Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Food Part II: Funny Things Kenyans Eat

     After covering the foods Kenyans eat on an everyday basis in my previous post, I'd like to move on to the more, ahem, eccentric foods (and things) I saw East Africans eating.

"Small Fish"

     I can't for the life of me remember the KiLuhya word for "small fish," but it is exactly what it sounds like: fish that are, well, small (they may be the same as anchovies? Not sure).  Harvested by luring them into nets with a light mimicking the moon, the fish are then laid out in the sun to dry for several days.  They're a big favorite with East Africans, so the small fish trade is a highly lucrative one.  Try as they might, however, the women in the village were never able to convince me to buy any from them.  My transactions generally went something like this: "Six tomatoes and three onions, please." "Ok, and these ones?  The small fish?  They are nice!" If I had been in a situation where I was offered small fish in someone's home, I would have given them a try, but I wasn't about to cook them for myself.  I love fish as much as the next person--although I try not to eat very much due to severe overfishing of our oceans--but swallowing dried fish scales and eyeballs is just not my jam.  I guess people in the States eat anchovies...this, however, is one crowd you can forever count me out of.


     Okay, termite consumption is a topic that really, really excites me. I've tried extensively to find quality literature to link to online, but as this exercise failed miserably, I'll paraphrase the great Bill McKibben in his fantastic book The End of Nature:
     First of all, there are a lot of termites on this planet. A lot. It is estimated that for every human on Earth, there are over 1,000 pounds of termites (roughly the weight of a cow).  That means that for every pound of you, there are ten pounds of termites under the ground.  This is both good and bad news.  It is bad news because termites, like cows, are a huge emitter of the greenhouse gas methane.  Estimates put the termite contribution of methane to the atmosphere at up to 1.5 million tonnes per year.  Every time we clear-cut a forest this number grows as termite mounds spring up by the thousands to consume the leftover decaying wood--thus we enter into a nasty cycle where we lower the planet's ability to sequester greenhouse gases while simultaneously providing the ideal conditions for increasing GHG emissions (ah, civilization).  Sounds bad, but here's the good news: termites are fabulously nutritious.  Pound for pound, termites contain as much as or more (depending on the species) protein than beef, but with less fat and zero hormones, antibiotics, additives, etc.  This means that termites can satisfy the protein needs of the entire world, if only their consumption were acceptable in "developed" countries. 

     Here's how people in my village in Western Kenya reacted when a colony of termites popped up: they went bananas. Students from the secondary and primary schools, faculty, staff, and other community members showed up en masse to collect the swarming insects after word (rather quickly) got out.  I'm not quite up to speed on the finer points of termite ecology (I thought you only found them in mounds and fished them out with twigs like the chimps on TV??), but for whatever reason these termites were sporadically popping out of holes in the ground on our combination cow pasture/volleyball court.  As they did, gleeful gatherers immediately surrounded the holes, snatching the insects by the wings and placing them into bags, cups, or, occasionally, straight into their mouths (kind of like every person picking strawberries, ever).  The preferred way of eating termites, however, is lightly fried with a dash of salt--no added oil needed, as their little bodies are coated with their own brand of it already.  The wings fall off during the frying process, so you simply shake the pan around outside and blow on it to get them out.  Then, you eat!  I didn't particularly care for the taste, but I didn't dislike it, either. Mixing the fried termites with some rice, veggies, and soy sauce would make a significant improvement on the experience.  Or maybe in tacos?  Or chili?...This is a topic that deserves more exploration.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Ugali, Sukuma Wiki, and Chai Masala: Eating in Kenya

A woman in the village who sold me vegetables
       In Western Kenya, people eat ugali. Only ugali (ok, ok, I’m exaggerating, but just slightly).  The bulk of a Kenyan meal consists of ugali, accompanied by boiled vegetables and, if you can afford it, meat.

       Ugali is made from ground maize that is then boiled in water—much like you would make grits or polenta, except less water (and zero seasoning) is added so that it forms a doughy consistency.  To eat, you pinch off a piece of ugali, roll it around in your hand a bit, and then use it to scoop up the vegetable, sauce, and/or meat.

How to eat ugali:

Foreigners generally aren’t fans, but Kenyans (literally) can’t get enough of the stuff.  “It is not a meal unless you have ugali,” “If you haven’t eaten ugali you haven’t eaten,” and “Ugali will make you strong” are the oft-used mantras when it comes to discussions of food. Kenyans could eat a plate of rice the size of your head, but if they haven’t had any ugali they will still complain of hunger.

       The most popular vegetable dish is sukuma wiki—sautéed kale with tomato and onion.  Translating into English as “to push the week,” sukuma wiki, as the cheapest dish available and therefore used to stretch meals, is pretty standard fare (try visiting Kenya without eating any ugali or sukuma wiki. I dare you.). Other popular dishes include sautéed/boiled pumpkin leaves, cabbage, and the slightly pricier lentils.  Sweet potatoes are a major crop, but I never saw my roommates cook them so I’m not sure how most Kenyans do it. If I had to guess I’d say they fry them in oil, as they do white potatoes (which they call “Irish Potatoes.” Side note: if you pronounce “potato” in the usual American way, you will get a blank stare in return. You know the phrase, “Potato/potato, tomato/tomato”? Kenyans pronounce these words in the second fashion—with a short “A”).

I don't remember the name of this vegetable, but students
came after school to help my roommates prepare it
Tea and Snacks
       Black tea, or chai, is hugely popular in Kenya. It is drunk from morning ’til night, in hot weather as well as cold.  The favorite way to drink it is with milk, spices, and large amounts of sugar—alternately called “milky tea” or “weak tea”.  “Strong tea” is made with tea, spices, and obscene amounts of sugar.  “Masala tea” is strong tea with the proportions inverted—heavier on the spices, but lighter on sugar (masala means “spiced”).  Most people buy a pre-made masala mix from the store, containing ground cloves, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, etc. 

Mandazi and chai: this photo makes me extremely hungry
       Snacks in Kenya generally consist of various forms of fried dough.  The snacks available for sale in our school kitchen are chapati, a thin, oily, tortilla-like flatbread, and mandazi, which is best described as doughnut batter fried into little balls, squares, or triangles.  In larger towns or trading posts, the most readily available snack (apart from maize) is mandazi and boiled eggs.  This was my favorite combination on long journeys—when your matatu is stopped you can poke your head out of the window and, more often than not, a vendor will be nearby selling one or both from large buckets.  When a vendor only had one item, i.e., eggs, I could simply say, “Can you get me some mandazi, too?” and she/he would run off to find it for me.  Samosas, also popular, are my all-time favorite snack, but these are more difficult to find on the streets.  

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Bryan Goes to Kenya

Great Rift Valley

Maasai Mara Safari

Great Wildebeest Migration

Past the green line of trees (marking the Mara River) is Tanzania

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Back in Shikokho!

After 6 months I decided it was time to brighten up my room with some photos...
Hello everyone,
            Just a note before I get started, I am writing this at my desk in my room, and despite the fact that it is 4 pm—AT THE EQUATOR—and I’m indoors with my windows closed, it is COLD!  I just had to get up to put on a few more layers and wrap a blanket around myself.  Rainy season is over (I missed most of it while I was traveling, thank God), but now we’re in the relatively cold Kenyan months of June and July.  It still rains maybe three or four evenings a week (like right now), but the roads are passable—which is not the case during rainy season.  The weather during the day is brilliant—sunny but never too hot.  My first couple months here I would steal away from school some afternoons to come strip my clothes off in my room and fan myself for a few minutes; now I go all day long without breaking a sweat, and instead of making me uncomfortable, holding my 11 o’clock tea in both hands is something I look forward to.  I noticed how green this region is when I first arrived, but since the rains the scenery is even more lush and the school’s gardens that the students have planted for their agriculture classes are starting to show beautiful results.  We also have a banana and an avocado tree out our back door that are starting to bear fruit.  You have not seen a real avocado until you’ve been to Africa—the things are HUGE.  The ones we get in US grocery stores have obviously been bred to withstand traveling long distances; not for size (or nutritional value, while we’re on the subject).

            I know I have been severely slacking in my updates and I apologize to those of you who actually care to read them.  The internet connection here in the village seems to have sorted itself out a little since I got back from traveling, so I should be better in the future.  I have a lot to update you on!

Monday, May 21, 2012

Photos from Uganda and Rwanda

Monkeys playing outside the hostel in Kampala, Uganda

Kittens that we saved from the monkeys, who were trying to get at them
not. happy.

View of Kigali, Rwanda from the Genocide Memorial Museum
Holes from grenade blasts in a church outside Kigali where 5,000 people were murdered in the 1994 genocide. Clothes  (and some bones) of the murdered remain at this memorial

Eugene outside the church-- notice the human skulls and bones inside. The purple banners are up to commemorate the 18th anniversary of the genocide

Wednesday, May 9, 2012


Hello everyone,
       I am writing from beautiful Kigali, the capital of Rwanda.  I arrived yesterday morning with my English friend, Ryan, after a 9-hour overnight bus ride from Kampala (the Irishmen we were with got stuck in Kampala for a few days due to visa complications).  The ride was very typical of the region—jerky, crowded, cold, and overall uncomfortable.  The view of the Rwandan countryside once the sun came up, however, made the discomfort completely worth it.  Rwanda, “The Land of A Thousand Hills,” is nothing but green as far as the eye can see, and the farming terraces extending up the hillsides paint a rustic, romantic picture.  Kigali is by far the nicest African city I have visited so far.  It is also known as the safest capital city on the continent.  Spanning several hills, the city is clean (spotless, really), the roads well-maintained, and the people polite and soft-spoken.  English is less commonly spoken in Rwanda than in Uganda or Kenya (French is more common.  Rwandans also speak Kinyarwanda and some Kiswahili), but we have had hardly any trouble so far. 

       The events of 1994, when the country descended into a horrific 100-day-long genocide in which more than one million people were brutally murdered and two million displaced, play a significant and visible role in the national conscience.  Signs and billboards around Kigali commemorate the 18-year anniversary of the violence, with slogans such as “Learning from our past to create a better future.”  Today Ryan and I visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial, which, in addition to housing a museum spotlighting the Rwandan genocide as well as other genocides of comparable magnitude around the world, is the final resting place of some 250,000 genocide victims.  It was a powerful experience, bringing both Ryan and I to tears.  One room displays rows upon rows of human skulls and bones of the deceased, and another shows photos of children who were murdered in the conflict—including details such as their favorite food and exactly how they were killed.  For example: “Francine, Age: 2; Personality: always smiling; Means of death: smashed into a wall.” Other means of death included being hacked by a machete in their mother’s arms, being thrown into a latrine pit, and a bullet in the head.  Needless to say, it was difficult to enjoy a casual meal at the museum café after emerging from such a somber atmosphere.

       Currently, I am sitting by the pool at the elegant Hotel des Mille Collines (in English, “Hotel of a Thousand Hills”), the site of the events that inspired the Academy Award-winning film Hotel Rwanda.  The story centers on Paul Rusesabagina, who was given control over the hotel after the European managers were evacuated.  Rusesabagina opened the hotel’s doors to an estimated 200 of the city’s persecuted Tutsis and moderate Hutus and, in the face of great personal risk, managed to keep the refugees safe through bribery, cunning, and courage.  We are having drinks with a man whose girlfriend—at the age of 12 and with only her two sisters as company—sought solace under Rusesabagina’s protection for some 1.5 months.  During the 100 days of madness, the refugees consumed all the water in the swimming pool for cooking and drinking, and our friend can point to the places in the bushes where the hunted hid from the Interahamwe (the perpetrators of the genocide).

       Tomorrow we are visiting a church 20 km outside the city, where several hundred people perished after the church was barricaded and set on fire.  Most of the site is still intact, and I am told that the experience at the memorial museum pales in comparison to seeing piles of human remains, untouched since the genocide.  The only survivor of this massacre is your guide.  I’ll let you know how it goes.