Kenya's Eroding Food Culture


Photo by Pascale Brevet

In a country where approximately 80 percent of the population works in agriculture, Kenyans are deeply connected to the land. Through inheritance, a large majority own small plots called shamba. They otherwise work as casual laborers on farms. They eat either the crops they grow on their shamba or roots and vegetables grown in nearby fields and sold in local markets or on the side of the road. Yet, maize--a non-indigenous crop--s a staple food to more than 90 percent of Kenyans and the knowledge of growing native crops is rapidly disappearing.

Loss of traditions, disappearance of species and intensive agriculture are not particular to Kenya. What is specific to Kenya however, is the loss of pride in its culture and food. In 2004, in their first participation in the Terra Madre Slow Food event celebrating food traditions throughout the world, more than 50 Kenyans flew to Italy. "We were struck by how all the other participants were proud of their traditions and products," Samuel Muhunyu, the Kenyan coordinator of Network for Ecofarming in Africa, told me. "People from Asia, Europe or America were happy to share their indigenous foods and talk about them. And there we were, us Kenyans, unable to do the same. The food we eat today put our traditions in the shade. We forgot them, or rather we chose to do so to comply to a culture that wasn't ours."

Children long for Coca-Cola, though, far more than they do mursik, and for them food means maize and potatoes, not millet or sorghum.

Millet or sorghum used to be the core of a Kenyan diet, alongside other crops like cassava or yam, and it is still possible to find these foods in some places. I ate millet ugali with a Kalenjin family I visited near Olenguruone, and it was with them that I first tasted mursik, a traditional dairy specialty. A burnt stick of cromwo--a tree famous for its antiseptic properties--is rubbed inside a long and narrow hollow gourd made of dried squash. Cow's milk is then added and left to ferment for at least three days when the whey is drained, the container closed and shaken regularly. Ash gives the yogurt a smoky and slightly astringent taste, as well as a speckled gray color.

Children long for Coca-Cola, though, far more than they do mursik, and for them food means maize and potatoes, not millet or sorghum. Preceding generations consumed these western crops because they represented wealth and prestige. But there is no history or tradition attached to maize ugali. There are no stories to tell, no secret to pass down from generation to generation. Maize is brought to the mill to be ground into flour. Millet, on the other hand, used to be ground by hand before the mills appeared. A piece of hardened goat skin was laid on the floor to collect the flour. A flat stone was placed on top of it at an angle. Millet was poured in a curved piece of wood and shaken while blowing air on it to get rid of the dust. A bit of millet was then placed on the flat stone, and crushed by rubbing a smaller flat stone on it.

A huge part of Kenyan agriculture now consists of the cultivation of maize and potatoes. Potatoes are raised as monocrops, which impoverishes the soil. Maize is blindly grown everywhere in the country, even in dry areas where, in a normal year, it yields little to no harvest--and where hardy millet or sorghum would have performed far better. With the drought Kenya is now suffering, the first two harvests of maize in the Molo area, one of the most fertile in the country, were disastrous.

The focus on maize, along with large-scale farming of wheat, barley, coffee, and tea, has also caused a loss of biodiversity. Of more than 200 indigenous crops once heavily cultivated, only about 30 remain. Sorghum is richer in carbohydrates, proteins, iron, and calcium than maize, but its cultivation has slowed dramatically over the years so as to become almost nonexistent.

Many of these indigenous crops also have medicinal properties. Spider weed is known to relieve constipation. African nightshades have been used for centuries to cure stomach aches. Wild herbs were widely part of Kenyan cooking. Stinging nettle, for example, is famously rich in iron, which makes it particularly adapted for pregnant and lactating women and also a weaning food for babies.

Kenyan agriculture otherwise relies on non-native crops for export. Pineapple, green beans, coffee, and cut flowers provide significant revenues for the country but are not sustainable crops, because they require extensive irrigation--a use of water that is in direct competition with the needs of people and livestock. And the application of chemicals the non-native crops require causes water contamination.

The current drought has made the problem more acute. There is now greater urgency to recover biodiversity, which will in turn provide a balanced diet to more people. Hardy indigenous crops will allow more consistent harvests, less susceptible to dry weather. Export crops can continue to provide revenues to the country, but should be located in moist highlands and raised organically.

Not only will these efforts improve the security of the Kenyan food supply by providing more sustainable management of their land, they will also enable Kenyans to revive their food traditions and, once again, feel proud of what they grow and eat.