“When two locusts fight, it is always the crow who feasts.”
Nigerian saying quoted in Barack Obama’s Dreams of My Father
An article in The Times of London stated that Barack Obama’s Kenyan family, members of the Luo group, to celebrate his presidential election victory, slaughtered four bulls, sixteen chickens, and a number of sheep and goats milling around. Grilled meat and beer, plus other dishes, rounded out the menu.
But the chief draw was the popular Nyama choma, or fire-roasted beef, which goes well with the staple food, ugali, and a good Kenyan beer like Tusker Lager.
In most cultures throughout history, meat symbolized plenty and appeared in abundance at celebratory events. Look at our own Thanksgiving feast.
Because of the usual scarcity of meat throughout most of human history, and today in many places where low-incomes preclude the purchase of meat, such feasts evoke tremendous excitement, a chance to eat a food replete with ancient symbolism – power, fertility, life, death. Vegetarianism, all well and good, is not the first choice of most of the world’s people if they can help it.
In most of the world, to be vegetarian — except in some religious sects and wealthy western nations — is to be poor.
So what would Barack Obama eat today, had he been born a child of Africa, of Kenya, like his father, Barack Obama, Senior?
A look at President Obama’s own book, Dreams from My Father, provides many clues.
But first, a brief geography lesson.
Kenya lies on the east coast of Africa, sandwiched in a somewhat viselike grip by Tanzania in the south, Uganda in the west, and Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan to the north. The Indian Ocean bathes the coast where Mombasa sits like the small jewel of history that it is. Who can forget the scenes in Out of Africa as Denys Finch-Hatton flew his lover, the Danish writer Isak Dinesen/Baroness Karen von Blixen, over scores of pink flamingoes skimming just so over the blue water of Lake Nakuru?
And to the west is the Great Rift Valley, through which Barack Obama traveled to visit his ancestral village of Alego.
From there, Obama’s grandfather made his way to Nairobi, where he entered domestic service as a cook for the British colonialists, who began arriving after 1884 and the partitioning of Africa by the Great Powers of the day – England, France, and Germany.
This is what Barack Obama’s family said about the grandfather’s time as a cook:
Family: “He had studied these [agricultural] techniques from the British, you see. When he worked for them as a cook.”
Obama: “I didn’t know he was a cook.”
Family: “He had his lands, but for a long time he was a cook for wazungu in Nairobi. He worked for some very important people. During the World War, he served as Captain in the British army.” (p. 369, Dreams of My Father)
It is unlikely that Obama’s grandfather cooked local foods for his masters. No, he probably used the one cookbook that addressed the cooking of colonial Kenya, The Kenya Settlers’ Cookery Book and Household Guide, written by the St. Andrew’s Church Woman’s Guild. Likely first published in the 1920’s, it went through 13 editions. A collection of European-style recipes, the book contained useful information for the colonial housekeeper. Another book, quite similar, was Emily G. Bradley‘s A Household Book for Tropical Colonies. And Where the Lion Roars, published in 1890 by Mrs. A. J. Barnes, predated both of these books and provided much of the same information contained in The Kenya Settlers’ Cookery Book. None of these books are easy to come by, although the Africa Book Centre sells a reprint of the Barnes book.
Most Kenyans eat simply, and their day-to-day diet consists of a few staples. Ugali, a starchy grain-based polenta-like gruel, forms the foundation of most meals. Ugali tastes very bland. Hence the need for the flavorful sauces/stews served with it. To eat Kenyan-style, you form a small ball of ugali with your right hand, press a deep indentation in the ball and use that as a spoon to scoop up the sauce.
Most people eat sukuma wiki, a dish of greens and tomatoes, with their ugali. Other dishes include karanga (a meat and potato stew), githeri (stewed corn and beans) and mbaazi (black-eyed peas simmered in coconut milk). Cooks commonly add wild and cultivated greens such as kale, pumpkin, cassava, cocoyam leaves to their sauces, along with some hot peppers as well.
So there you have it: the basic foods of the people of Kenya, food that sustained Barack Obama, Senior, food that President Obama himself ate while in Kenya.
As the old saying goes, when people eat meals together, there are no strangers.
Makes about 1 ½ quarts
2 cups maize meal or cornmeal or semolina
4 cups of water
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Bring the water to a boil in a large saucepan. Sprinkle maize meal into boiling water, slowly, stirring constantly. Cook porridge for 20 minutes until very thick and smooth. Stir continuously to keep the mixture from sticking or burning. Cover the pot and leave on a very low heat for 10-15 minutes to finish the cooking. Serve hot.
3 T. oil
2 medium onions, chopped
3 large tomatoes, chopped
Leftover meat (optional)
1 lb. sukuma wiki (wild greens), kale, or spinach
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Hot pepper sauce
Fry onions in oil in large pan. Add tomatoes and any leftover meat. Cook together until tomatoes are soft. Cook chopped spinach. Add spinach to onion mixture and cook over low heat 20 minutes. Season to taste. Serve with ugali. Sprinkle hot pepper sauce over Sukuma Wiki if desired.
Lemon Pudding (From: The Kenya Settlers’ Cookery Book)
(Disclaimer: Please note this recipe contains uncooked egg whites. Raw eggs can be hazardous to your health.)
2 eggs, separated
100 g white sugar
300 ml cold water
1 rounded tablespoon cornflour
Grate rind off lemon into a saucepan and squeeze in lemon juice. Add water, sugar and cornflour beaten up with egg yolks. Stir mixture over a low heat until boiling and boil for a few minutes. Set aside to cool. Beat egg whites until stiff and fold into lemon mixture. Pour into individual glasses or dish and serve cold.
© 2008 C. Bertelsen