J R Patterson in New Humanist:
Springtime on the West African coast. Nights, pleasantly warm and close, give way to searing daylight. By ten o’clock, the sun presses down upon the earth like a thumb, grinding everything beneath it into the dust that rises from the roads and thickens the air. It is a heat that hurts. People hide in the shade of mango trees or within the dark caverns of roadside shops; movement encourages a torrent of sweat.
Into this climate came Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting, during which the observant abstain from all food and drink between sunrise and sunset. Those who must move – the men busting their guts making bricks, the women hauling buckets of water to vegetable patches along the river Gambia – take no water to slake their thirst, no food to ease their rumbling bellies.
I do not write to make fun of fasting, which is undertaken in some variation by much of the world’s population. But as the month-long deprivation descended on The Gambia, I wondered whether there was something beyond religious zeal that compels millions to deprive themselves of food in what could already be considered conditions of want. Could fasting create a societal relationship to food that extended beyond not having enough of it?
I profess no religion, and stem from a heritage that perceives religious (or even non-spiritual) fasting as eccentric behaviour. Early on, I looked up fasting online. “See list of ineffective cancer treatments,” the internet told me. It seems that this is good advice for some. There are groups – “breatharians” and “sungazers” among them – for whom fasting is a kind of panacea, a way to eradicate so-called toxins from the body. The fasting I saw in The Gambia was far from this idiocy, but the dedication required to temporarily forgo the needs of the body was similar.
In the west, gluttony barely registers as a problem.