I left Kenya at the end of my residency program on Sept. 14. Kenya, I’ll be back…!
“One who is climbing a tree, must still come down.”
I am truly grateful for the opportunities before me, for the ability to tell the people’s stories and for the gift of words. Life’s joys can only be actualized by fulfillment and because of the goodness of others, I am reaching fulfillment.
Are you’re wondering what in the world I’m talking about?
“One who is climbing a tree, must still come down.”
I heard this proverb when watching a Nigerian movie one evening. An old Igbo man was talking to his son who had become rich and had forgotten his “roots.” The proverb stuck with me. (Africans are so eloquently expressive and such aphorisms are like ripe fruits in the mouth: sweet, wholesome and good for the soul.) Everyone’s goal in life is to progress, move forward, grow…climb a tree. But, the ground is still below and we mustn’t forget the ground from whence we came…and still come. We must come down, specifically to thank.
I write this for those who have helped me and as much as I can vocally express thanks, I believe nothing is more solid than the written word.
So, there is a man at the Medill School of Journalism named Bill. He is the one who coordinated this one-of-a-kind opportunity to report in Kenya. He worked hard to make it happen and while I crisscross from Nyerere Road to University Way to Harry Thuku Road to Kijabe Street and enter Longonot Place to take the elevator to the 3rd floor and walk into the K24 newsroom, I have to remember Bill. He’s not only a journalist and an instructor; he is a generous fellow whose eyes twinkle when he smiles. I’m serious guys, they twinkle!
Bobby, my longest- running friend; the quintessential, “good” buddy who listens and says exactly what you need to hear at the right time. Bobby, thank you for making me laugh, being my friend, encouraging me and never thinking that my goals are just “too big.” I can never, ever, never forget someone like Bobby; such a friend is hard to find in this life and I know this all too well.
And there’s Tope…. the slender, slim-eyed wonder of a friend whose soft, gentle voice leaves a lifelong impact. Tope has not only helped to guide my goals but has made me feel important. Said that… I’m not weird, but unique. Being the lofty, idealist, dreamer that I am, I’ve lived most of my life with my head in the clouds, and it can, indeed, get very lonely in those clouds. Tope sat next to me in the clouds. Good company. I thank him.
My other good friend is also a high-flying dreamer, but he is also like solid ground. And when he gets quiet, brings his palms together and raises them to his center of his face and just…watches, I know he’s thinking…deep thoughts. My thinking, dreaming, ever-solid friend told me not worry when Bill told me that some of the security concerns in Kenya may affect the university’s decision to approve of my trip. When Bill told me everything had went through and all the paperwork had been approved, my friend was no less excited as I was. The opportunities that he saw for me in Kenya were different, yet just as noble as the ones that I saw for myself. He believes I can do just about anything. Great friends come in divine packages like Uzoma.
And there are others, not a lot because I keep a small circle, but there are others. Shoulders I have mounted so I can grab the tree that I am climbing. Pastor Mike. Uncle Nche. Aunty Ngozi. Aunty Deborah. Uncle Ifeanyi. Dr. White, who exposed me to the beauty of anthropology. Mrs. Hobbs, who, when I was 11-years-old, told me that I must be a writer.
And the believers of God.
My younger siblings-three sisters and three brothers. Though I’m the oldest, I tell you, I’ve learned more from them than they’ve learned from me. We are a silly bunch and the hundreds of hours I’ve spent laughing with them are more valuable than gold. I wouldn’t trade my siblings for anything in this world.
Nurturing. Lifting. Encouraging. Teaching. Correcting. Loving. Valuing. Listening. Learning. Feeding. That’s what my parents do for me. They are helping me to live a rich and full life. I believe that a dog can only be a dog. An eagle must live an eagle’s life. And an elephant must follow elephants. I thank my parents for allowing me to be who I am. They have truly fostered my skills. I do love to write, and I believe that they enjoy reading my words. I remember driving in the car with my dad one afternoon a couple years back and I was scribbling in a notebook. Feeling my dad’s gaze, I looked up and he asked what I was writing. I told him, “my book.” He didn’t say anything else with his voice. With his silence, he was saying he loves me.
I took after my mom; she, too, is a writer-in-spirit. I thank them for passing on their traits, the good ones of course. I have my father’s smile and my mother’s creativity. She gave me her intense personality and my dad passed on his patience. Throughout my years of finding myself, they already knew who I was and who I would become.
I laugh like my mom, and my mom and I enjoy talking “big” together in the living room. And I finally understand that she is the source of my fiery passion.
I’ve enjoyed all my years of sitting beside my dad in the car as he, tired from work, picked me up from school. And like my dad, I am inquisitive. He always told us, “Ask questions! Read! Read everything!”
There is nothing like having a great set of parents. The greatest blessing is having parents who respect you as a person, love you as their child and believe in the gift of your future.
And the beauty of this journalist’s life manifests in meeting more people, telling their stories and thanking them for sharing. I look forward to continuing my climb.
But may I never forget the ground from whence I came…and still come.
Kenya’s children: yes, it takes a village to raise them September 24, 2010
If you never knew it, now you know- African children are beautiful.
Okay, before you raise your eyebrows, I want to clarify that I am not demeaning any other groups of people with this comment. I am simply making a note that despite poverty, hardship, and racial discrimination, African children still captivate and glow with innocent beauty. Kenyan’s children are no exception. Everywhere I went throughout the country, I looked out for children and they were not hard to miss. I saw them in kitchens, playing on the streets, washing clothes, crying, laughing, etc.
This collage shows kids that I met in Nairobi and Nyeri. Top, Left to right: 1) These two girls live in Kibera, the largest slum in Africa. It’s in the southwest corner of Nairobi’s outskirts. The shy girls watched as my K24 colleagues and I interviewed residents and took photos. 2) Here is another kid I saw in Kibera. Looking over his shoulder, he stood next to a river of filth. 3) These hyper kids went ballistic when they saw me and the K24 camera-guy shooting on the school campus. I was at a primary school in Dagoretti, Nairobi doing a story on dyslexia. Bottom row, left to right: 1) This dyslexic boy is another student from the primary school in Dagoretti. I thought he was so adorable and he spoke well during the interview. 2) This is a young girl in Nyeri who lives at a youth center because her family cannot afford to raise her. When I asked about her impoverished childhood, she couldn’t answer and began to cry. 3) More kids from Kibera
Top row, left to right: 1) These kids were watching as customers wandered through the Maasai Market at the Kenya International Conference Center in Nairobi’s Central Business District 2) I played peak-a-boo with the boy with the large head and enormous eyes. Whenever I would look at him, he’d laugh hysterically and hide. I met him in Central Province. He’s about 3 years old. 3) adolescent girls in Nyeri Bottom row, left to right: 1) These adorable girls live in Central Province. I thought it was so cute how the girl in the plaid dress was hiding behind the taller girl when I stood before them 2) Most of these boys are orphans and they live at a youth center in Nyeri 3) This is Phyllis’ nephew. He’s a cute kid with lovely cocoa-skin and huge, almond-shaped eyes
Africa’s children have a lot on their shoulders. They are the future of this continent and as they grow, they will surely face more hardship. Many of them live in struggling communities and statistics say that most of them will not live past the age of 48. But they have already defied the odds by being born, surviving infancy and sleeping under a roof.
They will probably be told that they are not worthy of success, and they will surely see demeaning images of people with brown skin being maltreated, enduring hellish experiences. But these children have the ability to rise and as Africans tend to do, they will survive and let’s pray that they thrive.
Food in Kenya September 5, 2010
Throughout my stay here in Kenya, I’ve been taking photos of food whenever I can remember to do so. The foods I have eaten include traditional Kenyan dishes, “Kenyanized” food and international cuisine. Traditional foods are like, githeri, mukimo and ugali. “Kenyanized” dishes include bhajia, samosa and eggrolls. These foods have been in Kenya for decades but are not indigenous. Kenya, well, specially Nairobi and Mombasa, is a blend of cultures. In these two most popular cities, you will find heavy influences of Asian Indian, Arabic, and Portuguese cultures. As far as international cuisine goes, I’m specifically referring to Italian food, Chinese, American, etc. Here we go! (Place the mouse over the photo to identify the food items.)
Top row, left to right: 1) Mukimo and kuku choma. 2)Fish soup and spinach. 3)Spicy meatballs. Bottom row, left to right: 4) Mboga mix. 5) Pineapples. 5) Bhajia, vegetarian eggroll, stew and mango juice
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Before I came to Kenya, I read about a dish called, nyama choma and every blog and website that I read about Kenya stated that every visitor to Kenya must eat nyama choma. Confession: I have been in Kenya now for 10 weeks and I have yet to eat nyama choma. Second confession: I don’t eat meat, with the exception of fish.
Nyama (I have also seen it spelled, nyoma) means beef, or what Kenyans say, “meat” and choma means “roasted. American translation: grilled/barbecued beef. Nyama choma truly is the national food of Kenya because all the ethnic groups eat it. People here keep telling me to try it and I say, I don’t eat beef. After the initial shock of meeting a non-meat eating black person, they usually ask me if I am sick or if I am Muslim (which is strange because Muslims eat meat, just not pig, AKA swine.) I tell them, “no,” and explain that I do it to keep good health.
This reminds me, Phyllis’ 65-year-old father hard a hard time understanding this. He kept thinking that I am not well, or that meat makes me sick. Phyllis had to explain to him that I am trying to prevent illness.
But anyway, I have finally relented and said that I will at least eat chicken choma. But even this act of surrender does little to impress my Kenyan friends. “No, nyama!” Is what they often say next.
“Just a little bit won’t kill you,” Phyllis said to me, not once, not twice, but three times.
I ate kuku choma (roasted chicken) in Njoro while the K24 colleagues who had accompanied me at nyama choma. I ended up only eating three of four bites of the chicken because I found the texture quite…different. Chicken in Kenya is tougher than it is in the States, partly because it is free-range, meaning the chickens on the farm are able to run freely as opposed to being caged. By moving around, the chickens strengthen their muscles, thus the meat is tougher, obviously. But not only was the chicken tough, but I just wasn’t able to like the taste of it. My K24 friends ate the rest, while I nibbled on the mukimo, which is the green “stuff” in the picture. Mukimo is maize, corn and pumpkin leaves mashed together. It tastes like…very thick mashed potatoes but sweeter.
Good fish is hard to find in Nairobi, and I know this mostly because that’s what Nairobians keep telling me. “If you want good fish, you have to go to Kisumu or to the coast [Mombasa]” is the common explanation. But, since I can’t go to either of those places, I have been eating fish, which is always tilapia, in Nairobi, and it tastes okay, nothing spectacular. A lot of the Kenyans I meet don’t really eat fish and maybe that’s because a lot of the Kenyans I meet are Kikuyu. The Kikuyu people come from the central areas of the country and they don’t really have access to fish. Even Phyllis, a Kikuyu, told me that she doesn’t know how to make fish. She and her family buy already prepared fish because they don’t know how to cook it. One K24 camera guy, Kevin, who is also a Kikuyu told me that he only eats fish in the western part of the country because Kikuyus can’t cook fish; but then again, he said Kikuyus can’t cook that well anyway, with the exception of his mother.
So, I went to a popular restaurant with Tom one day and ordered fish soup. It was the only thing on the menu that I could eat anyway, since every thing else was beef and chicken. I ordered a side of spinach to go along with the soup.
The fish soup didn’t taste anything like Nigerian fish soup, which we call pepper soup. Kenyan food is extremely plain, according to my taste. They use very little herbs and seasonings and almost no pepper. Whenever I make a mention of this to other Kenyans, they agree and they tell me that the food in Mombasa if much more flavorful. So the fish soup didn’t have the taste that I wanted and when I asked for pepper, what the waitress brought was also not what I was expecting. I was looking forward to sprinkling grounded red pepper or crushed red pepper flakes onto the fish, but they didn’t even have that-to my great surprise. Tom had to explain “pepper” to the waitress–who kept asking questions as if she has never heard of someone asking for pepper in a restaurant– and she brought a small bowl of what I believe was a blend of red and habanero or scotch-like peppers. The chilled blend was so raw! The seeds were still in it. It spiced up the food, but it did not add taste. Now, as a Nigerian, I know the difference between hot pepper and good pepper. Good pepper is more ideal, because not only is it spicy, but it has a great taste.
Meatballs. You know what that is. The big, oily balls of beef are served after church at Mavuno.
Mgoba mix. I had this dish in Nyeri on Saturday and I really liked it. Mboga means vegetable and Kenyans like veggies, mostly beans and greens. This dish is a mix of local beans, carrots, spinach, kale and onions. Not only is it filling, but it’s healthy.
On the last day of my visit with Pyllis’ family in Nyeri, I had a simple breakfast of pineapple, mango juice and bread. I found it really strange to eat a sliced bread with fruit, but hey, that’s how they do it here. I didn’t even bother to let them know that for the sake of good digestion, fruit is best when eaten on an empty stomach, without the interference of other foods. The pineapples were delicious (the pineapples in this country taste like candy- so sweet!), but I could only eat a few cuts. Everyone else not only ate pineapple, but oranges. I have never eaten more than one fruit at a sitting. Actually that’s not true- fruit salad. But still, I found this as very different.
My plate full of bhajia, veggie eggroll, and stew was my first “Kenyan” meal. While waiting for Pastor Frida after church one Sunday, I went and bought this and it was good, not great, but good. The fresh cup of mango juice tasted amazing. Bhajia, a flat round ball of fried potato and onion, is an Indian dish that has become well-incorporated into Nairobian cuisine. I’ve only had it twice, and the second time I had it, I was so disgusted with all the oil sliding around the plate, that I threw it away. But at the church, it is not very oily and tastes ok. I think I’d like it better if it had some pepper. I’m going to learn how to make bhajia and then find a way to “Nigerianize” it.
Top row, left to right: 1) beans, fish fillet, chapati 2) Thai stir fry 3) boiled aro root Bottom row, left to right: 4) macadamia nut 5) bhajia 6) vegetarian samosa
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Chapati is one of the best flour-based foods I’ve ever tasted. I love bread, and fortunately you can find some variant of fried bread in nearly every culture. You’ve got burrito, pita, flat bread. Chapati, also known as roti, is an Indian unleavened flatbread. It taste just as it looks, thich, chewy, slightly sweet. You can find white or wheat chapatis and Kenyans eat it for breakfast with tea, or with beans and greens. The beans in this dish taste like red beans, I believe it is called nduma.
This delicious Thai stir-fry came from Village Market; I went to that mall with the Shah family several weeks ago. The veggies were fresh and the sauce was sweet. I gotta find time to go back for more.
Boiled aro root taste like chunks of soggy paper. I don’t know any other way to describe it. It is, really, interesting. I saw the actual root growing in Phyllis’ mother’s garden and then Phyllis ordered it at a restaurant so I can see and taste it. She said her kids don’t like it and I can’t blame them. It is really thick, starchy and heavy. It’s unusual white and purple color doesn’t make it look any more appetizing than it already doesn’t. While eating, Phyllis said it is “sweet,” which I didn’t understand. She said it does have a very plain taste, but that is the way it should taste.
I went to a primary school in Central Province and on the school campus is a farm. Macadamia nuts grow wild here. I only know macadamia nut from the little bits you find in chocolate bars.
Samosa is another Indian import to Kenya. Remember, Indians have been in Kenya since the early part of the 1900s. Samosa is a triangular-shaped fried pastry filled with beef, chicken, potatoes and spices. Samosa is like a Jamaican meat patty or Nigerian meat pie, or any of the other meat-filled pastries you find in other cultures.
Top row, left to right: 1)ugali and kale 2) chicken, ugali and tomatoes 3)rice, beans and fish fillet bottom row, left to right: 4) pizza 5)spring rolls 6) I have no idea
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Many African ethnic groups have a food that looks like ugali. In Nigeria, we have fufu/garri/ or what have you. Ugali is maize flour (aka cornmeal) stirred in boiling water. You can also find ugali in Tanzania and throughout eastern and southern Africa. I read somewhere that South Afrians call it pap. A friend told me that in Zambia and Malawi, it is called nshima.
It took me a while to finally taste ugali. One blogger wrote that ugali is “heavy in the stomach,” well, it wasn’t that heavy for me. It has a gritty texture, as if you’re eating fine sand. Kenyans eat it with greens or nyama/kuku choma. At Phyllis’ family’s house in Nyeri, I had some ugali with kale. I think I ate most of it, too. Tom had ugali with kuku choma and tomato salsa when we went to Renalo’s restaurant.
Rice is what I usually eat in Kenya and unfortunately, is is usually white rice. I eat rice with beans and fish. When I first ate rice here, I was surprised that there was no tomato- based stew. I thought tomato-based stew was everywhere in Africa, I mean, that’s the way West Africans eat stew, and even a lot of Central Africans. But, no. there was no tomato-based stew, only the “juice” from the beans to wet the rice.
The pizza came from a restaurant at Village Market. The taste was unlike what you find in the states. I found this tasted like speciality pizza, with artisan bread and juicy green olives. Spring rolls are everywhere in Nairobi, and usually if you don’t want to beef samosa, the alternative is a veggie spring roll. Another Asian import. I can’t remember what the last picture is- but it looks kind of like a banana or bits of sugar cane.
1)mukimo and kale 2) pizza 3) Swahili chicken curry, rice and salsa 4) chapati 5) veggie spring roll
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By now, most of these foods should be a familiar. The first photo of the mukimo looks different from the previous shot of the mukimo because this is the real “rural, homemade”mukimo. I ate this one in Mureru, Nyeri and not only did it look different from the mukimo I ate at a restaurant in Njoro, but it tasted different as well. Before, I described the mukimo as thick, sweet mashed potatoes. It contained corn kernels but I didn’t feel them. The mukimo in Nyeri also contained corn kernels, but they were really hard. When I told Phyllis this, she was surprised because that corn is considered to be the softer type.
The Swahili chicken curry has a very sweet taste. This dish is from Java House. I’ve had it once and Tom ordered it when we met for the first time. What they call “salsa” is really a just a blend of cut tomatoes, with cilantro and lemon juice. I can’t stand the taste of cilantro, but I really love this salsa.
A Day at Village Market August 27, 2010
A couple weeks ago, Mrs. Shah invited me to join her and her family to Village Market, a mall in the Westlands area of Nairobi. I know Mrs. Shah because I had done a story on her daughter, Ashni, about the National Youth Orchestra of Kenya. Before and after that story, Mrs. Shah has been extremely kind to me. She enjoys showing me around Nairobi and always offers assistance. She told me to see her “home as my home.”
So, I went with her family to Village Market and met her husband for the first time. Village Market is a large mall with a movie theatre, bowling alley, miniature golf field and small water park. It is more beautiful than most malls that I’ve seen in the States because it blends the outdoors with the indoors. Large trees are everywhere along with the sound of birds.
I’m not crazy or anything but I have a curious affection for older people and I haven’t figured out where those feelings come from. But they have to come from someplace, because whenever I meet someone who may be at least 30 years my senior, I can’t ignore the force within me that emerges. I first noticed this when a Nigerian family came to visit our home several years ago and my siblings and I came down from upstairs to greet the guest. When I saw the grandmother, I bent down to hug her and did not fail to notice the delight in her eyes.
From that moment, I noticed my ways around the elderly. In Nyeri, Phyllis’ parents were probably the most interesting part of the visit. Her father, 65-year-old Joseph Munyi, talks about the Bible almost nonstop. A retired civil servant, he now tends to his crops of potatoes, tomatoes, maize, and beans. He said he was excited to know that an American was coming to visit him and he asked for me to tell my parents that I had slept in a safe home in Nyeri.
Phyllis’ mother, Grace, is a vibrant woman. I found myself looking at her face for long periods of time, and I finally discovered what it was about her that I found so irresistible… her eyes. Chestnut brown skinned with a softly chiseled face of high-cheek bones, Grace might have been what my mom would call a “local woman” but, I’ve always fancied “the locals,” especially the women. Walking behind Grace through her field of maize, pumpkins and aro root, I watched Grace’s hips sway as her bare feet treaded the soil.
Grace is part of a local woman’s group and from what I understand, women’s groups are prevalent throughout Kenya and the mother is usually the one who keeps the family together. They meet to discuss domestic matters such as health and nutrition, farming, education and how to make more money. I asked Phyllis if fathers meet for such things. She said that men are difficult because when they get together, things go bad. Drinking, ulterior motives and big egos are too often involved. So, it is the mother who maintains the home and Grace was no exception.
Grace and her group of friends, some her age and some younger, are helping each other to construct energy efficient cooking stoves. Actually, it’s a fireplace. Traditionally, Kikuyu women cooked on a stone mantle placed on top of three stone structures. But, even in rural Africa, technology is rapidly changing. Grace and the group of mothers learned a new style of a cooking fireplace that involves less wood, so one can prepare more food with less energy. One by one, the women in the group go to each other’s house to build the new fireplace. I believe Africa is standing today, simply because of the millions of mothers like these. But as we all know, they can’t do it alone…and that’s another story.
Khanga is the most common of fabric in Kenya. Worn by lower and middle-class women, khanga is easy to recognize because of the scarf-like pattern. I recognized the blue, black and white khanga that Phyllis wrapped around her waist as the exact one that I bought at Maasai Market last week. Phyllis said it is a popular pattern. I paid Ksh1,000 for that, and I HIGHLY doubt that these rural women paid that much for the same. I was ripped off!!!!!!