What is Ramadan?Ramadan refers to the 9th month in the Muslim calendar. Every Muslim is expected to fast during the day for the entire lunar month. About.com's Guide to Islam says "During the blessed month of Ramadan, Muslims all over the world abstain from food, drink, and other physical needs during the daylight hours. As a time to purify the soul, refocus attention on God, and practice self-sacrifice, Ramadan is much more than just not eating and drinking."
Ramadan in AfricaFasting during Ramadan is strictly adhered to in countries where there's a large Islamic population. Throughout North Africa the vast majority of the population will fast, this includes Morocco, Western Sahara, Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, and Libya. In East and West Africa the predominantly Islamic countries include Djibouti, Sudan, Gambia, Guinea, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal and Somalia. Zanzibar (Tanzania), and Kenya's coastal towns (Mombasa, Malindi, Lamu), also have large Islamic populations.
Muslims account for over half the population in as many as 28 African countries including Nigeria and Ethiopia which given the predominance of churches everywhere you would traditionally think of it as a Christian country. Muslims in Africa account for about a third of all Muslims world wide and Islam is also the fastest growing religion in Africa.
How Does Ramadan Affect Tourists in Africa?Non-Muslim tourists are not expected to fast even if the country they are visiting is predominantly Islamic. But, life in many Islamic countries changes quite significantly during Ramadan, which has both its pros and cons. Muslims in general are tolerant of tourists snacking and drinking during Ramadan, but be respectful of the fast and keep public consumption to a minimum especially in non-touristy areas. It is always a good idea to dress a little conservatively in Muslim countries and this is especially so during Ramadan.
As About.com's Islamic Guide says, "The Arabic word for "fasting" (sawm) literally means "to refrain" - and it means not only refraining from food and drink, but from evil actions, thoughts, and words". It's ironic then that during Ramadan travelers often report that tempers flare, patience is short and fights break out more often because people are hungry and irritable during the day.
I traveled in Morocco during Ramadan in 2007 and I didn't notice any increase in tension or aggression. I asked some Moroccans about this and they said that during the first week of Ramadan tempers do flare up more than usual especially among those who are sorely missing their tea and cigarettes during the day. But after the first week, the routine of fasting sets in and things are calm again. Some people also say that Ramadan offers an excuse for those who are naturally bad tempered anyway, to let off steam.
You may find your guides and hotel staff a little bit sleepy, that's because they'll have been up since 4am enjoying a large meal to carry them through until sunset.
Museums, Banks and Government Offices During Ramadan
By and large it's business as usual during Ramadan. Tourist sights like museums are all open, although they will often close earlier than usual to allow staff to get home and eat in time to break the fast. Public holidays to celebrate the end of Ramadan (Eid al-Fitr) can close businesses and government offices for up to 3 days.
Public Transport During Ramadan
Trains, buses and planes stick to a regular schedule during Ramadan and officially if you're a Muslim and traveling, you can be exempt from fasting for that day. However, on Moroccan trains during Ramadan, no food or drink was available at all and every Moroccan I saw, didn't break their fast while traveling.
The end of Ramadan (Eid al-Fitr) is celebrated for several days and you will have to book your own travel far in advance since everyone is traveling to be together with their families. The exact dates of Eid al-Fitr depends on the first sighting of the new moon but there's always a rough estimate of the date so you can still plan accordingly.
Restaurants, Bazaars and Snack Stalls During Ramadan
Restaurants catering to locals are often shut throughout the day during Ramadan, but they come alive and stay open after sundown until very late at night. You can still buy food and water during the day as most little groceries will be open and food markets continue to buzz. You'll see a huge rush of activity from about 4.30pm onwards as people buy last minute items to break the fast; sweets and pastries are especially popular.
You will miss out on watching the locals enjoy their tea in cafes throughout the day but rooftop restaurants overlooking major squares will still be open since they cater to tourists for the most part.
If you are visiting parts of town that few tourists frequent or some remote areas, you should certainly plan on bringing your food and drink with you.
Shops and bazaars will all but shut down before 5pm but usually re-open later in the evening and stay open late into the night. Everyone madly shops for gifts near the end of Ramadan so it's a bit like the week before Christmas in the US and other Christian countries.
Bars during Ramadan
If you like alcohol you're out of luck during Ramadan because many liquor shops (if they have them) simply close down for the whole month. Bars and hotel restaurants that cater to tourists may still serve alcohol during Ramadan, so you can still enjoy a cold beer at the end of a hot day, just keep it out of the public eye.