|Bibian (centre) and sisters. Sura spotting her black hijab.|
WHEN Yussuf Ayami’s 12-year-old son, Musa, sighted the new moon, the family rejoiced because it signified the end of Ramadan – the month-long prayer and fasting observed by Muslims world over.
The appearance of the moon also meant the beginning of Eid al-Fitr, one of the most important festivals on the Muslim calendar.
Yussuf is a devout third- or fourth-generation Muslim, descended from the Yao in Malawi. He is a self-effacing man with a kind, friendly face.
It is early Wednesday morning and many Muslim faithfuls, mostly young men and women, gather at the Chawama mosque to celebrate the end of Ramadan.
There is everything to signify this day is special.
“We have to dress the best, look the best,” says Yussuf’s wife, Bibian Makwinja-Ayami.
The women are dressed in their long dresses with their heads covered with colourful sequined hijabs or head scarfs.
Young men, some wearing gallabiyahs (a long robe-like attire) and kufi hats share perfume. One must not appear for prayer with an offensive odour, Yussuf tells me.
Today’s prayers are been held outside the mosque. The women sit behind a green veil, well separated from the men, but not excluded from the proceedings, with the message blaring from speakers mounted around the premises. And when it is time to pray, the women follow through the rituals.
Young men pass bowls of dried dates around for everyone to pick. There is something for everyone, including the chattering young boys in the back row.
Yussuf’s family is well represented at the prayers. His father, Musa, takes part in leading the prayers, encouraging the worshipers to pay their zakat (alms-giving or a form of religious tax) before taking part in the festivities. His brother, Ali, dressed in a crisp snow-white gallabiyah also has a leading role at the prayers.
There is no singing, just a monotonous chanting of the Takbīr: “Allahu akbar, allahu akbar, allahu akbar (God is great, God is great, God is great).”
Today, Yussuf is the one preaching. He encourages the men and women to get deeper in their faith.
When he is done with his preaching, Yussuf and I sit on a mat with other men and communally eat rice mixed with mutton and cabbage served on trays. There is no cutlery provided – on purpose – and each of us scoops the rice with our fingers.
It is not the custom of Muslims to eat with folks and knives, Yussuf tells me.
There is a lot of brotherhood, and although the food is not much in this impoverished community, at least almost everyone has a share. Some young boys move from one tray to another to eat as much as they can to satisfy their small appetites.
Later, at Yussuf’s home in Chelstone Extension, the Ayami family gathers to share a meal, and obviously to catch up on family matters.
Yussuf and his brother sit with their aging father, who doesn’t really know when he was born, outside the house. The women sit on the other side chatting, laughing while the children run around playfully, with an occasional fall.
Young girls appear from the house, bearing dishes which they set before us.
Lunch comprises Saamai (cooked rice) served with roasted chicken and goat meat and coleslaw salads. The rice is prepared with cloves, black paper and ginger which makes it real tasty. There is also cake for desert.
As we tuck into our meal, we discuss various topics in relation to Islam, from dress, food to local politics.
According to Yussuf, there are many young people converting to Islam. Previously, there used to be only one small mosque in the populous Chawama township, the community now has four.
He believes Islam is a natural religion that preaches itself, and says many young people have converted in the recent past.
However, he says the way Islam is currently being propagated in Zambia is very chaotic.
“We do not have any systematic ways of propagating Islam,” he says.
Yussuf blames this on the way Islam came to Zambia.
Unlike Christianity which spread, in these parts, through education, Islam was spread mainly through trade. Hence it became more less a religion for the well-healed foreigners – mostly Asians and Arabs – and their poor workers.
This eventually created classes, more inadvertently than by design.
“It’s not like their parents (the Asians) were educated, but they were traders and they had the money and our fathers depended on them for everything,” says Yussuf.
He believes this can only be broken through education and exposure among the indigenous Muslims.
He says there is now a new crop of educated Zambian Muslims and in a few years’ time, they will drive the religion forward.
Yussuf, himself, is a university graduate who studied development and later studied Arabic in Egypt.
He is now executive director of Zambia Inter-faith Networking Group.
Yussuf believes self-reliance is the first pillar of Islam.
In 2014, Yussuf and his father and mother, undertook the Haji, pilgrimage to Mecca, the fifth pillar of Islam.
He speaks with nostalgia about his travel to the most holy place in Islam.
“It was one of the greatest moments in my life. It’s a great experience, because it is the final pillar of Islam,” he says.
Yussuf spent about US$18,000 to undertake the trip.
“Every time in my quiet moments when I think about it, I raise my hands and thank Allah for having enabled me to undertake that pilgrimage,” he says.
The haj follows the path of Abraham, visiting all the important places he is believed to have touched.
This year’s Ramadan was, however, marred by suicide bombings in various places including Medina in Saudi Arabia, which is the resting place for Prophet Mohammed and the second-holiest site for Muslims. Four people died there.
“That should be a clear demonstration to everybody that has got any doubt that ISIS is not Islamic State because nothing of what they are doing is Islamic,” says Yussuf when I ask him about the bombing.
“God cannot sanction that people should be killed,” he adds.
Away from the men, Bibian is entertaining her sisters, sisters- and mother-in-law.
Among the six women are two lawyers and an economist.
At home, Bibian has relaxed her dress code a bit.
She is without her hijab, but she still keeps her head covered with a scarf, revealing more of her beauty.
“But I wouldn’t go out like this in public; not with my neck exposed,” she says, not that she expresses any regret about it.
So what is it like to be a woman and a Muslim?
“Islam is a way of life, so being a woman, you have to be there for the family,” says Bibian.
She believes the core business of a woman has to be the house, taking care of her family, even when, like herself, the woman has a regular professional job.
Bibian is a pharma-technologist.
Her younger sister, Sura Makwinja, is a sassy 31-year-old lawyer who speaks her mind on issues of morality and religion.
But despite her assertiveness, Sura accepts the fact she cannot lead the men in prayer at the mosque.
“I would not stand before men and lead them, I’ll always be below that,” she says.
“Most people look at that as segregation or that we are being isolated, oppressed, but I think that when you look at the logic behind it, it is for the betterment of the woman. A woman is a gem and they have to be protected,” she says.
And Sura believes a woman is a gem that must be covered.
She is dressed in a black abaya, an ankle-length robe-like dress and a matching hijab.
While some may look at her dressing as restrictive and unfashionable, Sura says she feels comfortable and protected in her abaya.
“When we walk in the streets, between me and someone who is going to go in a mini skirt or jeggings, of course men or kaponyas will scream at the woman in a mini, passing comments. You can’t feel comfortable if you walk out there and men are shouting at you, that is why you see them pulling down their mini-skirts. They are not comfortable,” she says.
Sura uses the analogy of a cake to make her point about covering a woman’s body.
“If you have a covered cake and uncovered cake, which one would you go for? she asks, and does not wait for my answer. “Definitely the covered one because it is not contaminated.”
Sura is single but refuses to wear anything that exposes her body.
“It is for my husband,” she says.
And because of her dressing, men don’t easily approach her.
“It takes the courageous ones to approach me,” she says. “Only people who mean business will approach me, not somebody looking for a one-night stand. It is not easy for somebody to follow me just to try to and see what is under this long dress.”
The abaya is specially designed to conceal a woman’s physical shape.
“You should just assume there is a woman there, not where I have to show you everything. No,” says the young lawyer.
And Sura prefers the dress in black.
“Black is always better, it is not attractive,” she says.
As I leave the family, the old patriarch, Musa Ayami, sends me away with some words in Arabic, which I only assume to be blessings.