Gambian Koriteh: Breaking the fast

The neighbors called out and soon the little path outside my family’s compound was full of townspeople and buzzing with excitement as everyone searched for the moon.

“You see it? It’s there,” my older brother said, pointing above.

Through the pink clouds in the evening sky, a faint hairline of the moon shone through, a sign that the month of fasting could finally end.

“Iyooo!” a woman cried as she began to sway her hips.

The dancing would start the next day after Koriteh prayers and feasting.

My brothers invited me to break their fast with them since the women, who I normally share food with, would wait until later. We gathered around the food bowl and dug in with our right hands, using bread to pick up the spaghetti topped with egg, vegetables and fish.

Break fast.

A break fast meal.

The night fell and one of my sisters and I laid on a prayer mat in the middle of the compound. The clouds parted and we counted shooting stars until our eyelids grew heavy.

By morning, family members from around the country had arrived for the holiday.

After daytime chores of sweeping and fetching water, I cooled off with a bucket bath in time to share breakfast with my family. I had always eaten my morning meal alone since I arrived during Ramadan while everyone was fasting. We ate chori, a rice-based porridge with soured milk and sugar.

The men dressed in their African best and left for the mosque to pray while the girls spent the day cooking, then plaiting hair and gossiping about which dance party they’d attend. Women don’t usually go to the mosque, but when they do, they pray separately and behind the men.

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My host brothers and fathers, who are always smiling except in pictures.

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A few of the girls, braiding in a weave.

After the midday meal, the men headed out to the local school, giddy to finally have the energy to play football. Throughout Ramadan, they had fasted sun up to sun down and abstained from their favorite activities in order to focus their attention on their faith for 30 days. My sisters escorted me to watch our brothers, but we were the only women in sight as sports are typically reserved for Gambian men.

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Men from my neighborhood playing football.

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Men from my neighborhood playing football.

Before Koriteh, Gambians had saved their money for luxurious gowns with fancy embroidery to wear for the holiday’s tradition of greeting. We trekked through the dusty streets under heavy robes for hours, stopping at any and every familiar house. I guess when you live in the same place your whole life, you know a lot of your neighbors! Greetings in the Gambia are tedious, yet entertaining, and go something like this:

“Peace.”
“Peace only.”

“Where are your home people?”
“They are there.”

“Where is your father?”
“He is there.”

“Where is your mother?”
“She is there.”

“Greet your people for me.”
“They hear your greeting.”

“How are you?”
“I am here.”

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My favorite sister, Sainabou, and I in front of our family’s compound.

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The “Jola girls” in my training group.

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My friend Kimia and a friend from her family, Maimuna, dressed in matching tie-n-dye for Koriteh “salibo.”

Children, especially, collected “salibo,” which is gifted money, during this greeting exchange. They ran through the streets far past sundown, thrilled to have a few coins of their own.

Children out collecting "salibo."

Children out collecting “salibo.”

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The kids from my block.

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My two younger sisters, Jeneba and Momie.

Tired and hungry, my sisters finally served dinner after 10 p.m. We feasted on rice with sauce. The meat that had once been plentiful to break the fast during Ramadan is no longer part of family meals because it’s too expensive. Now, there is typically one or two pieces of meat to share among the family of 13 (or more, depending on who is visiting).

After a long day, we draped mats across the verandah and fell asleep in the cool breeze to the sounds of poppin’ “programs” where all the youths filled the streets, dancing ’til the wee hours of the morning in celebration.

–JDF