This isn’t Kansas

ugaliI have been thinking about moments of my first weeks in Kanya. In many ways it was an ongoing torrent of new and different. Some of the moments were “what was that?” Some were well outside my experience and were simply part of learning to enjoy another culture. Part learning that you and Toto are not in Kansas anymore.

Many people ask about the food. In most of the country, the national meal was ugali na sukumawiki. Ugali is a maize/corn meal boiled in water until it has dough like consistency. The traditional method of eating ugali is to gather a lump with your right hand (always the right hand; the left hand has other traditional uses). You roll/squeeze the lump into a ball and use the thumb to make an indent to serve as a spoon/scoop. Then you are ready to dip/scoop from a sauce or stew (Sundays) and a plate of sukumawiki.

Many people ask about the food. In most of the country, the national meal was ugali na sukumawiki. Ugali is a maize/corn meal boiled in water until it has dough like consistency. The traditional method of eating ugali is to gather a lump with your right hand (always the right hand; the left hand has other traditional uses). You roll/squeeze the lump into a ball and use the thumb to make an indent to serve as a spoon/scoop. Then you are ready to dip/scoop from a sauce or stew (Sundays) and a plate of sukumawiki.

You might know sukumawiki as collard greens. The greens are naturally a little bitter. They can be spiced a bit; salt and onion help when lightly sauteed in oil. You get used to the taste. What is interesting is the name sukumawiki. It literally translates as “to push the week.” In other words, it is a food stretcher.

Sunday after Mass it was common to visit a jumuiya, a small Christian community, which gathered for studying Scripture, planning charitable action, and checking in with folks. There the shared food often included samosas or some other delicacy – and some silent “what is this..??” It was… interesting! Back at the house, Sunday dinner was ugali, sukumawiki, and chicken or goat usually prepared as a stew with other non-collard green vegetables.

Many people asked if I had an automobile or truck. Nope. When I moved around the parish I walked everywhere. Because of geography, the parish was shaped like a kidney. I lived in “the center” near the main church and could reach the other churches with about 20-30 minutes of hiking. “Other churches” you ask? Our parish had five churches. One of the realities of Kenya is that in the 1990s it retained a strong tribal identity – which I think is still true. So, one part of the parish was mostly from the Luo tribe, another from the Kikuyu, Kamba, Kisii, Luhya, Kalenjin, and others, and so on. Part of the identity was to build smaller churches or chapels… or sometimes churches larger than the main church. There were about 14.000 people in the parish.

If Google maps had been around I wonder how useful it would have been. There were dirt roads, paths, shortcuts through here or there, and no matter which way you went, one of the pleasures of walking was seeing people along the way and chatting. It was a great way to know the people and for them to know you. And on the days your feet were tired, you were in a hurry (that is truly a relative term), there was always the matatu.

A matatu is a ride-share mini bus. The name derives from the standard fare during the 1960s: three Kenyan shillings. During my time, the fare was destination dependent, but 20 Kenya shillings was about average. (70 shillings equalled $1 US). They travel mostly within a city area and have assigned routes. Each matutu had a driver and a conductor. The driver’s job was obviously to drive, but it seemed to me had collateral duties of blasting music, revving the engine, and weaving in and out of traffic. The conductor’s job was to arrange people on the bus based on when they were getting off, taking the fare, talking loudly about whatever was on his mind, and while at one of the “terminals” banging loudly on the side of the bus to attract more passengers. The conductor was also the “communications” representative with the local constabulary.

A typical mini-buse might have 10-14 seats, but would have 25-30 people crammed inside. One quickly gave up a sense of personal space. The driver and conductor (tout) rented the vehicle from an owner for the day. Their motivation was to cover the rental fee, pay for the fuel, have a reserve for bribes, and then the remainder was their profit for the day. Clearly the economic logic was to maximize paying customers per run. When I was first learning Kiswahili, I thought the touts were always banging on the side of the bus yelling moja – the word for “one” – as in, there is room for one more. They were actually saying ngoja or “wait.” Meanwhile the driver was revving the engine.

On the longer routes there were unspoken rules operating. If you were assigned a seat by the tout, you were not supposed to offer your seat to anyone including a mom with several children and carrying an infant. However, the mom could hand you the infant to hold freeing her to manage the other children. I was also handed a chicken at one point. We stared at each other.

The one exception to the rule was for the elders, wazee. Exception in that I gave up my seat despite the stare of the tout who was silently “shouted down” by the approving nods of the other passengers. Manners were always important.

Lots of other memories, but there are lots of other posts to come. Hope you enjoyed this one.

4 thoughts on “This isn’t Kansas

  1. Father George, very interesting reading about another culture and what you experienced in Kenya. I will look forward to the next installment.

    I remember when you told us about your Mother: your Father meeting her in Washington, D.C. Our mothers are very special to us, and it is their memories that keep them alive in our hearts! My Mom passed way 38 years ago, yet I can still see her beautiful green eyes. I am so glad that you shared the love of your Mother with your parishioners in Virginia!

    To all mothers out there, thank you for all you do as mothers for your children!

    Mom, I miss you very much!

  2. This mde me think of Haiti and the tap-taps, also colorful and crammed with people, chickens, and who knows what else. I miss it.

  3. Hi Father, Ever since your arrival at St. Francis, I’ve really enjoyed your sermons and comments on the scriptures. I especially enjoyed your Mother’s Day tribute to your Mom, as mine was also an incredibly strong lady who raised me by herself after my father died when I was four. Your political thoughts are always on the mark for this old military retiree (USAF vice USN). Your recent recollections on your mission experience are really fascinating – brought back a few memories of the cultural shock I experienced in Thailand during the Vietnam war. Just wanted to take a minute to thank you very much for sharing your musings and tell you how very much they are appreciated.

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