What’s the best way you can think of to get to know someone? In my opinion, sharing a meal opens people up and enables a friendly comfortable conversation. When we travel, it can be difficult to scrape the surface of a place and I often find myself wondering how I can dig deeper and get to know the culture better. So we decided to give travelers to Kenya that very opportunity by offering the option to enjoy lunch or dinner with a Kenyan family.
We met Patrick, Joy* and their two children several years ago. Having worked on the edges of tourism for about ten years, Patrick was looking for a way to continue in the industry but also be there for his young family. Despite their modest living conditions, he was very proud of his wife’s cooking and so came up with the idea to invite travellers to see the “real Kenya” and share a meal with him and his family. This would allow the family to earn a small income while fulfilling the goals of spending time with his family and working with tourists. On the first visit, there was another benefit that became apparent – his children had the opportunity to play with the visitors’ children, giving all children the opportunity to learn from each other.
A Typical Family
A lower-class Kenyan family typically lives in a one- or two-room apartment or unit. Curtains act as walls to divide a room into sitting room and bedroom. The sitting room is at the front and visitors are rarely invited past that. The wife spends much of her time in the kitchen and brings out pots of steaming food to her husband and guests. The kitchen might have a gas bottle with a burner for quickly boiling water and one or two “jikos” which are small stoves that fit one pot and use charcoal. Bathrooms are usually shared between all the residents of the building. The toilet will be a cubicle with a hole in the concrete which descends to a large pit. The ‘shower’ is a cubicle with a small hole in the corner acting as a drain and residents take their own bucket of water to wash themselves (no shower rose or even a tap). There is usually no plumbing in these buildings so residents buy their water in jerry cans. Given the lack of space inside, children tend to spend most of their time playing outside. Many families have chickens running around the yard, which are mainly used for meat on a special occasion.
Each tribe of Kenya has its own traditional food. Joy prepares a selection of dishes from different tribes to give visitors a good taste of Kenya including:
- Githeri – a stew of beans and maize
- Plantain – green bananas boiled and then fried with tomato and onion
- Mukimo – mashed potato mixed with pumpkin leaves and maize
- Tilapia – fish from freshwater lakes around Kenya
- Chapatti – flat bread originating from India (Kenya has a large Indian population who have influenced the cuisine)
- Chicken stew
- Zikuma wiki – kale
- Ugali – maize meal mixed with water to make a polenta-style dish
- Sweet potato
- Fruits for dessert
In Kenyan tradition, when we visit friends or family, the etiquette is to bring gifts. These are probably not what westerners would normally consider gifts; rather we take maize meal, tea, sugar, rice, and other basic food items. If there are children in the house, you might also take pens, pencils and exercise books and perhaps some sweets.
Kenyans traditionally eat with their hands and so hygiene is very important. The wife will prepare some warm water and bring it in a jug with a bowl, soap and towel to each guest. She pours the water over your hands so you can wash, and then offers the towel or a serviette. As I mentioned earlier, there is no running water in most houses, so it often comes as a bit of a surprise to visitors to be presented with this method of washing hands. There are a lot of stews on the menu so you might think eating with your hands is going to be very messy, but there are two key dishes that can act as spoons: ugali and chapatti. The chapatti is clear as it is flat bread which can be curled into a scoop. The ugali is of such a consistency that it can be formed into a scoop as well.
Kenyan food can take a bit of getting used to. The meat tends to be a bit tough and the maize tends to be a bit tasteless. Ugali is not my personal favourite, but it is not designed to be eaten on its own – it is meant to be eaten with a sauce or stew and that is where you get your flavour. Kenyans don’t use a lot of spices in their cooking – flavour is added by salt and maybe chicken or beef stock cubes. But the vegetables are fresh, they haven’t been months in cold storage as we often get in the west, so you get the full flavours of the actual food you are eating.
Guests often have mixed reactions throughout their visit. On first entering the compound and then the house there is definitely some trepidation as it is quite a different way of life than what we are used to. There’s also uncertainty about how to react if the food proves inedible. And then there’s relief as fish, rice, chicken, mashed potato and cabbage is presented. It might be cooked a bit differently, but it is recognizable and definitely edible! As conversation flows guests relax into their surrounds. The children play outside together and by the end of the meal there’s pleas from the kids that they want to keep playing. Friendships are formed, connections made, and bonding over a shared meal leaves everyone with the warmth that comes from being with other humans. Despite the nerves at the outset, all our guests have come away from this experience with positivity and believe that it was a key part of their whole Kenyan safari.
If you would like to share a meal with a Kenyan family as part of your safari adventure, please email email@example.com.
*not their real names