Islam is the fastest-growing religion in Africa, with over 40% of the continent's population identifying as Muslim. A third of the global population of Muslims live in Africa, and it is the predominant religion in 28 countries (most of them in North Africa, West Africa, the Horn of Africa and the Swahili Coast). This includes major tourist destinations like Morocco, Egypt, Senegal and parts of Tanzania and Kenya. Visitors to Islamic countries need to be aware of the local customs, including the annual observance of Ramadan.
What is Ramadan?
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Muslim calendar and one of the Five Pillars of Islam. During this time, Muslims the world over observe a period of fasting in order to commemorate the first revelation of the Quran to Muhammad. For an entire lunar month, believers must abstain from eating or drinking during daylight hours, and are also expected to refrain from other sinful behaviors including smoking and sex. Ramadan is obligatory for all Muslims with a few exceptions (including pregnant women and those who are breastfeeding, menstruating, diabetic, chronically ill or traveling).
Ramadan dates change from year to year, as they are dictated by the lunar Islamic calendar.
What to Expect When Traveling During Ramadan
Non-Muslim visitors to Islamic countries are not expected to participate in Ramadan fasting. However, life for the majority of the population changes dramatically at this time and you will see a difference in people's attitudes as a result. The first thing you may notice is that the local people you meet on a day-to-day basis (including your tour guides, drivers and hotel staff) may be more tired and irritable than usual. This is to be expected, as long days of fasting mean hunger pangs and reduced energy levels while post-dusk celebrations and late-night meals mean that everyone is operating on less sleep than usual.
Keep this in mind, and try to be as tolerant as possible.
Although you should dress conservatively at all times when visiting an Islamic country, it is especially important to do so during Ramadan when religious sensitivities are at an all-time high.
Food & Drink During Ramadan
While no-one expects you to fast, it's polite to respect those who are by keeping public consumption of food to a minimum during daylight hours. Muslim-owned restaurants and those that cater to local people are likely to stay closed from dawn to dusk, so if you're planning on eating out, book a table at a tourist restaurant instead. Because the number of open dining destinations is severely reduced, a reservation is always a good idea. Alternatively, you should still be able to buy supplies from grocery stores and food markets, as these usually stay open so that locals can stock up on ingredients for their evening meals.
Strict Muslims abstain from alcohol throughout the year, and it is not usually served at local restaurants regardless of whether it's Ramadan or not. In some countries and cities, liquor stores cater to non-Muslim residents and tourists - but these will often be closed during Ramadan. If you're in desperate need of an alcoholic drink, your best bet is to head to a five-star hotel, where the bar will usually continue to serve alcohol to tourists during the month of fasting.
Attractions, Businesses & Transport During Ramadan
Tourist attractions including museums, galleries and historic sites typically remain open during Ramadan, although they may close earlier than usual to allow their staff to return home in time to prepare food before breaking the fast after dark. Businesses (including banks and government offices) may also experience sporadic opening hours, so attending to urgent business first thing in the morning is prudent. As Ramadan draws to a close, most businesses will shut for up to three days in celebration of Eid al-Fitr, the Islamic festival that marks the end of the fasting period.
Public transport (including trains, buses and domestic flights) maintains a regular schedule during Ramadan, with some operators adding extra services at the end of the month to accommodate the large numbers of people traveling to break the fast with their families. Technically, Muslims who are traveling are exempt from fasting for the day; however, most transport services will not offer food and drink facilities during Ramadan and you should plan to bring any food that you may want with you. If you're planning on traveling around Eid al-Fitr, it's best to book your seat well in advance as trains and long-distance buses fill up quickly at this time.
Benefits of Traveling During Ramadan
Although Ramadan can cause disruptions to your African adventure, there are some significant benefits to traveling at this time. Several operators offer discounts on tours and tourist accommodation during the month of fasting, so if you're willing to shop around, you may find yourself saving money. Roads are also less congested at this time, which can be a major blessing in cities like Cairo that are known for their traffic.
More importantly, Ramadan offers an amazing opportunity to experience the culture of your chosen destination at its most authentic. The five daily prayer times are observed more strictly at this time of year than any other, and you're likely to see the faithful praying together in the streets. Charity is an important part of Ramadan, and it's not unusual to be offered sweets by strangers in the street (after dark, of course), or to be invited to join family meals. In some countries, communal tents are set up in the streets to break the fast with shared food and entertainment, and tourists are sometimes welcomed as well.
Every evening carries a festive air, as restaurants and street stalls fill up with families and friends looking forward to breaking their fast together. Dining destinations stay open late, and it's a great opportunity to embrace your inner night owl. If you happen to be in the country for Eid al-Fitr, you're likely to witness random acts of charity accompanied by communal meals and public performances of traditional music and dancing.