Thursday, June 9, 2011


Thanks for the notes,well wishes and comments on facebook, e-mail and here. It is really nice to be in touch with friends and family.  Keep 'em coming. 

Cultural missteps
Njoki -My culinary guide in Kenya

So I started working at Imani Workshops this week.  It’s about a 45 minute walk from my closet apartment each way. It sits way out on the edge of town. Imani is definitely a cool experience, intense conversations about AIDS/HIV, Americans role in the fight against poverty and disease, cultural differences and questions about life in the US.  There is a ton of work to be done there so I know I’ll be busy.  I was walking out around 1pm for lunch when Lillian and Njoki, two of the supervisors asked me to join them for lunch.  “Sure.  Where are we going?” 

“There’s a nice hotel across the street”

My first thought is, “Awesome. Nice hotel dining, I can dig it.”  Then I remembered that hotel in Kenya means shanty hole-in-the-wall-diner.  Lillian told me they have great ugali (oo-GAH-lee), national Kenyan dish similar to mash potatoes but much dryer and made from corn.  I told her I had never had ugali and I’d love to try it.  She stopped in her tracks.

“You’ve never had ugali???!!??”


“Not even when you were a baby” 

“No, ma’am”

“So then what did you eat? Do they not have maize in the US?”

“No no, we have corn/maize. We just don’t eat ugali”

So I peeled back the tin flap, ducked under razor wire and entered the ‘hotel’.  As any good travel book will tell you, only get food from places where there are others (locals) eating.  Thankfully this place was packed. 
I sat down, and Lillian said she would order for me.  “Great.  I’ll try anything twice.” (Blank stare, I’m not funny in Kenya either)

So, yet again I broke my own rule about not eating at places that do not have running water.  I did ‘wash’ my hands, although the water again came from an old rusty oil can (no clothes detergent this time, just good old fashioned Eldoret street water).

So I sat there with the entire restaurant staring at the mzungu (m-zoon-goo) until I would wave each time I made eye contact with a table to break the ice. 

Side note:  I’ve found that the stares are not so much disrespect as they are curiosity.  Many Kenyans have never left their village or town let alone Kenya.  They hear about Americans on the news and are intrigued by white skin that is so different from theirs.  I have felt uncomfortable at times when stares last a little too long but there is nothing that a wave, smile and “Habari  yako?” or “Hello” won’t ease.  I haven’t felt threatened once, even in the slums and rougher parts of town.  Overwhelmed, yes.  The further away I get from Eldoret and the teaching hospital, the more intrigued people are to see me.  I’ve never been the minority and it’s a different feeling.  People stare, people want to take pictures (on my camera), people have questions or want to practice their English.  It’s all perfectly normal human curiosity.  Being white adds dollars to your bill but also is a free pass with security guards.  I didn’t realize I was supposed to check my bag before going into the grocery until a Kenyan was stopped and told to put his in the luggage check.  When I turned to check mine, the security guard told me I was OK.  I insisted that I check it like everyone else but the statement had already been made.

SO anyway, Lillian brings over my meal, ugali and fish.  Yikes.  She hands me an entire bowl of least 3/4 of a pound. And a fish. Head, eyes, fins, tail. Everything.  When in Rome, right?  So I grab a fork and dig in.  

Mistake numero uno, mzungu.   
Ugali is eaten with your hands.  You ball it up within your fist then scoop up some collard greens type stuff (I’ll eventually figure out what this is called) and pieces of fish and shovel it in your mouth.  I tried a variety of methods until I found out the "four-finger with the thumb holding everything together" technique is the most widely used.  Fish and greens and ugali all over my face and hands, running down my arms. Now, not only was the restaurant staring, they were laughing.  I can only imagine that it was like someone in the USA picking up their plate full of food and trying to consume it all at once by tipping it into their mouth, I know I’d laugh. 
I continue eating, finally getting the hang of the meal.  Grab ugali, squeeze into a bolus, dip/drag through fish mixture and greens, try to shovel into mouth as quickly as possible. Repeat. 

FYI - Not my actual meal, just a close but somewhat more appetizing google images picture
 (missing the collard greens)
Lillian and Njoki were getting a kick out of it, the school-aged children next to me thought I was impaired and the rest of the ‘hotel’ got a little comedy routine during their lunch break. 
I broke the fish head off and tossed it in the bone bowl and started eating again.

Mistake numero dos, Schuberto.   

Njoki looked at me like I was crazy.  “That’s the best part.  If you eat the brains it makes your smarter.”

“Hahaha”, I laughed and continued eating thinking she was joking. 

Blank stares from Lillian and Njoki.

So I grab the fish head back and try breaking it apart.  Ill spare the rest of the details but it actually wasn’t as bad as I thought.  Then I was told I hadn’t finished enough of the fish and left too much on the bones and the eyes were still in the discard bowl.  AND I had taken the skin off and discarded which was also incorrect.  So down the hatch they went.  I had trouble explaining how fish is typically served in the US but I think they just politely nodded. 

They waited until I finished my food.  Everything.  I mean nothing but clean fish bones and a little soup.  I even tried to do the ol’ stand up and get ready to go trick, but they reassured me that I was not done.  I was stuffed but all and all it was pretty good and had a nice time entertaining the locals. 

If you care to learn more, check out Njoki's story here: 

Also, check out their items for sale.  Let me know if you're interested and Ill bring something home for you. 


  1. Another great post Nick, brave move eating the fish. And I think the greens are called sukuma wiki, which in Swahili means "pushing the week". The name literally means to keep you alive through the week, and that's about all it does.

  2. You were always good at telling fish stories. This is another good one to add to your list.