Opportunities for Expanding
A Kenyan Cookbook
Table of Contents
Who Are These People?
My name is Saima, and I'm a volunteer for Expanding Opportunities (EO). From January to July, 2006, I lived at and worked for EO's orphanage in Mangu, Kenya. This orphanage is called the Joseph Waweru Home School (JWHS), and it provides a home for eight boys who would otherwise be living on the streets or with relatives who couldn't take care of them. While I was at the JWHS, I mostly worked in the surrounding gardens. I also wrote newspaper articles and newsletters to raise awareness about the organization, helped the boys with homework, and just hung out.
A pot boiling over an open fire.
Jesse came with me to volunteer at the JWHS. He just graduated from Dalhousie University, where he'd been studying computer science. While at the JWHS, he mostly worked on EO's websites. He also wrote promotional pieces about the organization, and programmed tools to make what I wrote look presentable.
Jesse and I were accompanied to Kenya by Bev Stone, EO's Executive Director, and eight other volunteers, who stayed between 2 weeks and 3 months. The other volunteers helped in local schools, brought donations to hospitals and worked on improving the JWHS grounds.
Food is one aspect of our lives in Kenya that was very different from our lives in North America. Kenyan food is weird and scary when you first encounter it, but after a few months, I really began to look forwards to seeing what Mama Mwangi, the orphanage's "mom" and cook, had prepared for dinner. In this little cookbook, I've recorded some of the most popular Kenyan recipes, along with some vignettes about our experiences that I hope you'll enjoy. Furahia chakula chako! (Enjoy your meal!)
- ginger powder or other spices, such as cinnamon, nutmeg or masala
Chai, Swahili for tea, is a staple in Kenya, and you can count on finding it in any restaurant or home. Offering multiple cups to your guests is standard protocol, and often you won't be able to escape a visit without downing half a liter.
Most tea that's drunk in Kenya is grown within the country, but Earl Gray and other such Western standards are close approximations. The difference is in the seasonings. Kenyans like their tea to be strongly infused with whole milk, sometimes taking it as far as one part milk to one part water. Ginger powder, or tangawizi as they call it, is often added, giving the tea a nice bite.
Most Kenyans then load on the sugar, using as much as a tablespoon for one cup, creating a substance somewhat like hot chocolate, but without the chocolate. A great drink for a cold Kenyan night or winter Maine day!
One morning, Jesse and I were in the kitchen making breakfast. My friend had sent some herbal tea as part of a care package, and we were having fun looking through the different flavors and being nostalgic about home. Mama Mwangi came into the room and curiously spied our work. We offered her a taste of tea, and she smacked her lips after taking a sip. Since she seemed to enjoy it, we gave her a couple tea bags, with instructions on how to prepare them.
That evening, we went down to dinner at Mama Mwangi and Pastor Waweru's house. "Did you drink the tea?' we asked. "Yes!" said Mama Mwangi. "And you know," she added, "I said to Pastor, 'This tea is for people who do not want to be fat like me!'" She gave a good hearty chuckle, enjoying her Kenyan bulk, and we giggled, like skinny Western infusions.
Kenya smells different than the United States. This was the first thing I noticed as I walked through the tunnel from the plane to the airport. The air in Africa smells alive and full of energy, whereas the northern U.S.'s is left dead after the cold of winter.
After getting visas and collecting our baggage, we left the airport, and for the first time wrapped ourselves completely in the smelly air. January, our month of arrival, is the height of the dry season in most of Kenya, but Nairobi is a city named, in the Maasai tribe's language, "land of rain," and that night's humid air bore testimony to such weather. I closed my eyes and felt the moisture in the warm breeze, then opened them and noticed silhouettes of palm trees, tossling their fronds lazily at the edge of the parking lot, calling out to travellers: "Yessire, dearie. You're in Africa now."
Our host arranged us in his car and drove us to our hotel. Driving on the left side of the road gave my American brain the heebie jeebies, but not as much as when our host came to a stop sign and didn't even hesitate before cruising through it. The other drivers seemed unconcerned, simply altering their velocities to avoid hitting us as if traffic regulations had gone out of style years ago.
The highway on which we drove was modern, with appropriately colored lines and guard rails where necessary-both features I would come to think of as unusual during my stay in rural Kenya. Along the highway were billboards, at least eight feet tall, that read, 'Africa rides on Yana tyres."
Until you get used to it, ugali is that scary African food that you hear rumors about-the kind of thing you try your hardest to avoid being served in a restaurant. It consists of white corn flour mixed with boiling water, forming a bland, plyable playdough-like substance. Although it sounds rather unexciting, Kenyans swear by this food, and disturbingly enough, if you stay there long enough, you too will find yourself thinking, "Man, I could go for some ugali right now!"
Boil about three cups of water with about a tablespoon of the flour. When the water has reached a rapid boil, add more flour until you acheive a thick, doughey paste. Stir the mixture extensively, making sure there aren't any pockets of flour left hanging around.
To test whether or not your ugali is done, make a little bit into a ball and throw it against a wall. If it bounces, it's done. If it sticks, it's still too wet, and you should wait for more of the water to evaporate or add more flour.
- greens (kale, cabbage or spinach will do)
The typical companion of ugali is some sort of boiled greens. Cabbage is popular, but what's even more common is a kind of kale called sukuma wiki, or "stretch the week." The name of this vegetable reflects its abunddance and popularity. During the growing season, there's always sukuma to be had, and if you're living in Kenya, you'll have it a lot.
Take a handful of greens, either kale or cabbage. Shred them with a knife into pieces the size of lettuce in a Subway sandwich. In Kenya, the next step would be to light a fire, but you can use a stove. Put the greens in a pot and heat them over medium heat. No need to add water--the vegetables contain enough to cook themselves. A little oil doesn't hurt, though. A couple tablespoons added to a three-liter pot is plenty. A few pinches of salt will also increase the flavor considerably.
This recipe can be spiced up by increasing the number of vegetables in the mix. Chopping up a few tomatoes and onions and heating them with the greens is a nice touch.
Continue to heat the vegetables until the greens have no more crunch to them. Then use to top ugali, and you've got some quintessential Kenyan cookery!
"How strange to see the name of the continent used nonchalantly in a tire ad on the side of the road," I thought. I was accustomed to hearing Africa spoken about in voices laced with pity, the way one would talk about a sick or unfortunate relative. But there the billboard was: tall and proud, talking about Africa just like it was any other tire-consuming place.
We arrived at our hotel, despite a disregard for traffic signals. I climbed into a bed with mosquito netting draped over it and thought, "Six months. Well, it certainly isn't home, but I think it'll do."
Mama Mwangi cuts a block of ugali.
"Ona Mimi!" one of our resident two-year-olds yelled across the living room. "Look at me!" Kimani was saying. He was imitating the habit of sitting cross-legged that I've developed from having short legs that prevent me sitting with my feet on the floor while my back is against the couch. As uninteresting as this is in North America, Kenyans find it wonderfully amusing that I can fold myself up in such a way. Kimani's mom, Ruth, one of the matrons at the JWHS, giggled at her son. She went on to explain with carefully calculated politeness that people in Kenya were surprised by my contortionist-like abilities.
I smiled and nodded. It's funny for a traveller to discover that things they consider so commonplace are strange to other cultures. The reverse is also true, however. Just the other day, I'd gone over to the house neighboring the home school, where we ate our meals, and was been surprised to find Mama Mwangi, the JWHS boys' surrogate mom, bent neatly at the waist, steadily washing the floor with a rag. The sight explained to me why I hadn't been able to find a mop on the property. How African women manage to flip so neatly in half and maintain the position for the duration of a floor washing without their hamstrings snapping or their heads bursting from excess blood remains a mystery to me. They use the same position while washing dishes and clothes, all apparently without injury.
Our hosts were usually too polite to mention our oddities, but occasionally they just couldn't help themselves. Jesse, who spent most of his time re-writing the organization's websites, was a source of much confusion, since some Africans don't even know what a website is let alone how one is created. He told me a story about Mama Mwangi and her husband, Pastor Waweru, coming into the room where he was programming. Mama looked at Jesse, and, after she dictated to Pastor a long and heartfelt stream of Kikuyu, Pastor said something like, "She wants to know what you're writing all day. And how can you type for so long without copying the words from a book? Does it all come out of your head?" Jesse did his best to explain that, besides writing newspaper articles to send back home, he was doing something involving "websites," and showed them some of the code. They nodded and left and haven't inquired since. Whether his explanation was satisfying or they just decided he was completely batty, we may never know.
When a Kenyan washes clothes, the cleanliness rendered upon them is to me as magic as computers must appear to them. Using soap, water and a brush, they're somehow able to reduce dirt stains to a lower level than even my washing machine at home can achieve. The boys taught me their washing techniques when they found me doing laundry. They showed me how to choose a piece of clothing, twist it a bit, then rub it against itself. They've showed me when to use a brush, and when hands are better. Although they took me through all the steps, my white shirts didn't loose their grayish tint until I returned to the states and its array of wash and spin cycles.
Kamau cooks mboga in the kitchen.
The blisters on my index fingers where clothing has repeatedly rubbed against them are my body saying, "Look at me-this is weird! Ona mimi!" I'll probably never get the hang of washing clothes by hand. But then again, only the littlest Kenyan was brave enough to try sitting cross-legged. I guess it's all in where you grow up.
Bake with the Sun?!
You know the saying, "hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk?" How about "bake a cake in a cardboard box?" The booklet Jesse and I had gotten from Solar Cookers International said their oven could do it. I didn't believe them. Would you think that four strategically positioned, foil-coated, cardboard panels could concentrate enough sunlight into a pot to simulate an electric oven? We decided to try, if only for the sake of proving them wrong. We gathered the ingredients, substituting gram flour for wheat flour because Barbara, another volunteer, was allergic to wheat. The recipe called for whipping egg whites, which was rather difficult without an electric blender or a whisk. A fork sufficed, although it was slow. The kids had apparently never seen whipped egg whites before (not surprising in a land where lemon meringue pie is rather uncommon), and they kept checking on my progress as they walked through the kitchen.
Finally I got the eggs stiff and put the pot of batter in the solar oven, which I'd positioned outside the kitchen. Soon after, our neighbor, Mama Shiko, dropped by for her daily chat with Mama Mwangi. A curious woman, she of course asked about the "nini" (Swahili for "thingy") in the front yard. I told her about solar cooking, and that we were trying to bake a cake. Amazed, she said she'd be back later to test the finished product. Her daughter's birthday was the next week, and if the cake worked, she might want to borrow the oven.
My heart is too faint to actually try this "delicacy," although all the JWHS's boys rave about it. Take some whole milk and leave it in a cool, dark place for three to five days, until it's gone sour. Add a handful of ashes and drink with ugali. My Lonely Planet guide book says that this unique concoction contains cholesterol-lowering agents that allow the Massai tribe to maintain their diet of red meat and blood without having heart disease. A high price to pay for some beef in my opinion, but to each his own!
- fresh coriander or parsley, if desired
Githeri is a mix of beans and corn, loved, especially by the Kikuyu tribe, for its protein and for the ease with which beans and corn can be preserved. During the growing season, endless amounts of corn and beans are grown, one row of corn followed by one row of beans, over many, many acres. The crops are dried and used throughout the rest of the year.
Preparing Githeri is very easy. If you're using dried beans and corn, soak approximately equal parts of each overnight. About an hour before you want to eat your githeri, mix the beans and corn with a few dashes of salt, and boil them in the same water you soaked them in. Try to retain the goeyness that comes off of the beans, rather than straining it off. Boiling away most of the water and just leaving a bit of moisture laced with bean flavor will make for the best githeri.
If you're using canned beans and corn, simply mix them together, and heat them with just enough water to avoid them burning to the pot. Add a little salt. This method won't result in the taste of slowly cooked vegetables that you get with the dried vegetable method, so you may have to season your githeri more extensively with things like pepper and fresh corriander or parsely.
After a few hours of baking, it was time for the verdict. We removed the cake, not really expecting much. But, against all intuition, the box had done its job! The batter had risen and the top of the cake was firm. The inside remained a bit juicy, but another half hour in the oven fixed that.
Barbara was ecstatic at the mention of gram flour, and heartily enjoyed her piece. The rest of us decided we much prefer wheat, as we discovered that gram has a bit of a bitter aftertaste. Flour aside, though, it was definitely a cake, and, in a self fulfilling prophecy, baking it had given us a reason to celebrate. When Mama Shiko popped her head in, she was quite impressed, and said she'd be back the next week to take advantage of our new technology.
We gave most most of the cake to the boys, which may have been a mistake, as they've since been asking me to make them more. "I want, like, seven!" Kamau always says, and I always mumble something like, "Uh...later..." I'll probably never get around to it. But if I do, I'm definitely using wheat flour.
Kamau and Paul make chapati dough.
Before I joined Joseph Waweru Home School I was living with my grandmother who was not able to pay school fees. Even food was hard to get. So she looked for some one who would help her. And by good luck she met with Bev, who is supporting me now, and many others who are supporting me.
I joined JWHS 18th April, 2004 and I was very happy because I knew that I would get educated. And I am saying thank you for those who are helping me.
I like the home because it has good people who are kind and who advise me. Even I like how people come to see me and others. Sometimes I help mama, who cooks for us, and sometimes we play football during our leisure time. On Sunday we also go to church and after church we do some studies.
Now I am in class seven, and when I finish my primary education I want to go to high school. When I grown up I want to be a doctor or a judge. Thank you to those who are helping me.
God bless you.
Don't Forget Your Programmer!
"What does a computer programmer do in Africa?" I started to ask myself a couple weeks into our stay at the JWHS. With inconsistent supplies of internet and electricity, Jesse's skills were seeming ill-suited to the environment. He was frustrated by the task of designing a website for the organization without any of his usual tools or co-workers, and I was beginning to wonder if it had been a mistake to bring computers to Kenya.
Around this time, I was at Mama and Pastor's house, using the computer to write a newspaper article. The boys were crowded around me, watching conspicuously. Although I understood basically no Swahili back then (and understand only marginally more now, in fact) I gathered that they were quite impressed by how fast I could type. Then I showed them that I could also do it without looking at the keys! That blew their minds. Soon one of the boys (Kamau, of course-he's always the one to start things) asked if I could teach him how to type. "Sure," I said. I showed him where to put his fingers, opened a blank document and gave him some simple words to practice with. After he had the hang of it, I composed little stories for him to copy. Most of these stories featured a character named Dad, since his name can be spelled using letters in the home row. Dad was a good lad, but was often sad. His wife was a hag who made him gag. Jesse soon advanced the project technologically by writing a program to generate practice text for us. He was happy to have finally found a practical application for his programming, and I was glad for his help since you can only go so far in the literary world when the only vowel you have to work with is "A."
At the request of some former volunteers, we were encouraging them to maintain contact with members of the organization who'd returned to the states. Email is the cheapest way to do so, so we'd been bringing the kids to the local post office, which offers internet. One day, the boys' exposure to computers turned to a much more technical domain.
- other vegetables, if desired
Mukimo is just mashed potatoes with githeri and sometimes other vegetables added to it. This fancy githeri is popular during the harvest season when vegetables are plentiful and their prices go down.
Follow the instructions for making githeri, but when you boil the beans and corn, put some potatoes in with them. You can also add zucchini, peas, onions, tomatoes and even pumpkin leaves (which make the entire mixture turn bright green). When finished, mash the potatoes and other vegetables. You can also fry mukimo, if you like. Sort of like leftover mashed potatoes that have been heated up in the frying pan!
(Makes about two dozen Mandazi.)
- 1/2 kg flour
- 3 tsp. baking powder
- 3 tbsp. sugar
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- cooking oil
Mandazi are Kenya's answer to fried dough. Often the dough is made at night and left to rise until morning, then deep fried and served for breakfast. They also make a nice desert, though, especially when served with powdered sugar or cinnamon sugar.
- Mix 1/2 kg of flour with 3 tsp. of baking powder, 3 tbsp. of sugar and 1 tsp. of cinnamon.
- Add hot water to the dry ingredients until the dough is only a little sticky, and still soft. It should be softer than dough for chapati, but still thicker than a batter.
- Add about two tbsp of vegetable oil to the dough and kneed it in.
- Put the dough in a plastic bag and allow it to rise for at least two hours.
- Put about three inches of oil into a pot and heat it until it sizzles when dough is added to it.
- Take a fist-sized portion of dough and make it into a ball. Roll it out until it's about 1/2 inch thick. Cut the dough into squares about two inches long on each side, or inventive shapes. (Cookie cutters could be a lot of fun here!)
- Submerge the squares in the hot oil. Turn them once, and remove them when they're golden brown all over. Using a perforated spoon to scoop the mandazi out and let the excess oil drain off is a good idea.
- Allow to cool, then eat!
One of the post office's computers had been broken since we'd arrived in Kenya. Finally Jesse asked the post mistress what was wrong with it. She said she didn't know-it just wouldn't turn on. Jesse, sensing an opportunity to show off, asked if he could take it apart and try to fix it. With her permission, and the help of a pocket knife, the boys and I looked on as Jesse began the surgery. First came figuring out how to break into the computer's plastic shell. Once Jesse had discovered the correct combination of plastic levers to push and pull, the case popped apart, revealing a mass of wires and circuit boards. The boys got down on the ground next to Jesse for a better view as he untangled the guts, and the post mistress hovered nervously. "Maybe I was wrong," I began to think. "He's not so out of place."
The problem turned out to be just a three-volt battery that needed to be removed and put back in place. The post mistress was thrilled that she could stop calling the repair people who'd been telling her for a year to just hang on-they'd send someone right over! We used the computer regularly from then on, and the boys' typing constantly improved as they sent their messages all the way around the world.
Mama Mwangi with a huge pot of mukimo.
Our house was a popular place to be for the first few months after we arrived. Neighbors who would normally drop by a few times a year started coming by daily, wanting to see what the white people were doing. Included in this neighborhood entourage was Joel: a short, thin, recent high school graduate who walked with a strut, wrote poetry, and proclaimed himself to be "veeeeeeeeerrrry fine," whenever greeted. Joel was involved in a program called Poetry In Theater that went to high schools and gave three-hour lectures on the techniques and tactics of poets. When Jesse and I told him that at home we were involved in a kind of theater called "improv," where one acts without a script, he said he'd never heard of it, but was excited by the prospect of something new. He asked us to accompany him to some schools to show off our stuff.
Joel kept talking about our improv like we thought it was something really new and different-something better than classical theater. We finally realized that this was because Kenyans use the word "improvise" to mean "improve." I can see where the confusion comes from. They're only different by two letters. But when Jesse and I told people that we were involved in a kind of theater called "improv," we weren't quite conveying the message we wanted. So from then on, we headed to schools with our same workshop, but under the new name of "impromptu theater."
For a few weeks, we travelled to area schools with Joel and his fellow actors. We took small groups of kids while he worked with the rest of the classes, playing games that are designed to teach one how to act without a script. The kids were obedient, as Kenyan school kids are trained to be, but they obviously thought we were a little bit wacko. When we'd walk into a classroom, the kids would immediately go to their desks and sit up straight with their eyes on us, ready to take notes on every word we said. Perhaps we shocked them a bit when we said, "All right, no notebooks necessary! Everyone help us move these desks to the back of the room."
Although traditional storytelling and theater are accepted and valued in Kenyan culture, they're not so big on silliness. Most stories are designed to have a moral. There might be a few laughs along the way, but they're carefully calculated and rarely the focus. Improv games are usually just for silly entertainment, but our students clung to their customs, as any person would, and tried to twist our games to be instructive. Once we were trying to play a game in which one actor is an interviewer on a talk show, and another actor is the interviewee. The interviewee is an expert in a field given to him or her by the audience. At home, the interviewee would usually be an expert in something like nostril grooming or dumpster diving. But in Kenya, the suggestions we got were abortion, rape and educational policy.
(Makes six plate-sized chapatis.)
- 1.5 cups of water
- 1 tsp salt
- about three cups of wheat flour
- vegetable oil
Chapati is a flat bread, sort of like a cross between a tortilla and Naan. It's not as puffy as naan, but it's thicker than a tortilla, and it's usually eaten as a side dish.
- Boil 1.5 c. of water. When the water boils, add 1 tsp of salt.
- Add wheat flour to the water until you have a thick, non-sticky dough. Knead the dough to make sure the flour is completely mixed with the water.
- Grease the dough by kneading in a teaspoon of vegetable oil.
- Take a handful of dough and roll it into a plate-sized circle that's three to five millimetres thick.
- Put the circle in a medium hot frying pan. Don't add any oil yet.
- When the chapati has started to become firm and turn white, pull up one corner and put a little oil under it. Spin the chapati in a circle in the pan to evenly distribute the oil.
- Continue to cook, flipping as necessary, until the chapati is brown on both sides.
Improv in Kenya wasn't quite what we were used to, but we went with it anyhow. I think that some of the kids we taught really had fun, and maybe even learned something. A greater portion probably thought, "are all white people as crazy as this?" But that's okay, too. I'm sure we at least provided them with amusement, which is what improv is really about.
A chapati ready to be cooked.
I am Raphael Nd'ung'u Kimani and a Kenyan citizen. Being a neighbour to the JWHS, I have been a great beneficiery in the society, especially on the side of education. The first achievement was some years ago when for the first time I met a mzungu (white person ). I used to see them at the street. Praise God! Then I introduced myself only to be rewarded nicely and that's when we made our friendship with Beverly as I had heard her being called. [Beverly Stone is the executive director of Expanding Opportunities. -ed] She was very kind to listen to me. By that time I was not at school after being sent home due to delaying to pay the fees. Our friendship then went further when she made me able to go back to school. I was very happy.
She also brought some books from the States and I did not delayed to peruse through. Apart from getting some stationery, another wazungu, due to my inquisitive ness, had sent stories from their country of origin. I was very glad that they were very willing to share with me. I then had to make sure I did not let a day to pass without seeing them and have some funs and exchange some words I liked their conduct very much. I won't forget the education I got from them which was somewhat different from the kenyan education. This was especially due to a girl that was left to do gardening, and the method was very new to me because it never included the use of chemicals unlike the one we employ here in Kenya. [Raphael is referring to Catherine Sanders: an Expanding Opportunities volunteer who spent much of her time working in the home school's gardens. -ed] I also got involved in the gardening as well which was easy to catch up because I was in a school that was interested in agriculture. I got to know some application of words like 'thank you, sorry, excuse me, to mention but a few. My fellow friends did not delayed to comment on how my english speaking improved. I liked it.
A stack of chapatis cooking on a fire.
This year has been my great achievement, probably because it is the year which my mission in high school subsided I have been having all the time with this year's visitors from across the ocean. I have benefited intensely, I think its is because they were nearly to my age. The most great friend of mine were 'Jesse and Saima'. Having our best moment achieved for the last six months I have much from them. Jesse having graduated from computer science replenished my lost memory in computer operation after having forgotten it since I was in my form one and form two. [Form one and form two are the Kenyan equivalents of grades nine and ten. -ed] He not only rekindled my lost email but also fix a website of my pictures which after showing it to my friend suggested it was a miracle. But since the son of the man went to heaven I have never heard of any miracles. Every time I am not functioning I ventures in the JWHS and grab his laptop for some games, typing, hearing some music and also having my photos in it. Saima was also not left behind, she was always willling to let me have her laptop and play some games until it got broken down. We also take part in gardening with her and partially with Jesse and I had learned also much concerning gardening in the States. I appreciate their presence.
May the project prosper and achieve its goal.