The kitchen of the Bah family home, in the Sydney suburb of Oxley Park, is filled with women moving calmly about the kitchen amid a jumble of steaming pots and pans and a lively toddler cantering in and out of the space. Today is Eid al-Fitr – the end of Ramadan or the Muslim holy month – and Samia and daughters Nawal, Mabinty, Khadijah and Aishia are preparing a typical Sierra Leonean celebration. Nawal, the eldest of eight, pauses from her task of peeling ginger to intercept a text message wishing her Eid Mubarak (Happy Eid).
“I’ve had 30 Eid Mubarak texts this morning and my Facebook page is flooded. It’s an exciting day for the Muslim community,” says Nawal, whose mother and father, Chernor Ahmad, arrived in Australia from West Africa’s Sierra Leone in 1989. “Ramadan is an obligation for every Muslim. We believe we are going to be rewarded by Allah from restraining from eating and drinking for a month… it’s a celebration of what we, as Muslims, have achieved together,” she explains.
Nawal, who has a degree in psychological science and works at a youth centre, says celebrating Eid makes her feel connected to the wider Islamic community. “I went to Kmart this morning and some Lebanese-Australians shouted out ‘Eid Mubarak’. It’s a happy day for all Muslims – regardless of where you’re from,” she adds.
Mabinty, who is studying for a Masters degree in nursing at the University of Sydney, believes fasting is a core component of Muslim beliefs because it helps promote empathy for those less fortunate. “Ramadan amplifies our faith and urges us to appreciate the food we eat. It’s a day where, yes, we’re rewarded with a feast and gifts, but we also spend time together as a family,” she says.
Samia, a midwife, and Chernor, a former butcher now working as a courier driver, immigrated to Australia before the start of the 11-year civil war that ravaged their homeland until 2002. A Human Rights Commission paper, Migration Between Africa And Australia: A Demographic Perspective, identifies many Sierra Leonean migrants in Australia as falling into the refugee-humanitarian category. But Chernor, who worked on his family’s farm in Sierra Leone, says his decision to “change worlds” was not motivated by hardship, but a desire to “migrate to a new country and help it grow”. He adds that being part of the first wave of Sierra Leonean arrivals to Australia makes him feel responsible for helping the many “severely traumatised” refugees who have trickled into the country ever since. “It’s my duty to help. It makes me happy when the wider Muslim community cooperates and communicates,” he says.
The Bah family broke their fast at 5am when Samia scooped out big portions of pap (ground maize porridge) for breakfast. The family then congregated at a nearby park for a special community prayer, followed by a sausage sizzle, which Nawal comments is a demonstration of how Australian ways have influenced the tradition of Eid. “I was born in Australia, but I live a Sierra Leonean life in the food I eat and the way I conduct myself in society,” she says.
With preparations for the feast complete, the Bah family – including 10-year-old twins Saleemah and Sulaiman (the only son), three-year-old Zainab and one-year-old Ameera – converge for the midday prayer in their living room, before changing into outfits bought especially for the day.
Guests Seni Issah Ibrahim and Mohamed Sesay, both refugees from West Africa, arrive to see the women filing out of the kitchen carrying platters of food to lay out on a table covered with traditional African textiles. Ibrahim feels honoured that Chernor, who is also chair of the African-Australian Islamic Association, has invited him to join his family for Eid, seeing it as a mark of kinship. After surveying the spread, he smiles and says it will “make up for a month of self-control”. “My wife is Australian, so today is my opportunity to eat African food… finally,” he chuckles.
Ibrahim piles his plate with a traditional Sierra Leonean salad dotted with baked beans and boiled eggs, spicy baked peanut butter chicken and an earthy lamb stew. After the food is served, the women gather together to chat on the sunburned lawn, while the men remain in the outdoor dining area, listening to Sydney Islamic radio.
The bubble of low conversations in English, Arabic and Temne (a Sierra Leonean language) are broken by the occasional howl of laughter from the men, who are deep in discussion about the high cost of denim jeans in Australia.
In between sips of his hand-pressed ginger juice, Chernor Ahmad reveals his hope that, as modern life in Australia gets faster, the African imprint will linger. “Our culture is very important to us. We are Muslim, we live in Australia, but we are from Sierra Leone. We have a foot in each door,” he says.
As the sun falls in the sky and the family prepares for afternoon prayer, the suburban garden feels like a foreign world. When the prayer is over, the scene snaps back to Oxley Park with a jolt, with son Sulaiman larking about doing karate kicks, before tussling with his twin sister over whose turn it is to play on the iPhone.
Photography Chris Chen.