The sound of the bell at exactly 12: 30pm serves as a trigger for students to stream out of their classrooms all heading to the dining hall. The look on their faces shows the lack of patience as they queue to enter the hall armed with their plastic plates.
While all the pushing and shoving goes on at the refectory, some students seem unbothered. In fact, they are simply seated in class flipping through their books. Closer scrutiny reveals that they are all Muslim students. And it is the holy month of Ramadhan.
Ramadhan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and Muslims worldwide observe this as a month of fasting. Being one of five pillars of Islam devout Muslims are expected to take it serious.
Fasting during this month is a religious practice recommended in the holy Quran. It is said that fasting is fardh (obligatory) for adult Muslims, except those who are ill, travelling, pregnant, diabetic or going through their menstrual cycle. Muslims refrain from eating, drinking, smoking and any sexual relations from dawn to sunset.
How schools observe Ramadhan
According to the Association of Rwandan Muslims (AMUR - Association des Musulmans du Rwanda), there are 12 Islamic schools in Rwanda. With Muslims said to amount to 13 percent of the population of Rwanda, many are of school going age yet Ramadan often falls at a time when they are at school. This means that students are faced with the challenge of fasting while studying.
Education Times visited different schools to find out how Muslim students manage to strike a balance between academic and religious responsibilities. The observance of the holy month varies from school to school often depending on the Muslim population in a particular school.
One of these schools is Association Islamique Pour l’Education au Rwanda (AIPER) located in Nyandungu, a boarding secondary school with a Muslim foundation.
The school records the religious affiliation of every student upon registration something that helps the school to address the religious concerns of each student.
From last year, the school called on Muslim parents to make Ramadan a special period for children at school. Parents agreed to part with an extra Rwf10,000 for each student. This money is used to prepare special meals for students who are fasting.
According to Sheikh Ahmed Munyezamu, the discipline master, in the morning, the 95 boarding Muslim students get up at 3.30am; take their special breakfast, sahur, made of cereals as main menu. After this, they join classmates in cleaning activities.
At 6.30am when other students go for their usual breakfast, Muslims take this opportunity to go for prayer in a Mosque the school built for them. They later report for lessons at 7.30am. No student is allowed to dose in class on the pretext of ‘being hungry.’
At 1pm, the students who stay at the school break for lunch while their Muslim counterparts who formed a Muslim club, Jamaa Atudawa, meet at the school mosque for more prayers. They then keep busy until 5pm when it is time for evening preps. This goes on until 7.30pm, but Muslims will break off at 6.30pm for iftar - dinner comprising of some plantains (matooke), irish potatoes, meat, fruits and juice.
“We feel at home even during the Ramadhan because our school facilitates us so that we can respond to the Islam order to fast,” said Abdul Madjid Nshimiyimana, a Senior Five student and president of the Muslim club.
Students say they have no problem with fasting since it helps them to serve the will of God and to effectively continue with their studies.
“Fasting does not kill us. When you fast you get the sense of the suffering others have to go through and Allah gives you the heart to care about them,” commented Shariff Nizeyimana, a Muslim student.
AIPER’s Director, Ignace Harelimana, argued that “Muslim students, like any other student in a club have commendable conduct and they have helped a lot to improve on the general students’ discipline.
Apart from AIPER, some other schools acknowledge to the right of Muslim students observing the month of Ramadhan.
At Groupe Scolaire Saint Joseph - Kabgayi, a catholic school in Muhanga district, Southern province, Brother Gahima Gaspard, the headmaster told Education Times that the few Muslim students they have are allowed to follow their prayer schedule. And the school provides them with the food to break the fast with.
“For us, we are a Methodist school, but we believe in diversity,” said Callixte Musabyimana, a Methodiste college in Gakenke district.
Musabyimana’s school has nine Muslim students who are now following Ramadan directives.
Other education stake holders speak out
According to the AIPER officials, the Quran says that Muslims from 10 years old have to fast, regardless of their work.
Different people who talked to Education Times maintain that this religious policy has to be moderated when it comes to practicing it at school.
“In ordinary times they manage to make it, but when it comes to the period of exams, it becomes challenging to the Muslims fasting because everybody burns a lot of energy while studying. I worry about their performance,” said Zaccharie Nkundimfura, Director of G.S Rwankuba, a Catholic school in Gakenke district, Northern Province.
However, students from AIPER say that they have never seen any of their classmates fainting because of fasting.
“We are used and we get enough time to rest in the afternoon,” one of them said.
Fasting is also good for one’s health,” said Munyezamu, the school discipline master.
Parents from the Muslim community, also confirm that it is important for their children to fast. Sada Abassa, 40 year old from Nyamirambo suburb agrees that the change of living style in Ramadan can affect students’ performance. Thus, he recommended schools to always assist these students.
“Fasting is a must and a Muslim who ignores it without a valid reason is subjected to punishment,” she said.
According to Emmanuel Mudidi, an MP and long serving educationist, “every person establishing a school has set rules and they ask everyone joining to respect these rules. What is important is to minimise factors that interfere with the quality of education.”
He said there is no formula on how much a school should tolerate religious practices, but it is important to moderate them so that education objectives are not compromised.
Ibrahim Mugabarigira, a clothes seller
Fasting is not a burden and for a child aged 15 years old, there should not be an argument as to whether they should fast or not. For students, the period helps them to focus exclusively on studies and prayer.
Issa Niyongira, a cobbler
Our children should not worry. It is when you are fasting that you find enough time to study, while others are busy with food. By the way, do you know that eating everyday is also not healthy? Fasting keeps our bodies clean.
Issa Nzabandora, carpenter
In a Muslim school especially, there is no excuse. I have three children in school and we have contributed some extra money for schools to feed our children and make sure they do not miss their Ramadhan fasting. Unless one has their specific weakness, at teen age children should start fasting effectively.
Mohammad Nzabandora, 14, a secondary school student
There is no problem with fasting. I started when I was 12. We close class business by the time I am getting hungry. Then I go home take a break until sunset when I am allowed to take iftar. Like now, I am from school and we are doing our exams. I am passing them without any hindrance.
Yahaya Macumu, a businessman
A Muslim child has to fast during Ramadhan, whenever possible. For example if they are in a Muslim school with all the rights to fast, there is no reason why they should not. Of course we are thankful that all the schools in general are now recognising the Muslims’ rights this month.
Shan Habimana, a retailer
For a Muslim child who was born in a Muslim community it is very obvious. You might even ask them not to fast, but they will not accept because they know the value attached to that pillar of Islam.