you need to get something done in an office, go in the morning – don’t wait till the afternoon! IF the person you need to see is there in the afternoon, he or she will be grumpy!” Second, do not expect to buy lunch out at your usual place. I like to buy street food for a mid-morning snack (or maybe we should say a second breakfast). Eleven months of the year, all over the city, you can find ladies selling various fried delicacies that are pretty similar to pancakes, hush puppies, corn dogs (just without meat), or falafel in the early-to-mid morning. A filling breakfast costs about 30 cents U.S. These everyday treats are also available in the late afternoon, and can fill in the gap nicely on nights when I have to eat a late dinner. But during Ramadan, there’s no point in trying to sell them during the day. With the couscous-based dish I love to eat for lunch – dembu – it’s the same story: these vendors come out in the evening to sell to hungrier-than-usual customers.

While evening is pretty much always a good time to get together with friends in Niger, it’s a rather late evening this time of year. You could visit when they are breaking the fast: at this joyous moment of relief a drink and some food will be passed your way, and their eyes will begin to brighten from their dreary, food-deprived state. If not at that time, then it needs to be later, because the evening prayers are extended during Ramadan. From 7:45 to 8:30pm, we hear the imam over the loudspeaker two doors down, calling out the next step of the ritual prayers, which are repeated 14 times during this season. After this, some will socialize and some will remain at the mosque to listen to teaching or Quran reading well into the night. Some students have told me they just stay up all night, during the hours they can eat and drink. But I guess there are plenty of university students in my passport country that do that even without a religious fast!

This year, I have gone out to find some of my favorite street foods in the evening, so I am not suffering from massa or dembu withdrawal. I have had some short nights, as I’ll see one person around 9:00pm to talk into the night, and then head off in the morning to see another who wanted to meet early in the day before the fatigue sets in. But hey, I’m not fasting – – so at least I’m allowed an extra coffee and a snack during daylight hours to help carry me through.


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