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High Food Prices Spoil Ramadan Feasts in Senegal

The Muslim holy month of Ramadan is beginning throughout the world. Muslims observe the month by fasting during the day and feasting after sunset. Brent Latham reports from our West Africa bureau in Dakar, the high cost of food is spoiling the tradition for many low-income Senegalese families.

A Senegalese market bustles with activity at the beginning of Ramadan.

Traditionally, Muslim faithful observe the holy month by fasting during daylight hours, then breaking the fast with large meals with extended family after sunset. Normally, this market would be packed with shoppers making purchases for the month's first evening feast.

But this year is a bit different, says Youssa Diallo, who sells fish from a makeshift stall inside the market.

Diallo says people are buying less this Ramadan than in past years. He says families have to make due with a limited budget, and that money does not go nearly as far with the rising cost of food staples like rice and sugar.

His customers say that Ramadan will not be the same without the large family feasts to break fast in the evening.

Cheik Traore has returned home from his job abroad to celebrate with his family. He says, for him, the evening meal is the defining event of the days of Ramadan.

"Sure, there is a religious tendency to Ramadan, but to me it is more how it brings the family together, when we break the fast at night, because everyone is there, and the city changes literally, because everything is slow," said Traore. "But at night life picks up as soon as you hear the call for the break of the fast. And it brings everyone together."

Traore says the rocketing prices of basic ingredients will force low income families to cut down on the Ramadan feasts. He says the increase in the price of sugar and dairy products, which are heavily used in traditional Senegalese dishes prepared for Ramadan, will be especially felt.

But Traore says Senegalese families and neighbors will come together to overcome their difficulties.

"Senegalese families are very solitary. So there is a lot of solidarity. So even though times may difficult and incomes meager, in Ramadan, people will manage to make ends meet. And that is the beauty in our culture and our country," he said.

The observance of Ramadan begins when the crescent moon appears to mark the beginning of the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. The first day can differ among regions, depending on when clerics determine that the crescent moon has appeared.

Observing Muslims in Burkina Faso and Mali had their first feast Monday, while in Guinea, Guinea-Bissau and Mauritania, celebrations begin Tuesday night.

The president of Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade, who is also heads the Organization of the Islamic Conference, said he hoped heavy rainfall this year will help alleviate future hunger and suffering. In response to the high prices, he has promised long-term government programs to promote more local food production.