SLICE: Observing Ramadan as a troubled non-Muslim

A religious reawakening was needed after I distanced myself from Catholicism, but I received so much more from Ramadan.

This year I decided to observe Ramadan to seek spiritual clarity to help me cope with the trauma of sexual assault, but after the second week I was struggling as habits of an eating disorder I thought was in remission started to reappear. 

I had a Christian upbringing and always relied on a higher power to rescue me when at my lowest. I attended a Catholic school from grade six, but by my matric year, learning about existentialism in drama class, I became disillusioned.  

I pondered the purpose of all my actions and reflected on life events and experiences that had caused me much pain. Bullying, homophobia and racism at school caused a rift between me and Catholicism. Added to this was the Roman Catholic Church’s disapproval of me and those I love: Myself as a queer woman, and family members and friends who identify as LGBTQIA+. It contradicted a belief my Catholic father had taught me, namely kindness and love for everyone, no matter who they are.  

Lent was something I had partaken of since the age of 11, so Ramadan was easy enough to wrap my head around. Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, the holiest of months and a compulsory act of the Muslim faith. It is a month of prayer, reflection and fasting to create a stronger relationship with Allah.  

Muslims must fast between sunrise and sunset. They have a meal before dawn (Suhoor or Sehri) and break their fast after sunset (Iftar or Fitoor). I began Ramadan with complete willingness to see the month-long fasting through. I explored the ins and outs, such as the times for Sehri and Iftar, as they change daily according to the sun. I needed to plan meals for both. I was eager to cultivate a relationship with a higher power. Christianity did not work for me; maybe Islam was my calling. At the beginning, the hardest part was waking early enough to pray and eat. Thereafter it was coping with the return of bulimia nervosa.  

If you ask anyone in my life to describe me, an opinion that would come up is ‘‘control freak’’. I was used to having control. It made me feel safe and secure. The feeling of having no control during the sexual assault reintroduced the need for it into every aspect of my life. This retriggered a toxic relationship with food and hunger.  Being able to control when I was hungry and when I was full felt like reclaiming the power I had lost. I did not realise right away that the feeling of satisfaction with hunger was not the spiritual awakening I desperately needed, but rather the reappearance of a demon.  

Bulimia had made me obsessed with ensuring nobody knew what was happening, and when I started to show side effects such as yellowing finger nails and teeth, dry skin or red eyes, I knew I had to take a break. By the second week of Ramadan, my skin was dry and I was more exhausted than the usual university student, yet I still did not realise bulimia had reared its ugly head again.  

Menstruation releases a woman temporarily from religious duties such as prayers and fasting, and requires them to make up the missed days of fasting before the next Ramadan. The beginning of my menstrual cycle could not have come at a better time; I thought I would have some days to rest from fasting and not have to wake up early. After this period of pause I found it difficult to get back on the wagon. I began lying to my family about fasting, hoarding food in my bedroom and never really knowing if I was hungry or not.  

Frustrated and disappointed that I was unable to stay committed during Ramadan, I punished myself by binging and purging, followed by lying and secrecy. Despite the resurfacing of negative feelings towards food, I am grateful for my two weeks of Ramadan. I began the month of fasting hoping to cope with trauma and depression, and while I believe myself far from “recovery”, I feel it has set me on the right path. I have learned the value of discipline, kindness and being grateful for what I have.  

I think I needed to fail at observing Ramadan to see how much I need to put into healing; that religion and faith are not a quick fix. I am now committed to really healing and forgiving myself. I am uncertain of the steps to take to get where I want to be, but I know it is up to me.  

FEATURED IMAGE: Kemiso Wessie. Photo: File


Meeting Mandela: memories of joy and despair

 Doris Malinga, a 70 year-old resident of Kliptown, Johannesburg recounts her memories of Nelson Mandela.

Seventy year-old Doris Malinga remembers more than one version of her first meeting with Nelson Mandela. She describes each with such faithfulness to the joy and the despair of the experiences that you can hardly dispute that both ‘first times’ really did occur. A case of Madiba magic? Perhaps.

“uMandela ngamthintha kwathi ngakusasa kwakhona ngawina… angazi besi dlalani ngaleso skhathi… (short pause) Oh ya! Amahashi! (joyous guffaw) Lapha eTurfontein. Ngawina”. (I touched Mandela’s hand, and the next day I won … I don’t remember what we were playing in those days. Oh yes! Horses! In Turfontein. I won.)

Standing between the side buildings and the main hall of a now mostly empty Regina Mundi Catholic Church, in a sliver of brave sunshine, Doris Malinga recounts her experiences of Nelson Mandela as if watching them flicker across the screen of memory for the first time. Mandela banner2

“Bagcwele amambhunu la ngaphandle, sabalekela la eRegina Mundi. Silele ngezisu abokhile amabhunu nezinja ngaphandle… 1976!”. (A lot of Boers where outside, we ran and hid here in the Regina Mundi church. we lay flat on our stomachs while the Boers waited for us outside with their dogs … 1976!)

This past Sunday, three days after Mandela’s passing, Doris attended a service at the church dedicated to the late, great statesman.

In a corner to the right of the pulpit, a large wood-framed portrait of grey-haired “Tata” leaned against the wall, watching as joy and despair rippled through the congregation dressed in powder-blue and others in deep-purple uniforms.

Doris said pride rose up inside of her as she sat in the pews and listened to the pastor speak of Mandela’s life and work.

Her own path to this famous church, she said, was paved in the black, gold and green colours of Mandela’s ANC.

[pullquote align=”right”]”I’m going to wear ANC because Mandela saved us when the Boers were after us.”[/pullquote]

She explained that years after the days of seeking refuge away from apartheid police in the church, she eventually “gave herself to Roma”, at around the same time as Mandela’s release from prison in 1990.

A thumb-and-pinky telephone helps her explain why she came to the service dressed head to toe in ANC regalia rather than the required uniform of a long-time member of the congregation.

“Namhla angeke ngigqoke ijoin mina (Today I’m not going to wear uniform),” she said re-enacting her conversation with a fellow member. “Ngizogqoka iANC ngoba uMandela wasi kipha amabhunu asigijimisa. uMandela ngiyamgqokela (I’m going to wear ANC because Mandela saved us when the Boers were after us. I’m wearing this for Mandela).”

So proud of her outfit, Doris insists on the “best” picture being taken of it adjusting it with bright-coloured cloths and scarves from a seemingly bottomless black plastic bag at her side, to obtain a verisimilitude with the reverence she expresses.

Doris Malinga remembers the times she met Nelson Mandela. Photo: Dinesh Balliah.

Doris Malinga remembers the times she met Nelson Mandela. Photo: Dinesh Balliah.

A little later, with a gift of two queen cakes and a styrofoam cup of sherbet-orange juice, Doris recalls the other version of her first encounter with Nelson Mandela.

“I had two sons. One was an ANC member. Both died during apartheid. One was shot near Orlando Station by police on his way back from school … The other was killed near Kliptown. His body was thrown into that river (the Kliprivier).”

One of her late sons left behind a young boy-child, whom Doris raised. He is now 20 years-old.The previous proud overflow of joy slows as despair tinges Doris’s voice.

She remembers a day when she knocked off work in town and went to collect her grandson from a near-by daycare center. She took him to Luthuli House, the ANC headquarters on Sauer street, where Mandela was addressing a large crowd.

“Bengimuphethe emahlombe. Kugcwele kuthe! uMandela wambona. Wamuthata wambekha emahlombeni akhe. (I had him on my shoulders. It was jam packed. Mandela saw him. He took him and hoisted him onto his shoulders).”