Nadishi! Kenyan Cuisine

I have yet to meet a plate of Kenyan food that I didn’t like. (Okay, except for the intestines).  Meals are made of fresh, locally grown ingredients from neighborhood markets and corner stands, which make them nourishing to the body and full of flavor, though never spicy.  In my home food is cooked over a charcoal fire in a large pot called a jiko. Chunks of charcoal are sold in small buckets on the side of road throughout Kibera and beyond. At around 8 or 9pm, the family eats dinner together in the living room with Mexican soap operas (dubbed into English) or the news playing on the television. Here are a few dishes we eat on a regular basis:

  • Ugali is the staple of the Kenyan diet and is included with most meals. It is made from maize flour cooked in water until it turns into a thick cake that can be cut into triangles and enjoyed (like grits, but thicker).  Eaten with your hand, Ugali serves as a vehicle to scoop up bits of meat and side dishes. (When Ugali is not served it is often replaced with rice).
  • Sukuma wiki is made from greens similar to kale or collards, and cooked with onions and tomatoes to make a delicious and healthy accompaniment.
  • Other common side dishes include fried cabbage, cooked until soft and given salt and spices. Beans (maharagwe), lentils (dengu), maize, green bananas and potatoes are also used regularly. Finally, porridge (uji) made of millet and maize is a common comfort food.
  • Meat (nyama), roasted or stewed, of beef, chicken and sometimes goat is eaten regularly. Meat can be seen hanging in small shops along the roadside in Kibera. Ugali soaks in the juices and flavors of the stew, making for a messy but delicious experience.
  • Fresh fruits (matunda) are enjoyed after dinner or as a snack, and are perhaps more ripe, juicy and bursting with flavor than fruits I’ve had anywhere else. Mangoes (my favorite!), pineapple, melon, oranges, bananas and plump avocados are the most common fruits sold at stands that line the streets in my neighborhood.
  • Indian-influenced favorites include chapati, an addicting flatbread cooked in lard and served piping hot at local hole-in-the-wall eating spots in Kibera, and samosas, which are fried pastries stuffed with ground beef and onions and often sold by street vendors.

Tea is one of the most delightful things about life in Kenya. Life stops regularly so that people can rest and enjoy a cup of tea. It is served with breakfast, then again mid-morning, at lunch, mid-afternoon, and after dinner. The tea is brewed with milk rather than water and spiked with a delicious masala spice mix made of cardamom, nutmeg, ginger, cloves and black pepper – which leaves the slightest bit of warmth in your throat. For breakfast, tea is served with mandazi (a mildly sweet fried bread) or with jam and margarine sandwiches. Other common drinks include Coke and Fanta, as well as an array of juices made from local fruits.

As for restaurants, Nairobi has many to choose from including Indian, Chinese, American, Italian (including pizza shops), and Ethiopian, though the city has remained almost untouched by western chains. Local Java Houses provide patrons with a Starbucks-like experience with free Wi-Fi, delicious local coffee and American fare like burgers and sandwiches.

Kenyan food is truly a delight. If you are able to locate a Kenyan restaurant in your city, I recommend you give it a try!

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Swahili Language School

As a new resident of Kenya, my first task is to learn the local language: Swahili. In Swahili, the prefix “Ki” is added to the beginning of language names, so it is actually called Kiswahili. Most people I have encountered are trilingual, speaking English and Kiswahili (the two official national languages), as well as the mother tongue of their tribe. In fact, most people mix English and Kiswahili, and one sentence can go back and forth between the two several times. After learning “proper” Kiswahili in school, my next task will be to learn Sheng, the local slang – a combination of Kiswahili, English and several African dialects.

18 hours per week I attend Kiswahili classes at one of the oldest and most well-regarded language schools in the region. There I have met students of all ages and religious affiliations from across Africa (the Congo, Tanzania, Madagascar, Somalia and Sudan to name a few) and from all corners of the world including Korea, the Philippines, Germany and the United States. The school provides classes for English, Kiswahili, Arabic, Japanese, Spanish – and everything in between.

Each morning, Abby and I catch a matatu to language school through rush hour traffic which takes about an hour (see previous blog post). The school is located in a business district. The streets nearby are bustling with business people and vendors selling fresh mangoes, samosas, candies and soda. The small campus is full of lush green plants, trees and grass. Our teacher, Mwalimu (teacher) Evelyne, is a patient and lively teacher. Abby and I meet with her two-on-one in a small classroom. We spend hours learning grammar, verbs, possessives and noun classes, stopping to practice what we’ve learned and construct sentences. Just when we start feeling tired, the entire school breaks for tea like clockwork at 10:30 a.m. each morning, which is provided by the school.  During tea breaks, Abby and I spend time with our new friends from around the world at the outdoor canteen, helping them to practice conversational English and somehow sharing stories and laughter through the language barriers.

While learning a new language is not a simple task, I am starting to get the hang of Kiswahili thanks to my teacher, new friends and my host family, who are always eager to help me practice – and who laugh with me when I accidently call someone’s grandmother a toilet!

Getting Around: A Lesson in Matatus

Life is busy! I have mastered the art of a bucket shower, Swahili language classes are in full swing at four days per week as well as a class at Carlile College, two online classes through Azusa Pacific University, and a microfinance internship to start next week. That doesn’t include spending time with my friends and host family, studying, trying out new churches, and exploring Nairobi. Therefore, much of my time is spent transporting myself from one place to another via the world’s most exciting form of transportation: the matatu.

Matatus are privately-owned 15-passenger vans and Nairobi’s most widely used mode of transport. Many of them are moving works of art, adorned with decals and themed graphics ranging from political figures to musical artists to Biblical references. Some have names painted across them like “Black Reign” or “God’s Chosen One” or “Mystikal.”  My host mom will pass up several matatus before selecting the quietest one, but I prefer those with bass thumping and music blaring – usually Kenyan hip-hop, dancehall, gospel or reggae. A few matatus are even equipped with television screens that entertain passengers with music videos during their commutes to and from work. (Abby and I like to think that the louder the music is, the faster we’ll get to our destination, and generally it has proven to be true).

At each stop, matatus cram into a tiny space and a conductor hangs out the door yelling the route and price at the top of his lungs (which at first sounded like incoherent rhythmic shouting). The only way to know which route goes where is to ask a local, or figure it out by trial and error. Bodies cram into every seat and the conductor collects the fare along the way, tapping each person on the shoulder to pay up. The price of a ride varies depending on the time of day and route, but generally costs between 10 and 40 Kenyan Schillings (approximately 12 to 60 U.S. cents). Experiencing Nairobi traffic in a matatu is half the fun. Traffic jams are inevitable at most times of the day, but matatu drivers are experts at flying over medians and squeezing through impossibly small spaces, occasionally side-swiping a car, though stopping only if a necessary part of the vehicle has fallen off.

Matatus are also notorious for being the most likely place to get pick-pocketed. My local friends have taught me some of the most common tricks of matatu thieves. For example, someone may cover part of your bag with a newspaper that they are “reading,” while pick-pocketing or even cutting your bag open with a knife to steal its contents. Or the rider next to you may “accidently” drop coins on the floor by your feet so that when you kindly bend down to pick them up your bag will be snatched. But as unsettling as it may sound to some, matatu rides are just one of the many things that keep life interesting in Nairobi – and they will get you just about anywhere you need to go!