This used to be a rough time of year for Nouhou.
Ramadan is the holiest month for Muslims, a time for prayer, cleansing and family. Nouhou, a Sounders defender, has yearned for his family since the French-speaking Cameroonian signed with the club’s United Soccer League team in 2016.
Enter Handwalla Bwana. The Kenyan refugee, who graduated from Ballard High and played two seasons at the University of Washington before signing with the Sounders first-team as a homegrown player in January 2018, shares the Muslim faith with Nouhou.
“I really appreciate Handwalla because I don’t have family here and he takes care of me,” said Nouhou, who’s the second oldest of five children. He’s fasting with Bwana as part of the religion’s practice during Ramadan, which runs from May 5 through June 4 this year.
From dawn to dusk, Muslims abstain from eating, drinking and “sinful behavior” like cursing and arguing in order to improve self-control and become closer to Allah. The Suhur (predawn) and Iftar (evening) meals are celebratory gatherings.
Bwana’s parents and sisters have provided the cooking for Nouhou. Bwana has 11 siblings, six whom are still in Seattle. The atmosphere at the Bwana home, according to Nouhou, is lively and has helped improve his English.
“We eat for like two to three hours and joke around,” Bwana said. “We’re always glad when he’s with us.”
Of course, fasting is nothing new to the soccer players. But honoring the fast as professional players takes some adjusting. Islamic teachings offer exemptions to fasting for those who are pregnant, elderly, or suffering from illness, to name a few. Athletes can also be exempt in order to preserve their health.
According to multiple reports, predominantly Muslim countries typically accommodate fasting during Ramadan by moving kickoffs to later in the evening and practices to early morning or night. Some countries have even pushed back tournaments.
Bwana and Nouhou instead work with the Sounders technical staff to maintain energy to perform. The players wake at about 3 a.m. for Suhur, which usually is chicken and rice and a lot of water. Iftar has varied the past two weeks because of the Sounders’ schedule.
“It can be difficult, but whatever is in your head, you have to let it go,” Nouhou said.
For the May 15 victory against Orlando City SC at CenturyLink Field, the players were given snacks and protein shakes shortly after kickoff. Bwana entered the match in the 51st minute for Jordan Morris (hamstring), scoring a goal in the 68th minute. He celebrated with a roundoff backflip and sujood, kneeling in the direction of Mecca to show appreciation.
After the Philadelphia match, Bwana and Nouhou had to fast an extra three hours at night because of the time change returning to Seattle. And they won’t be home for the festive end to Ramadan — Eid al-Fitr — because of a road match in Montreal. The players plan to find a mosque where they can join in the celebration.
“Professional or not, religion comes first,” said Bwana, who started in the defeat Sunday at Sporting Kansas City. “It’s difficult to fast and train. The weather is very hot. I have a dry mouth and get tired very quickly. But you get used to it. At the beginning (of the month) it’s very hard but your body adjusts. It’s really, really good now.”
Celebrating Ramadan has become more important to Bwana and Nouhou in recent years to counter anti-Muslim sentiment. There have been 15 violent acts against mosques and/or its worshippers in the state of Washington since 2010, according to data collected by the ACLU.
Nationally, data released by the FBI shows a continued uptick in religious-based incidents in the U.S., with 273 anti-Muslim incidents in 2017, according to the most recent information available. And globally, the March attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, where 51 Muslim worshippers were killed, carried a pall over the holy month.
“Some parts of the world are doing crazy stuff,” Bwana said of misconceptions toward Muslims. “But we believe that Muslims are free-peace and there’s always love in us.”
The love is evident in watching Nouhou and Bwana interact with each other and teammates. There’s constant laughter after practice, often dancing and rarely are Bwana and Nouhou not spotted together socially.
“Handwalla is family for me now,” Nouhou said.