These days, whenever I pass by the big building that is a few blocks away from my workplace, I see a lot of women and men standing scattered on the sidewalks. The bright white piece of their clothing and a complementing mask make the street vibrant. Seeing those peaceful people during the rush hour makes me want to join them. For the last couple of weeks, the same scene has kept stealing my focus. You may be wondering what they do there every day at the same hour. Or perhaps you have encountered the same scene recently.
The people I encounter every afternoon after I get off work are devout Christians who pray facing St. Michael’s church. Christians have now been fasting for more than four weeks, and every day from noon till two o’clock, you can notice people standing at a distance in front of churches attending the daily prayers.
Fasting is commonly practiced in Eritrea during specific periods of the year. April this year happens to be the month of fasting both for Christians and Muslims. It marks Lent for Christians and Ramadan for Muslims. Lent is an eight-week period of fasting, prayers, and penance practiced by Christians before Easter. During Lent, Christians either abstain from consuming any kind of food or drink until 2 or 3 o’clock in the afternoon or only give up meat and other animal products without fasting. Similarly, during Ramadan, Muslims abstain from eating or drinking from dawn to sunset and eat any type of food to break the fast, with the exception of, of course, haram food, which is forbidden at all times.
Over and above its religious values, fasting helps us in many other ways. During Ramadan, for instance, families are encouraged to share their food with disadvantaged families, which through centuries of practice has become a norm. Fasting also helps develop self-control. Being able to deal with the hunger that you feel shows your ability to control your mind as the hunger that you feel is not necessarily caused by physical need. A lot of the hunger that we feel is the result of years of practicing a certain eating pattern that eventually becomes a habit. Therefore, through fasting, people can learn how to control their urges and desires. Also, a fasting person who willingly abstains from food and drinks is likely to have empathy for the deprived and be motivated to give.
Fasting can be good for the physical and psychological well-being of a person. During the fasting season, you are required not only to abstain from food and drinks but also expected to refrain from exhibiting bad behavior such as badmouthing, lying and quarreling.
In the past, people were advised to never skip breakfast and to eat small portions every two hours to be healthy. But recent studies have shown the benefits of fasting that go against this dominant tradition. According to the studies, intermittent fasting causes the insulin level in the body to be high resulting in loss of body fat, which eventually leads to weight loss.
In Eritrea, the types of food commonly eaten during Lent are legumes and vegetables which are high in fiber and have low calories. Ground flax mixed with water, for instance, is the most preferred drink to break the fast. The food eaten during Lent heals the body as it is mostly organic. As much as you stay away from junky and fatty food, you can maintain a fit body and fasting can be a good way to achieve it. For Muslims, as the daily eating window is much shorter than the fasting window, the body starts to burn fat for energy because there is no food to consume, and this leads to weight loss. Fasting helps increase the level of muscle building and the human growth hormone, People are also said to get more mental clarity during the fasting period and have increased productivity.
There can be some factors that make fasting a bit more challenging, including weather and the health condition, and the age of the fasting person. In Eritrea, fasting might be more difficult in the lowlands as this season is hot, and the hotter the season, the more dehydrated one gets. As for age, it is a bit concerning for young kids to fast for long hours and be restricted in terms of what they eat. Fasting is also challenging for people with health problems, who take prescribed medicines and women who are menstruating.
During Lent and Ramadan, we should all keep an eye on our bodies as excessive fasting might end up affecting our health. In particular, young kids, people who are underweight and pregnant women need to refrain from fasting. Most importantly, though, we need to know how to break the fast, what to eat and drink and what to avoid. Starting with soup or broth and slowly moving to heavier food is usually recommended. Have a good fasting season!