If you are going to live in Kibera for any extended period of time, you will have to (I mean, get to) eat quite a few meals. Unfortunately, food in Kibera is a bit different than in the States. And by “a bit different,” I mean completely and utterly different in every way.

Strange new flavors, eating with your hands, chewing little boiled fish that you eat whole while their dead, vacant eyes look up at you in pleading supplication… It’s different.

But you don’t have to go in unprepared! This culture guide will give you a head start the next time you find yourself eating in Kibera.

Learn the Right Technique

To eat like a true Kenyan, you have to forget about using a spoon and fork. In Kibera, everyone eats with their hands. If you want to impress your hosts (or at least not spill food all over yourself), follow these easy steps.

  • Grab a big chunk of ugali and begin rolling it into a ball with your hand (Feels a lot like warm Play-Doh, but don’t think about that).
  • Stick your thumb into the middle of the ugali ball, creating a kind of bowl (Again, you will be tempted to think about Play-Doh, but again, it’s a bad idea).
  • Use the new ugali bowl to scoop up some meat or veggies, and stick the whole thing in your mouth (did you ever eat Play-Doh as a kid?).
  • Chew (What do you mean it tastes weird? You were thinking about Play-Doh, weren’t you? I told you not to. No wonder you don’t like it!).

It’s as easy as that!

Start off Slow

Ugali.  The staple food for many Kenyan dishes.

Ugali. The staple food for many Kenyan dishes.

In Kibera, as in the rest of Kenya, it is an expectation that you will love the food and will want seconds. Because Kenyan culture is so hospitable, your hosts will almost always dish up seconds the moment you’ve cleaned your plate.

But it’s not like you’re eating meatloaf and mashed potatoes. In front of you is probably a plate of steaming, jiggly maize meal porridge (ugali), a big heap of strangely bitter shredded vegetables (sukuma wiki) and possibly some fried goat meat with huge chunks of fat still clinging on. Yummy.

So how do you make it through the meal and still honor your hosts?

Well, one option is to fall in love with ugali and sukuma. Took me about 11 months, but it happened. I now legitimately crave it. But if you don’t have 11 months to spare, try this…

Start off slow. Take less than you know you can eat the first time around. That way, you can clean your plate (honoring your hosts) and take seconds (honoring them even more!). I have used this technique many times over the years, and it almost always works (except of course when they assume you love the food and heap on thirds… oops).

Smile and Think of a Happy Place

Oh boy!  Omena again!

Oh boy! Omena again!

Let’s face it. You may enjoy a few foods here. You may even consider yourself a brave eater with an iron stomach. But there will be something in Kibera that you just can’t seem to get (or keep) down.

For me, that food is omena. Little tiny fish that you eat whole. After being fried or boiled, they taste a little like salty tree bark with a hint of old fisherman sweat.

There is only one option of how to proceed in these situations. Grin, chew and swallow. Take your mind to another place and don’t look at what you’re eating (especially if it still has eyes).

Once you’ve become a seasoned veteran of pretending to like something that makes you gag, you’ll even be able to convince your hosts that everything is great!

In fact, I think I’ve become pretty good at this. To see what I mean, check out this video of me trying omena for the first time. Remember… old fisherman sweat.

Don’t Anthropomorphize Your Future Food

Growing up, I almost never visited a farm. The whole concept of roosters and cows and goats was foreign to me. When I ate a burger, the beef was simply grilled meat. And meat was something you took out of the fridge when you were ready to make a burger. In other words, no animals were involved.

Naturally, without thinking of animals as food, I tended to think of them the way they were portrayed in Saturday morning cartoons. Of course they had emotions and personalities and deeply rooted character flaws. Cows were old ladies, dogs were self-confident men, goats were morons…

Toby the chicken.  A bit rough around the edges, but he's got a heart of gold.  Wait, what did you say?  We're EATING Toby?

Toby the chicken. A bit rough around the edges, but he's got a heart of gold. Wait, what did you say? We're EATING Toby?

But now that I spend a lot of time in developing nations, my interactions with real life animals are a lot more frequent. Even in Kibera, there are goats and chickens and cows running around all over the place.

So because of my very un-rural upbringing, I tend to give all of these animals names and personalities. Doris the cow. Biff the dog. Ted the idiot goat. As they go about their business doing animal things, I can laugh at how they act and imagine their conversations developing.

Of course, there is a problem here. The problem comes in when you have to eat Ted the idiot goat. All of his hilarious mannerisms and quirky personality traits tend to make chewing roasted Ted meat a little gross.

As I eat omena, for example, all I can think about are the hundreds of tiny Nemos in my bowl, looking up at me with their pleading eyes and asking, “Sir? Have you seen my father?”

I’m sorry Nemo, but no. You’ll never see him again. Munch.

As you can see, when you’re in Kibera it’s probably better to leave the anthropomorphization to the cartoons…

Think of All the Stories You’ll Tell!

The final tip for today is just this. When you are eating ugali and sukuma with your hands by the light of a lantern, when you are chewing on roasted maize as you walk through the slum, as you slaughter hundreds of baby fish who are just trying to find their way home, you are creating more stories to tell people back in the States.

With your new barrage of fascinating slum food stories, you’ll be the life of every party!

Hmmm… Now that I think about it, I wonder. Why do I get invited to so few parties these days?

————

Well, I hope that these handy tips help you the next time you are eating food in Kibera.

And remember, It’s always wise to think long and hard before making vows like “I’ll try anything once…” Nobody wants to have Nemo’s blood on their hands.

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About the Author: Barry is the founder and Executive Director of World Next Door. A storyteller, traveller and giant nerd, he lives to compel suburban Americans to get engaged with social justice and find their place in God's kingdom revolution. His ultimate dream is to adopt a pet monkey named Kevin.

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Comments

  1. Amy Osgood said... 

    Reply

    July 10th, 2009 at 7:55 am  

    I have to laugh at your video. I’ve seen your dad make the same gracious expression upon hearing an idea or comment from another person he may not agree with. :)

    Disassociating meat from an aminal is pretty wise, but I did live on a farm for a short time. Some day I’ll have to tell you what my sister and I did to my brother when he ate his first hamburger after having to send his 4H calf to the meat locker. Yeah, it’s pretty mean.

  2. Dave Rod said... 

    Reply

    July 10th, 2009 at 8:33 am  

    LOL! Nothing says haute cuisine like a bowl of Play-Doh and old fisherman sweat with a side of idiot Ted.

    World Next Door meets Bizarre Foods!

    Thanks Bar…started my day with a laugh!

    btw…do you serve red or white wine with Nemo?

  3. rob said... 

    Reply

    July 10th, 2009 at 11:10 am  

    Reminded me of the mopani worm we were expected to eat in Zambia (think caterpiller). Yummmm. so many chewy little legs to pick between your teeth.
    Yet, this is what they must eat. Wow – once again I’m reminded of my blessings and the greater needs before me.

  4. Dave Quigley said... 

    Reply

    July 10th, 2009 at 7:11 pm  

    Fisherman sweat! Nice mind picture there – especially as it involves the tastebuds. Having eaten some wierd, chewy, squiggly things in my life – many vivid memories came rushing back! Thanks for the rush.

  5. shelli said... 

    Reply

    July 11th, 2009 at 10:57 am  

    In general, I love Kenyan food. I LOVE ugali, all types of stews and veggies, irio, nyama choma. And hand me a chapati any day! But… I haven’t had omena… fisherman sweat… really? You’ve ruined it for me.

  6. Brad Ruggles said... 

    Reply

    July 12th, 2009 at 11:13 am  

    Eating Nemo…my kids will be so upset. 😉

    And yes, that stuff does look like Playdough.

    I always love the inside looks into different culture’s eating habits.

  7. Jessica Shewan said... 

    Reply

    July 12th, 2009 at 2:08 pm  

    Ohh…I’m so glad I tried omena before I read this article. Now I’ll have to come up with a very happy place to block out the hint of fisherman sweat. At least my host family recognizes that it’s an acquired taste. I’m still working on it!

  8. joe ogutu said... 

    Reply

    July 13th, 2009 at 8:40 am  

    kudos,that creates a picture in the mind.I loved the ‘Stick your thumb into the middle of the ugali’ part.

  9. Amy Sorrells said... 

    Reply

    July 21st, 2009 at 9:58 am  

    This is why some people are called to go on missions trips and others are called to stay home and pray for you.

  10. Kristen Raves said... 

    Reply

    August 5th, 2009 at 12:09 pm  

    I love sushi and all, but at least they don’t have eye balls when you eat that dead fish. We can’t wait to see you! Travel safe.

  11. Nick Kirongo said... 

    Reply

    November 12th, 2009 at 1:11 am  

    Omena has one more great value that its not nutritional, it makes you academically bright! And am not making this up, especially if you dont remove the head while preparing them. Great article

  12. Breanna Sipple said... 

    Reply

    February 16th, 2011 at 4:05 pm  

    Thanks for the tips, and for making me laugh. In the video you make it look so easy eating something you think is so gross…

  13. Mildred said... 

    Reply

    June 29th, 2011 at 7:28 am  

    omena is really tasty and very nutritious. you must have eaten omena that were not well prepared and nicely cooked with appropriate ingredients. I LOVE OMENA. Let me fry for you. you will like them.

  14. Joy Nafungo said... 

    Reply

    February 4th, 2012 at 10:19 pm  

    Hehehe…this is so funny. Next time you come to Kenya I will make you a sumptious meal of Chapati, chicken and some traditional veges we call managu. Trust me you will not think of the burger, ever!

  15. Aineah said... 

    Reply

    July 20th, 2012 at 3:13 am  

    Hahaha these meals are gorgeous u enjoyed huh?

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