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Ugali is a stiff porridge made with the flour of one or more milled grains or tubers. The version made from maize flour is a Kenyan staple. Its dominance in the diet starts with the colonial wage labour system and evolves with the changing native versus settler agriculture and the commodification of farm produce. Eventually, it is embedded in the culture following class-stratified consumption patterns.

Setting the stage 

The rinderpest epidemic and the cattle lung sickness of the 1880s-90s decimate up to 90 per cent of the livestock in the East and Central Africa region. It is followed a smallpox epidemic in 1892. Then comes the Great East African Famine of 1887-89, caused by drought, a locust invasion and disease. Up to five out of ten people die. It is the dawn of colonial rule in the land that will be soon known as Kenya.

The death of so much livestock and so many people over such a short period of time changes ecosystems,  ecologies and food production systems. Some agropastoralist communities become plain agrarians. The crops cultivated include sorghum and millet, maize, beans, sweet potatoes and various other tubers and legumes. Maize had been introduced in the region much earlier—between the 16th and 18th centuries—to feed the Portuguese garrisons at the coast.

The construction of the railway begins, but it gets expensive. It is imperative that the East Africa Protectorate make economic sense. But this is not South Africa. Agriculture will have to do. And thus begin the incentives to bring in settlers.

Maize as compensation: The colonial wage labour system 

Settler agriculture is established in the rich agricultural areas or the highlands between 1905 and the 1920s. The original residents are pushed out into the areas of low potential although it is also probable that some of the alienated land has remained unoccupied after close to 50 per cent of the population dies during the Great Famine. Maize, sisal and cotton dominate the settler farms. Annual colonial government reports show a thriving enterprise generating a good income from the export of these crops.

Labour is a big problem. The European cannot figure out how to introduce the African into the formal monetary system, which is how the settler farms will get labour. Perhaps taxes that are to be paid only using currency? Expose the population to aspirational material goods that require money to buy? Coercion maybe? Restrict what crops to cultivate? The colonists end up trying a bit of everything to “motivate” Africans to come out and work on the farms.

The main employers at the time are the settler farms, the railway construction and various public works projects. As part of compensation, the farms feed their employees a daily ration of maize meal, a maize portion or posho, with beans and meat every now and then.

The posho is monotonous to the African who is used to much more variety and seasonality in the diet. It is no surprise that food monotony is a major contention among workers. And by the 1930s the posho ration is replaced by an additional monetary compensation so that the worker can purchase what they prefer to eat.

Posho is monotonous to the African who is used to much more variety and seasonality in the diet.

Labour is increasingly “imported” from other regions. Their land not being suitable for systematic alienation due to climate, the prevalence of sleeping sickness and malaria, Nyanza and Western provinces are the biggest sources of colonial labour. Many from the two provinces go to work outside of their home areas, which explains the early and extensive contact with maize ugali among these communities.

As labour is sought from different parts of the country, maize ugali and restricted diets are slowly introduced to the population at scale. It is now the staple food for labourers and urban residents and it will not be long before it is adopted in the reserves.

Cultivating maize: changing African agriculture

By 1910, maize is dominating African farms in monocropped stands, a significant change from the multiple crops cultivated just 30 years earlier.  Among a handful of communities, crops are now cultivated specifically for the market. They are sold to urban dwellers, railway workers and settler farm labourers. So far, high-value agriculture is a preserve of the settlers. It prevents Africans from competing with European farmers for markets, land or labour.

More changes take place between 1914 and 1921: World War I, the Spanish Flu of 1918 and the famine of 1919-21. The war takes young able-bodied men. The flu weakens and kills others. Post-World War I, more settlers—the ex-soldiers—are coming in and need more land for settlement. Maize becomes the go-to crop under these conditions.

Maize requires less labour than the millet and sorghum that are traditionally farmed. It is borne on an enclosed cob, unlike sorghum that is exposed, requiring people—usually children—to chase away birds. Children are in school now and adult males are working in urban centres or on settler farms, or are engaged in the war effort. The kinship that supplied labour to work the land is broken or at risk. Women are solely in charge of food production now. And their plate is full of other responsibilities. Under these conditions, maize is catapulted to a staple crop.

By the 1920s, maize is ground up into flour using hammer mills or posho mills. Milled maize has a time and effort advantage, particularly among urban residents and workers. By now there is a thriving commodity market. Instead of storing surpluses for a rainy day, there is pressure to sell. There are bigger markets for the produce, taxes to be paid and goods to be bought, among other hard currency needs.

The commodification of maize: The inter-war years and the Great Depression 

Colonial thought is evolving. Post-1920s, we see a shift to the doctrine of trusteeship and an “African paramountcy” policy, which culminates in the Devonshire Declaration of 1923. The declaration introduces a dual mandate where the colonial government is supposed to invest in both European and African interests. Perhaps the rationale here is that the colony cannot survive solely on settler farm produce. It is imperative to diversify to native produce—and not just its labour—to support the colonial enterprise financially.

The consequences of the ideological shift are immediate; growing interest in African education, agriculture, industry, economy and society. African agriculture gets market-oriented seeds and supposedly better farming technologies. The settlers cultivate a “Flat White” variety of maize favoured by their European markets, different from the denser varieties that the African farmers cultivate. To boost the commercialization of maize, new varieties are introduced to the more “progressive” native farmers.

Instead of the coercion of the earlier decade, the colonial government changes tack. It is called instruction and education to teach  farmers “better” agricultural methods. Demonstration farms are set up and agricultural shows organised. A section for native agriculture is established within the Department of Agriculture in 1922. Legislation is enacted to “boost” native agriculture and food security but the effects are a mixed bag. They fail to address the main issues affecting native agriculture, namely, loss of land and labour.

Milled maize has a time and effort advantage, particularly among urban residents and workers.

Despite the low capital investment, production in native agriculture improves significantly in the mid-1920s to 1930s. In 1920, for example, 750,000 bags of maize are produced, and the number grows to 1.387 million bags by the 1930s and to 1.966 million bags by the 1940s. Much of the increase is attributed to increased acreage rather than intensive agriculture. The produce is for local markets as Africans cannot yet access export markets. Due to a growing labour pool in settler estates, expanding urban areas and a growing population, there is a high demand for food supplies including grains such as maize, and meat and vegetables.

Market centres within the reserves act as sites for African entrepreneurship while Indian traders sell the produce outside the districts/reserves. Commercialized native agriculture is driven by female labour, which is important because it helps avert high and direct competition for labour between native and settler farms.

The commodification of farm produce, particularly maize, is complete by the end of the 1920s. The 1929-30 famine is partly blamed on the increased commercialization of farm produce. Most farm produce is sold to the markets leaving little for storage. Depending on incomes, food supplies can now be purchased from regions of plenty and distributed to areas of scarcity. The trend is interrupted when, by 1930, the American Depression affects world market prices.

The Great Depression

The export markets fail as the price of Kenyan produce plummets. Many settlers default on loans as credit had been issued on the basis of highly speculated land value. Some choose to leave the country. Wage employment on settler farms dwindles, and many workers return to the reserves. The state of the balance sheet is precarious, and the debt obligations, including the railway debt, are at risk.

An initial solution is to sell maize (and other produce) from the settler farms on local markets. Maize is sold or purchased to temper the scarcity caused by temporary local disruptions in the food supply. There are wider effects of commodification and commercialization; food supply—and whether traders can source and distribute food supplies from production areas to scarcity areas—becomes a factor of the market

The thriving trade creates a group of wealthy traders, which begins the stratification of the society by class. Growing class differentiation influences who aligns with the colonial institutions that are coming up and determines access to schools, education and investments in agriculture.

Diversification from maize: World War II, environmentalism and agricultural reforms 

When World War II breaks out, food sufficiency is of the utmost priority for the Kenyan colony. The Europeans would like to support the war effort with food but shipping infrastructure is engaged, and sourcing cheaply produced maize from Argentina becomes a strategic advantage. But eventually, they do support the Allied troops in the Middle East with maize.

Locally, the demand for food is even higher during the war years. Between 1939 and 1942, the workers who had left during the depression return to urban areas to find employment as soldiers and professionals. Around this time, 55 per cent of adult males from North Kavirondo and 40 per cent from Central Province work outside their reserves, finding employment in civil and military service.

Besides the local population, there are now Italian prisoners of war, Polish refugees and South African soldiers arriving to thwart an expected invasion from Ethiopia. All these people require food in the form of meat, grains and vegetables. The increased demand causes a revamp of agriculture in Kenya, and both the native and the settler make a profit, although the native farmer has to use the black market as we shall see later.

Growing environmentalism

The war had interrupted a growing environmentalism movement, which had begun in 1930s and which picked up again in 1945. The Dust Bowl phenomenon occurring in America in the early 1930s might have shaped the early preoccupation with soil conservation and environmentalism around the world. In Kenya, there had been ongoing concerns about overgrazing and soil erosion, and initial attempts to forcefully reduce livestock numbers, particularly in the Ukambani reserve. Additionally, the colonial government tried to “encourage” Africans to practice mixed cropping instead of monocropping maize, despite it having been practiced well before colonial rule. During the war years, the famine of 1942-43 refocused the earlier concerns about land degradation, soil erosion and overstocking, leading to the implementation of conservation measures as the war ended.

Besides the local population, there are now Italian prisoners of war, Polish refugees and South African soldiers arriving to thwart an expected invasion from Ethiopia.

The conservation measures included the relocation of some populations and communal efforts to implement terracing. The 1946-1955 10-year development plan had a £3 million budget to fund afforestation projects, dam construction and grazing control schemes, among others. None of these efforts had a significant impact, partly because they ignored the underlying causes—the concentration of people, their agriculture and livestock in the less fertile reserves. The population had increased since the reserves had been created without a commensurate increase in land size. Fallowing was less likely to be undertaken, leading to land over-utilization. To this add the issues of land tenure and fragmentation.

Agricultural reforms

The failure of the conservation measures forced the colonial government to open up cash crop cultivation to African farmers. Other factors were at play here: growing political unrest, changing colonial thought and hesitation in addressing land tenure issues. The assumption was that cash crops such as tea and coffee could offer higher value, leading to less land exploitation in high-population areas.

When the State of Emergency was declared, the government was keen to implement agricultural reforms partly because coercion would be much easier. The major land and production reforms encompassed in the Sywnnerton Plan of 1954 consolidated land holdings, commercialized peasant agriculture and diversified production to other crops. Consolidation was possible partly because of the villagization policy of the Emergency years. There were upsides to these reforms—by 1950, African farmers were growing coffee and tea, rice, pineapples, pyrethrum, cotton and sisal in small holdings across the country. However, most of these reforms were implemented in the better-staffed Central Province, and also partly as an effort to smother political agitation around land issues.

Globalization of maize supply: Independence and missed opportunities 

At the dawn of independence the land issues had still not been adequately addressed and agricultural production remained fragmented among smallholder farmers. There were efforts to provide land to former squatters and the growing landless class, but a coherent agricultural policy to support commercialized smallholder food production became a missed opportunity.

Maize is still a staple, and when production fails to meet demand, it is sourced from areas of plenty like before. Only that these areas are now international markets. These markets utilize war-time inventions—fertilizer, mechanization and pesticides—to produce cheaply with government subsidies and in enough quantities to flood markets in ways that local produce cannot compete. Some use their excess grains and cereals as foreign policy tools, selling or giving them as food aid to serve their political, economic or military agendas.

The Dust Bowl phenomenon occurring in America in the early 1930s might have shaped the early preoccupation with soil conservation and environmentalism around the world.

More critically, the opportunity to properly address the land and environmental issues of the post-war years, consolidate food production in the country and address the historical inequalities in agricultural investments and reforms is missed. The colonial government focused investments in a small part of the country largely ignoring the rest. Moreover, when they did not understand something like pastoralism or the African way of livestock management, they destroyed it. Post-independence, we missed the opportunity to correct this approach and way of thinking which persists to date.

Maize and famine relief 

Before the 1880s, the food systems of many communities were fairly complex. There were multiple production systems and ways of acquiring food including farming and hunting and gathering. Crops were cultivated on multiple parcels of land. In some communities, securing food was gendered; the produce from land parcels belonging to women was used for everyday consumption while that from the men was stored. Storage was critical; some produce was traded, but food stocks were never sold off entirely.

Livestock was kept to supplement the diet or was used for exchange—backup for lean years. As a last resort, communities migrated. Others made use of complex kinships and relationships with neighbouring communities. The pastoralist and agrarian communities had a symbiotic relationship; the Maasai, for example, relied on their crop-cultivating neighbours to exchange cattle for food.  At the very least, these food systems ensured that famine would not become a mass death event.

The loss of land and labour forced the cultivation of maize as a cash crop and supported its conversion to a staple, away from the millet, sorghum and beans of earlier years. The 1917-18 famine resulted from multiple factors including changing labour and societal relations. But by the 1929-30 famine, the commodification of food production is both a cause of and a solution to famine.

In the American Depression years, settlers were also offloading their maize to the local markets where there was temporary scarcity. During the World War II years, African farmers were at their peak in the production of maize and other food crops. However, the introduction of a maize control board that offered KSh13 per bag of maize to the European and only KSh6 to the native farmer forced the latter to trade in the black market.

Storage was critical; some produce was traded, but food stocks were never sold off entirely.

During the famine of 1942, one of the worst to hit the Ukambani reserve, purchasing food saved the region from mass death events. The community had remittances from those who had been recruited as soldiers in the Second World War.  The Kikuyu and Nyanza regions also suffered the famine, partly because their food supplies were sold off. However, when drought and locusts hit, these regions had no immediate cushion against starvation.

The famine response trends persisted post-independence as is evident during the 1984-5 famine. The famine of 1984, one of the worst in the Horn of Africa, was perhaps of similar historical significance as the Great Famine a century earlier. It was preceded by three consecutive years of failed rains. By 1984, the population was just shy of 20 million, and maize comprised 40 per cent of the national diet. The government had to import yellow maize, distributing it through commercial channels, with food aid coming in later.

Due to the scale of the famine, whatever community, if any, remained untouched by the wage labour system, the earlier famines and the maize-first production systems, then became introduced to maize as a staple during the famine of ’84.

Ugali and culture today

The position that maize occupies in the national diet can be attributed to ugali and to processing capabilities. Processing changes farm produce into food by giving it multiple functions and uses in the kitchen and on the table. Processing methods such as milling or dehulling address the consumer needs for convenience, perceived variety and ease of preparation.

Pre-colonial era processing of maize into flour was by stone or by using a mortar and pestle. The end product was coarse flour used to make porridge or fragmented maize grains for making gruel or grits. The pre-colonial varieties of maize are malleable to these home processing technologies.

The famine of 1984, one of the worst in the Horn of Africa, was perhaps of similar historical significance as the Great Famine a century earlier.

Modern milling technologies produce more refined, sweeter and whiter maize flour and can work with the newer maize varieties. The cooking process is faster and easier, suitable for the worker who is preparing a quick meal to get back to work, and for the urban dweller who does not have the time, cooking fuel or space to home process maize.

Ugali also has affordable and accessible pairings. These can be as simple as vegetables, as diverse as milk or other beverages and as complex as meat or legumes. This is an ideal situation for one with limited resources such as the worker or the urban dweller. The mainstreaming of ugali in the food culture starts in urban areas and in other areas of employment. It is an “away from home” food, something to live on before you travel back home for better. Bear in mind that, historically and culturally, urban areas are places in which to live as you work. But home, actual or perceived, is elsewhere in the rural areas.

These dietary habits and preferences find their way to the reserves, perhaps during the lean years and in times of famines, as an “until it gets better” food.  One generation after the other experience it. And soon enough we all think of ugali as part and parcel of our food culture. But its origins in the urban diet and in the wage labour system are never quite erased; there are class differences in its consumption patterns that are observable to date.