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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
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
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…
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.
About the Author: Barry is the founder and 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.