Food (8)

Saturday, 23 July 2016 00:00

The Price Water Pays for Your Food

Written by

The kitchen sink tap was wide open. Beneath it was a sufuria (cooking pan). A few seconds later, there was enough water in the sufuria for ugali that would satisfy the appetites of two hungry adults. My friend Mulhat wasn’t a big ugali fan so I knew that I would end up consuming most of it. But she was crazy about the sukuma wiki (kales) that I had just prepared so we both had an equal stake in the upcoming dinner. Besides, both of us absolutely adored the fried beef she had cooked earlier that day.

As I watched Mulhat pour maize flour into the boiling water, I started thinking about the millions of other homes in Nairobi that were at that moment preparing meals whose primary ingredient was water. This set me thinking – how much water does Nairobi, Kenya’s huge capital, consume in a day? Is this water being depleted or replenished wherever it comes from? Is my own water consumption sustainable or extravagant?

‘I hope you are thinking about me,’ Mulhat said as she served chunks of fried meat on two brand new white plates that I had bought the previous week thanks to her prodding. She felt that my plates belonged to the National Museum of Kenya and that it was time for a new generation of plates. And cups.

‘I am thinking about water,’ I answered as I reached for a glass of water.

Even as I drank the clean, potable water in the glass, my mind crawled back to a report that I had read earlier that morning entitled, ‘Securing Water, Sustainable Growth.’ Published by the University of Oxford in 2015 and written by an International Task Force, the report disclosed that the total cost of water insecurity to the global economy was US$500 billion annually. In light of this, the water that Mulhat had just used to cook ugali; the water that I had just drank from my ageing glass; the water that made food, farming and industry across Kenya and elsewhere in the world possible, was costing our world US$500 per year by its insufficiency. In other words, lack of water was severely denting the global economy.

Further compounding water scarcity is the fact that for millions of people, even the available water is unfit for their consumption. The WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation revealed in a report that ‘at least 1.8 billion people world-wide are estimated to drink water that is faecally contaminated.’ For these millions of fellow human beings, water is not life because the water they consume can and does lead to death.

Even as millions of people continue to be weighed down by the burden of water scarcity or contaminated water, millions others consume it in unsustainable and extravagant fashion.

As I enjoyed every bite of my dinner, I found myself wondering if I was in this category of people whose water footprints are all over the place.

‘You are an absolute master in cooking sukuma wiki,’ Mulhat told me as she re-filled her white plate with Kenya’s favourite vegetable.

Apart from feeding forty million Kenyans, sukuma wiki and agriculture as a whole plays a fundamental role in Africa’s economy by providing six out of every ten jobs on the continent. Because it is heavily dependent on water, Agriculture gulps down 70 percent of all water consumption in the world every year. That’s huge. Without that water being available, Mulhat wouldn’t be able to enjoy my world-famous sukuma wiki.

The beef chunks on my white plate also had their own water footprint. The half a kilo that Mulhat had so deliciously fried in black pepper and garlic had taken 6,800 litres of water to reach my white plate. This number may seem exaggerated but it takes into account the water needed to grow the grass and food that nurture the cow in its short life before it ends up in a slaughterhouse, a butcher, a newspaper wrapping and eventually my white plate.

Since she doesn’t appreciate the ageless splendour of ugali, Mulhat arose from the sofa and sashayed to the kitchen to fetch a few slices of bread. She made a beef sandwich and insisted that I take a bite. The loaf of bread from which she had fished a few slices had required about 908 litres of water to produce.

The astounding water footprints don’t end there. That small bag of French fries that does a lot to satisfy your hunger needs 45 litres of water before you can hold it in grateful hands. The soda that you will most likely drink alongside the chips needs 6,800 litres of water before it can end up in your warm hands.

Water is indeed life. We mostly seem to notice this when it quenches our thirst from a glass. But for every bite of food that we take there are litres of water that were used for that food to reach our hands. Given the fact that most of the food consumed in the United States is processed, the average American family consumes about 2,100 litres of water per day. This is more than one hundred times the 19 litres that an average African family uses per day!

One of the unfortunate reasons why water consumption in Africa is considerably low is that about three quarters of households in sub-Saharan Africa fetch water from a source away from their home. Every effort must be taken to take the water to these households. In the same vein, Americans should drastically reduce their water wastage especially in their diets. It is not enough for them to conserve the water coming from their taps. They need to eat food that doesn't deplete water due to the sheer volume of water needed to produce and process it.

My white plate was finally empty. My stomach was full. I reached for the glass of water beside the plate but it was empty.

Water is a finite resource.

Friday, 22 April 2016 00:00

146 Shillings

Written by

Mama Njeri looked at the price tag on the supermarket shelf unbelievingly.

Ksh 146. This was the new price of a 2kg packet of maize.

‘Excuse me,’Mama Njeri called a bored looking supermarket attendant with a faded blue overcoat.

‘How much is a 2kg packet of maize flour?’

He pointed at the price tag and said in a matter-of-fact way, ‘one hundred and forty six shillings.’

She looked at him wide-eyed, scared, like he was merciless gunman aiming an AK-47 at her.

‘One hundred and forty six shillings,’ she repeated quietly in an unbelieving mumble that only her could hear. Just two months earlier, she had come to the same supermarket and stood at this same spot. But back then, the price tag on the dusty shelf read differently.

Ksh 73.

Only two months ago. Seventy three shillings. And now, Ksh 146. Double. In two months. Yet her salary as a receptionist in a downtown pharmacist hadn’t doubled. It was still nine thousand shillings.

She looked at the price tag again and she saw her three daughters, Njeri, Ciiru and Soni, who were aged eleven, nine and six respectively.

Njeri was bright for her age. She was index 3 in her class 8 at Buruburu 1 Primary School. In two months time, she would be sitting for her Kenya Certificate of Primary Education. Her mother was sure that Njeri would pass her exams with flying colors and earn admission to Alliance Girls High School. The admission letter would come with a list of things to be bought and fees to be paid. And it was up to her to find the money.

Mama Njeri was standing in front of the maize flour shelf like a robot. Her brown eyes were still transfixed on the price tag.

Ksh 146.

As she gazed at the hiked figure, she saw the smiling face of Ciru her second daughter. What a happy nine year old! Ciiru was the sunshine of the family, always smiling. Every time Mama Njeri looked at her second born daughter, she always felt a flicker of joy in her heart.

Ciiru’s father had been a happy man too. She should have married him but he had a wife. He was such a happy man, ever laughing. Even when he told her that their affair had to end, he did so with a smile. The same smile that she always saw in her daughter Ciiu. The affair might have been a mistake but Ciiru wasn’t. Her daughter deserved the best in life. The very best.

Ksh 146.

Mama Njeri saw the figure again and released a deep, troubled sigh. Two months was all it had taken for the price to double. The cost of living was becoming too high, slipping beyond her nine-thousand shillings salary.

She looked again at the new price and saw the face of Soni her last born. That girl could sing. She sang when she woke up in the morning, sang when she ate and sang before she slept. These days, her favourite song was Justin Bieber’s ‘Sorry.’ Before then, it had been Willy Paul and Gloria Muliro’s ‘Sitolia.’ It was clear to all who knew her that Soni had a musical gift and would one day be a great singer. But only if that gift was nurtured. It was up to her mother to ensure that her daughter’s gift was nurtured. And that would cost money.

She was the guardian, protector and provider of her three amazing daughters. They were her dreams come true and it was up to her to make their dreams come true. But translating dreams into reality cost money. Money that was now becoming increasingly scarce due to skyrocketing prices.

She looked one final time at the price tag and with a heavy heart picked one packet, instead of two.

Tuesday, 01 December 2015 00:00

Groundnuts are in season in London

Written by

An African in London has almost inevitably gone through many processes of migration, evolution, adaptation and adjustment, fighting against this or that tradition, longing for one place or another, and rejecting some or other throwback to the home land. But what happens when three young men – Londoners, artists, patissiers, visionaries, Africans – embrace their African roots in such a way as to turn it into something current, modern, even progressive? You get a London food movement called The Groundnut and you get swathes of intrigued foodies turning up to see what comes on an African plate.

Duval, Folayemi and Jacob traipse in and out of the kitchen, flitting between their cavern of wondrous creations from which warm, comforting smells escape and waft into the dining room. They make interested conversation with the diners who have come to see what The Groundnut is all about, all three of them trying to ascertain what their diners tastes are, what brought them here, and, quite simply, who they are.

After all, these 30 or so diners will soon be sitting down to eat the food which will be served from their kitchen, and borne of their origins and creativity. Sometimes conversation gets cut short as one of the three suddenly looks up and scoots off back to the kitchen to turn something on or off or round or down.

These three young men don’t look like typical chefs, nor do they look like African home-cooks. Their coy smiles, modest nods in response to compliments and genuine pride make them more approachable than anyone that normally inhabits a professional kitchen, and yet they’re developing a reputation as leaders in the rebirth of African cuisine in the UK, with their names even stretching across the Atlantic in a tendril of groundnut-infused marketing and online presence.

They wear bright colours on tailored jeans, afros on sun-deprived faces and have a vaster knowledge of Pan-African food than most Africans who are restricted to the cuisine of their country alone. They’ve travelled, read, eaten their grandmother’s food, and realised that the food of their ancestors has a place reserved for it on the London scene.

Their cookbook stands on the mantelpiece near the doorway, containing many of the secrets of the aromas escaping form the wondrous cavern of culinary creations on the other side of the room, and some break the suspense and open the book, seeing how the trio create their groundnut stew, their fried fish, the plantain crisps they serve before every dinner and the vegetable concoctions which contain more flavours than any vegetable patch could ever aspire to.

This isn’t a restaurant; it’s a dinner, with a group of people, on one special night. However many times these dinners are held, each night has a unique vibe about it, the menu different each night and the people crowded round the tamarind water and blackboard menu never having yet experienced The Groundnut. With my two friends we’re therefore going through this for the first time, and all that we know we’re guaranteed is an array of African dishes served up, in South-East London, over the course of three taste-rich hours.

After serving the tamarind water (sweet and refreshing with not a hint of bitterness) and plantain crisps (natural and airy), and having made everyone feel at ease, our hosts invite us to take a seat and await the dishes that we’ve seen in words but want to feel on our forks. No introduction is necessary, and the food comes out from the kitchen on brightly coloured platters, black slabs and eye-popping utensils.

First we’re treated to a groundnut soup, which we all try to eat with the celery stick standing to attention in the pool of rich-coloured nutty goodness, before using a spoon to ensure no drop is left. We almost forget about the black-eyed bean akara (bite-sized Nigerian bean patties), until, that is, we taste them, and then we know that we’ll never forget them.

When the main dish comes out we realise that we need to gear up to swoop over East and Western Africa, dipping into countries and regions as the dishes guide us there, then zoom out to get a vision of Africa as a whole, as all the dishes come together in a complementary continental ensemble.

Fried mackerel that falls off its bones invitingly, Ethiopian berbere beetroot which taste of sweet, warm, edible earth, fluffy rice to soak all of it up, green coconut relish, glistening strands of raw green vegetables and black beans and smoked fish dip. The aftermath is groaning chairs, satisfied arched backs, belly pats and satisfied smiles from both diners and cooks.

A refreshing plate of green mango and iridescent pomegranate adorns each table, appearing from nowhere, along with groundnut milk to wash down the sweet, sticky, nutty homemade sweets it accompanies, that make our fingers stick together and oblige us to lick fingers and lips unabashedly. We all know that we’ve just eaten something special, and the chefs can now sit back and relax with us, enjoying the evening, and getting personal opinions on the many foods we’ve just eaten for the first time.

None of the ingredients The Groundnut cooks use are foreign or hard to come by; they’re all reasonably familiar, and perhaps often incorporated in our own dishes whether Asian, European or American, but never quite in this way, with colours and flavours mixing like on a modern artist’s palette. But unlike highbrow art, these masterful dishes can be recreated (to some extent), using the cookbook, and with a little help from the memories of the foods we had that night.

Thursday, 29 October 2015 00:00

Travelling food that needs a visa

Written by

The bright green squeak and crack as the leaf is pulled from its staunch stalk never leaves me indifferent, especially when it’s being done in the name of a meal which I’m about to enjoy. The house was surrounded by them, so we never cooked too little. In fact, we always ended up with enough sukuma to feed the both of us for 2 days, or us and our friends and neighbours for one satisfying meal.

Maybe it’s not the leaf itself, but the mix of it with onions, tomatoes and ample seasoning which we added to it during the preparation. The leaf is the sturdy vehicle for other, familiar tastes which almost everyone, be they Kenyan Tanzanian, European, or nomadic, know and love. Whichever way I looked at it, I would have been happy eating it every day.

My Kenyan friends couldn’t understand me. Though they tolerated it as an accompaniment every now and again when it really was the inevitable choice of greens to accompany a roast chicken or beef stew, they would never choose it given other possibilities.

They had grown up in Nairobi suburbs being forced to eat sukuma wiki all week, and so it could rightly have just been called ‘all wiki’. They couldn’t even bring themselves to laugh about it, as it conjured up memories of harder times when there weren’t any other options of foodstuffs. It was either sukuma, or nothing.

The next day I wanted fish with my sukuma. Despite living by lake Victoria, it was surprisingly difficult to get fresh, whole fish cooked on demand. The last time I had gone to the fish market to pick myself up a portion of the day’s catch I realized that it was the fishermen’s day off, so I ate my sukuma alone.

That day, I went to one of my favourite hangouts, a pub-cum-restaurant, where the fish and the pork were both succulent, fresh, tasty and cheap, and the music was cheesy and consistent. When my tilapia came, with a side of sukuma and a satellite dish-sized plate of chips, I loosened my belt and prepared for the gastronomic onslaught. I was elevated a little closer to heaven with each bite of tender fish and salty sukuma.

My return to Europe just one week later brought me back down with a thud. At the supermarket I scoured the aisles looking for sukuma and asking the shop assistants if they could help me, only to be laughed at, and at one point even told by a Kenyan shop assistant “You can’t find that here my dear, here we have all of the good veg, no sukuma!”

At the fish counter the tilapia they had was dissected into bland, limp fillets which were barely recognizable, and they didn’t carry the traces of a lifetime spent in Lake Victoria, they barely remembered their brief cultivation in artificial fish farms.

Although it is a delicate-fleshed fish with a mild taste that lends itself well to most fish-based dishes, the tilapia fish is often rejected by the European market and is therefore not always the easiest to come by. It has one of the lowest import duty fees of all fish in the UK, and is also being increasingly produced in the south of the country, using artificial heat, or underground heated pools to grow them. Tilapia can grow to full size in just six months, allowing professionals to cash in in a flash.

But what do the East Africans of Europe do to satisfy the same cravings that I have? All too often they have to find alternatives. As with any migration, it leads to compromises and denial of certain key aspects of your roots. Chapatis you can cook at home, pineapples you can find in the supermarket (though they’re far blander and dryer than the home-grown varieties), but there’s no iconic ginger ale and sadly very little goat to be found, other than wandering the countryside.

Adjusting to a new country’s culinary customs is one of the hardest aspects of leaving your homeland and saying goodbye to the things you hold dear. Of course, financial struggles, discrimination, saying goodbye to loved ones and day-to-day difficulties outweigh this in importance, but not having your traditional foodstuffs can be one of the most all-invading and personal struggles, and one which brings together diaspora communities with the greatest fervor.

European and American expats in Africa often bulk-buy their favourite jams and cheeses on trips back home to last them the few months between trips, or make arrangements with luxury goods suppliers in nearby cities, but this isn’t always so easy to achieve when sitting on the other side of the migratory super highway.

Africans in Europe struggle to acquire home comforts in large quantities and there is a much smaller, less flourishing market for such trade. In London you can find ugali flour in certain specialist shops, but if you live in the north of the country you might have to make do with potatoes.

The system is one step short of asking for visas for food items, what with the amount of hurdles you have to jump through to bring edible goods in and out of certain countries.

As far as I know there’s only one true East African restaurant in the capital of the United Kingdom, which is a frightful statistic when considered in light of the fact that more than 200,000 Kenyans alone live in England (with the highest concentration being in the capital).

East Africa holds the secrets of an internationally unexploited cuisine, which remains a mystery to many. Tourists arrive in Kenya or Tanzania and almost without fail ask “So what’s the food like here?”

And often, though thankfully not in every case, “Do you eat, like, elephants and stuff?”

Certain chefs and independent restaurants are introducing East African ingredients or features to their menus, but there are very few examples of the area’s cooking traditions being pushed to the fore, and so the lack of native ingredients will continue until somebody says ‘enough is enough! Bring me some Lake Victoria tilapia and a bunch of sukuma wiki before I starve!’

Tuesday, 06 October 2015 00:00

The Forgotten People of East Pokot

Written by

The last time that I had seen such dry, parched land was in my early twenties when I made my maiden trip to Kaikor village in Turkana. I remember how shocked I was when our rickety truck huffed on in land so dry that it felt as if it would crack open at any moment and swallow the helpless truck. It was as if in a previous life, a massive flood had swept through that land and left behind nothing but rocks, sand and shrivelled thorn trees.

A decade later, I was in the same dry embrace of what environmentalists refer to as dryland. But for the people of Chemoling’ot in East Pokot, it wasn’t really dryland, it was just home. The only home that the old, old blind lady before me had known for the possibly one century she had been on planet earth.

The old lady’s eyes were wide open. If Lomada, the Secretary General of Chemoling’ot Youth Group hadn’t whispered into my ear that she was blind, I would have wondered why she was staring at me with such intensity and curiosity.  Was something wrong with my green safari shirt? I would have wondered. Or maybe a sukuma wiki (kale) remnant was stubbornly sticking out of my mid upper teeth again?

I was the one doing all the staring as my small video camera focused on the old lady’s face. Her wrinkles were just as dry as the land beneath her bare feet. Huge, circular green-yellow earrings dangled quietly from the big holes in her ears. Because half of her teeth were no longer in her mouth, it seemed as if she was grinning or grimacing constantly. How old was she? I wondered. Had she ever visited Nairobi, or even the nearer Nakuru? Had she ever eaten three meals consistently for even a week?

A cold trickle flooded the back section of my neck, startling me and yanking my attention away from the old lady and the questions in my mind. My left hand instinctively sprinted backward to wipe away what I soon realized was profuse sweat.

It was hot. And dry and dusty. Carol, one of the three friends who had invited me to come and film a short documentary about East Pokot had a layer of dust all over her round chocolate face. She smiled at me and gave me a thumbs-up. Carol was a dreamer like me and we both imagined that the documentary I was filming would usher lasting change into East Pokot.

‘Bwak,’ Carol had said during breakfast earlier that morning, ‘wouldn’t it be awesome if people here would start enjoying such a breakfast every single day!’

I had remained silent, feeling guilty about the piece of chapati that was a few inches away from my eager and ready mouth. Equally silent were the two other friends who had joined us for the eight-hour journey from the traffic jam of Nairobi to the hunger jam of East Pokot. Ann was light-skinned, dreadlocked and talkative. Ken was light-skinned, tall and introverted. The two of them, together with Carol and I were all idealists who were trying to be pragmatists.

A shrill chant invaded the atmosphere. It felt like someone was wailing, when in fact, it was singing. An old man (most of the approximately one hundred in the gathering appeared quite old although many were not as old as they appeared) was the lead soloist of the chant/wail.

Ajugakolomaiiiitaporatiiiiiikameeeeenaposaakkaaaaa..! This is how his chant sounded in my ears, like one long word that was occasionally interrupted by an even longer exclamation mark.

I shifted the camcorder from the old lady to the old man. There was a striking resemblance between them and I almost asked Lomada if they were brother and sister but another gripping site demanded the attention of my panting Sony camera.

Wild fruits for breakfast, lunch and dinner

A little boy, bare-chested with dazzling dark hair, was devouring tiny greenish wild fruits with the speed and fervour of someone who had to be very very hungry.

‘Those are wild berries’ Lomada said in his high tenor voice, ‘that’s the only food available to many of these people during extremely dry months like this one.’

Dryland. One word within which live all manner of human travails. One word that contains one million hunger pangs that never go away.

No poverty. This is the very first Sustainable Development Goal (SDG). The little boy with dazzling hair was born in the same poverty that afflicted his father and grandfather.

Zero hunger. The little boy’s sister, who was seated next to him throwing one berry after another into her mouth, is not aware that the second SDG is calling for zero hunger. But she is so aware of the hunger pangs in her stomach that she has accepted them as her unquestionable plight.

Good health and wellbeing. This third SDG is alien to the old man who was leading the long chant with longer exclamation marks. He had never been to a hospital. For him, ailment that can’t be treated with the few herbs that can stand the dryland heat is meant to linger on in his ever frail body.

The old chanting man, the old lady who looks like him, the little boy with shiny hair plus his sister and all other people in Pokot, Turkana and all of Africa’s drylands were mostly not helped by the soon-to-be-defunct Millennium Development Goals. Only time will tell whether the Sustainable Development Goals will be any different.

All I know is that what I experienced with my own eyes, what I continue to see from the video that we filmed, are people who have been let down by a world that often spends more money to talk about their hunger than actually feeding them and helping  them to feed themselves in the long term.

Thursday, 20 August 2015 00:00

A Child's Search for Food

Written by

In his eyes, there was sadness, but his face was excited as he pulled ahead of two other children and ran towards the kitchen area. In his tiny right hand, was a small plastic tin that still bore the brown remnants of the previous day’s food.

Moments later, Ejoka left the kitchen area with nothing in his tin but the brown remnants. The left over porridge that he had hoped to get was already over. On this bright Thursday afternoon, Ejoka’s plight was anything but bright. Equally glum was the mood of the Red Cross volunteers when they saw Ejoka and many children like him going without food.

Linda and the others had come face to face with hunger and they were finding it increasingly difficult to deal with the situation. Staring desperately at them during meal times, were the weary faces of dozens of children. After dinner, the hungry children would descend on the leftovers, their small hands grabbing whatever morsel of food they could.

Though seasoned in disaster relieve, the Red Cross volunteers never got used these heart-wrenching scenes. They put on brave faces as they were distributing food but inside, they were agonizing greatly. Though many children benefited from this food distribution, many more went back to their dilapidated homes with hunger pangs still wrangling and rumbling within.

Ejoka was a favorite of many of the volunteers. Said Linda of this likeable kid, “Ejoka always has a ready smile. Unfortunately, his eyes always have a sad look.” This sad look owed its existence to nurture and nature. The personable child had been brought up to believe that essential as it was, food was a rare commodity that had to be desperately searched for, fought for and even stolen.

His parents’ brutal death had left him the troubled ten years of his life as his only weapon of survival. They also left him two younger twin sisters aged five years and a nine month old baby. Inevitably, the infant died only a month after its parents’ demise. The cause of death had been severe malnutrition. Fending for his twin sisters and himself was no mean task for Ejoka. Searching for food in this foodless land was a near impossible task for a mere child.

Whenever lady luck brought him some food, it would be responsibly and hungrily shared with his siblings.

Hungry and weary, volunteers trudged back to their truck. They too had run out of food to distribute. It was lunchtime, and the scorching heat was baking them into walking zombies. Although their own food was inside the truck, none of them felt like eating.

So they sat in the truck’s shadow and listened as their leader addressed them, “the harsh realities of this place call on us all to…” his short speech was cut short by loud shouts.

“Thief! Thief! Catch him!”

A blanket of silence enveloped everyone as they all turned to see the thief. Running towards the truck as fast as his tiny legs could carry him was Ejoka. The running was awkward as his tiny hands were tightly clutching a mug of orange juice and a big piece of ugali. Unfortunately, he stumbled and fell, spilling the tiny commodity into the parched ground.

The silence of the watching volunteers was broken by Linda, “Oh my God!” she exclaimed as she ran towards Ejoka. “I was taking the food to my sisters,” he cried hysterically.

The unbearable heat was forgotten as the volunteers beheld the sad sight in front of them.


Their feelings were summed up in the barely audible words of Linda, “I think we, the people of the world, are the thieves. We have robbed Ejoka of his childhood and basic right to food.”     

Monday, 17 August 2015 00:00

My Favourite less-than-4-dollar Meal

Written by

The date was 30th August 2008 and my super dad, whom we all call Papa, was giving the father-of-the-bride speech for his eldest daughter who happens to be me – so yes – I was the blushing bride. He is not a man of many words; he chooses to sing them instead. And so after singing a song he had especially composed for me –Kuolewa ni kitu kizuri (Marriage is a Beautiful thing) – the very few words he spoke told of how his princess (MeJ) loves green vegetables. And right he was.

      If I did not love my Kenyan grass-fed beef so much, I would probably have been a vegetarian. But I left that for my sister Gish, who would wake up from her death bed if shown a plate of vegetables. And one of the vegetable dishes that I love to the moon and back is Mkunde leaves in Peanut Sauce. (Mkunde is Swahili for Cow Peas). The very soft ones make the best dish.

      The ones that are literally uprooted form the ground as opposed to just plucking the leaves. My mother would make me ‘space’ them in the garden by uprooting them while still young to give the ones that remained abundant space to fruit bountifully. Being a first born girl comes with its joys and sorrows. I would be ‘lectured’ emphatically on how I ought to be a great example to Gish, Cathy and Joyce – my 3 baby sisters. On the other hand, when the 3 did not reach the folk’s expectations, they would be ‘lectured’ on how they should try and be like me – much to my glee.

Anyway - So here goes the recipe for my favourite less-than-4-dollar meal.


§  6 bunches of soft Mkunde leaves – plucked, washed and roughly chopped

§  1 bunch spring onions - chopped

§  2 red onions finely chopped

§  3 tomatoes – peeled and finely chopped

§  1 cup roasted peanuts – milled or crushed in a kinu (pestle and mortar)

§  Corn  Oil

§  Black Pepper and salt

§  1 cup Hot Water


§  Place the mkunde leaves in a pot without adding any more water and steam gently on low heat. ( make sure it is washed then chopped; not the other way round)

§  Once the water diminishes completely, set the leaves aside.

§  On the same pot, put about 2 table spoons of Corn oil.

§  Once it is hot, add the finely chopped red onion and slightly brown it.

§  Add the black pepper and let it cook for a while, and then add the spring onions. (I always like to add my spices to the hot oil and let them cook for a while. It really brings out the flavours – plus – the aroma, the neighbours will come knocking!)

§  Be careful that the spring onions do not burn, add the peeled and chopped tomatoes.

§  Stir and let it cook on low heat for a while till it’s cooked through to a thick paste. Add about a half of the hot water and then add the crushed or milled peanuts.

§  Cook for about 5 minutes stirring continuously then eventually add the steamed Mkunde leaves.

§  You can add some more hot water depending on how you would like the consistency to be.

I always serve this with Sima (maize flour porridge cooked and thickened to a solid state) although my eccentric sister Cathy prefers this with white bread. Well, I guess at the end of the day it depends on someone’s palate!



Friday, 14 August 2015 00:00

Chips and The World Environment Day

Written by

Good people, Friday, 05th June, is the World Environment Day. Despite my green credentials, I had never really been fully enamoured with this day. I am not really a big fan of such special topical days.

This anti-holiday mentality once led me to gradually fall out of love with Christmas. Once I asked mama how we can be sure that Jesus was actually born on 25th December and she wasn’t too pleased with the question. She just started humming ‘Joy to the world the Lord is born...’ as she walked away.

But that was then. I have since softened my stance and I no longer mind giving special topical days a bear hug. There is absolutely nothing wrong in setting aside a given day to spotlight and celebrate something or someone.

‘I celebrate love every day,’ my cousin Sula likes to say every time Valentine comes along. But I always suspect that beneath the declaration are economic woes that push him to rebel against this day of love.

I digress. We were talking about the World Environment Day which is celebrated every year on 05th June.

My first time to even know that such a day exists was in 2005. I had joined the United Nations Environment Programme in 2004 to coordinate a youth programme and when 2005 came along, we were constantly reminded in our official emails about this hallowed day for the environment. The theme that year was ‘Green Cities’ and the slogan was, ‘Plan for the Planet!’ 

Since UNEP is the papa n mama of the World Environment Day in terms of running it, there is no escaping this epic green day when you work at UNEP. This day was established by the United Nations General Assembly in 1972, making it 43 years old this year. Same age as thousands of people including the late Notorious B.I,G, the living Cameron Diaz, the rapping Eminem, the dunking Shaquille O’Neal, the acting Ben Affleck, the scoring Zinedine Zidane and Gabrielle Union, one of my favourite actresses.

That 2005 World Environment Day may not have been as beautiful as Gabrielle but it sure was interesting.

In my mind, the term ‘green cities’ elicited an image of cities painted in green. I even imagined the entire Kenyatta International Conference Centre painted in green. Wouldn’t that truly make Nairobi the Green City in the Sun! I thought to myself as I munched the chicken sandwiches that my diet mostly constituted of back then. They cost 70 Kenya Shillings, an amount that I had really frowned on initially since the same amount would get me two plates of steaming Chips in the City Centre. But this was the cheapest meal on the United Nations Campus at Gigiri so it quickly became my staple diet.

So what does Chips have to do with the World Environment Day again? Well, everything.

The theme for this year is ‘Sustainable Consumption and Production’ with the slogan being more poetic, ‘Seven Billion Dreams. One Planet. Consume with Care.’

Before you dismiss this slogan as the usual green chatter, here are some facts about sustainable consumption, mostly gleaned from UNEP’s highly informative website:

One third of all food produced globally each year, which is 300 million tonnes, is wasted. This waste costs the global economy a crazy one trillion dollars a year.  Going by Kenya’s 2014/2015 budget of 1 trillion, this is enough money to run Kenya for about 55 years.

Our global food system is responsible for 80 per cent of deforestation and is the largest single cause of species and biodiversity loss.

A beef burger on your lunch plate could require an incredible 2400 litres of water to produce. Would you like fries with that? Add a another 100 litres, not to mention the impact of pesticides and non-degradable packaging.

I bet you didn’t know about these crazy figures that are just a tip of the iceberg. But now you do, thanks to the World Environment Day.

That my friends, is why this day is important. To inform and inspire green, sustainable action that will make our world a greener, better place.


So try your best, even if you keep failing, to eat food that is right for your body and for the earth. And don’t waste it. Please.