When my father died in the early 1990s, my mother and my two siblings moved to Kisii in Southwest Kenya. Widowed in her early 30s, my mother inherited about four acres of my father’s ancestral land on which to eke out a living for her young family.
Mother proved to be an effective farmer from the outset. My father was buried in January, the beginning of the planting season. Eight months after his burial, my mother brought in from the fields a bumper harvest of maize and beans. I remember several donkeys ferrying the maize from the farm that was about a mile away from home. The harvest was big enough to fill two granaries with the long cob maize variety that was then common. A well-stocked granary held about ten 90-kilogramme bags of maize and two would hold roughly two tonnes of maize, enough to last a family of four an entire season with a surplus to sell at the nearby Riochanda market where both Kisiis and Luos trade.
Following a typical planting season, the same piece of land could yield a tonne of beans or groundnuts. In the mixed system of farming that was practiced then, sorghum and cassava were planted in sections of the land, and it was not uncommon to also find legumes and potatoes (sweet or Irish) growing wild. As kids, we were encouraged to go after the morogoto, or what agriculturalists call “imperfect produce”: odd-shaped potatoes, bananas that are smaller than the rest of the crop, rotten or rotting grains (that would be sold to chang’aa brewers) and other harvest not suitable for the market. We would sell the morogoto to our parents or to millers of cattle feed. It was a way of instilling a sense responsibility in the young.
Even though in the 1990s land was becoming an issue as the Kisii population ballooned, each family could still harvest enough to fill two granaries on average, besides the extra produce that was also harvested from the farm. A typical family was therefore able to live on the produce grown on their piece of ancestral land.
What distinguishes the 1990s and the preceding years from the present is the variety of foods that were available back then. Besides the cereals and legumes, there were assorted wild mushrooms (enokitate), wild fruit, and avocadoes. Kitchen gardens produced enough varieties of vegetables for domestic consumption and for sale at nearby markets. Of the cash crops then common, only tea remains; almost all the coffee plantations have been uprooted because of poor earnings and land pressure, while pyrethrum is all but gone.
Some 30 years later, if my father were to resurrect, he would not recognise the land of his birth. Almost all the natural springs that he must have drunk from are gone. Dried up. Rivers and streams that were big enough to be described as permanent rivers are now a pale shadow of their former selves, reduced to seasonal streams.
On the food front, the wild fruits have become rarer. All the delicious mushroom varieties are gone. Granaries have disappeared from homesteads. Bumper harvests have been unheard off in the last two decades. In fact, the entire farming system has changed drastically. Even the donkeys that were used as beasts of burden are no longer a common sight. Rural Kisii has undergone a quiet transformation, unnoticed, but the effects reverberate in every homestead.
The disappearance of finger millet: A metaphor for changing times
While researching this essay, I asked various farmers what had changed in the last three decades. There was a consensus that the disappearance of finger millet from nearly all farms illustrates how farming has drastically changed for the worse in Kisii.
Finger millet, best known as the key component of brown ugali and porridge, is held in high cultural regard among the Abagusii. Long before it was found to be a wonder food for diabetics, the Abagusii reserved millet ugali for elders, for culturally important functions like bride-price negotiations or for visiting in-laws. Finger millet was also used as a source of yeast in alcohol production and for other medicinal purposes.
Finger millet farming was an intricate science passed from one generation of women to another, with each family dedicating a substantial chunk of their land to its production, both for use and for sale at the market since it fetched good returns. Today, less and less of the grain is farmed.
Wycliffe Onduso, 44, a farmer in Kisii and Transmara, says that land subdivision has rendered the production of finger millet untenable. Among the Kisii, the reasons for farming finger millet are cultural before they are commercial, and traditionally this labour intensive grain was farmed by women on ancestral land. However, Onduso’s ancestral land in Kisii is only large enough to hold his three-bedroom bungalow and little else; he does most of his farming on land leased in Transmara where there is a preference for high yield crops like maize and sugar cane.
Rural Kisii has undergone a quiet transformation, unnoticed, but the effects reverberate in every homestead.
In her 1998 study, Re-conceptualising Food Security: Interlocking Strategies, Unfolding Choices and Rural Livelihoods in Kisii District, Kenya, the late Prof. Mary Omosa explains that, “A typical Gusii farm consists of a long (and wide) strip of land running from the top of a ridge to a valley bottom and it includes the homestead.” In the customary land tenure system of the Abagusii, only men can inherit arable land while grazing sites and forests are shared by kinsmen.
Nearly all the land has been gobbled up in the space of two generations, and in the case of Onduso’s family and virtually all his extended family, his is the last generation to inherit a stamp-sized piece of land; his children will inherit nothing.
A mass exodus of Kisiis began in the early 1990s, with many first settling in the Rift Valley. However, fear of election-related violence saw many Kisiis settle permanently as far away as possible from the Rift Valley, with some moving to other parts of Western Kenya, to Makueni and Kitui in Eastern Kenya, to Taita Taveta and to the Coast.
Land subdivision in Kisii has limited farming, with two dire consequences.
First, where in the 1990s my mother had the luxury of practicing crop rotation and could afford to “rest” a whole acre, readying it for the next planting season, this is no longer possible. Crop rotation is practically impossible in present-day Kisii and Nyamira counties.
Secondly, as the size of land diminished, the variety of crops grown has also been reduced to maize and beans at most. Coffee plantations have been uprooted, and tea plantations may follow suit, partly due to the dwindling space for farming and housing and partly due to dwindling earnings from tea.
A mass exodus of Kisiis began in the early 1990s, with many first settling in the Rift Valley.
The little arable land remaining is over-farmed. To borrow from Chinua Achebe’s No Longer at Ease, when villagers contribute measly gifts to Obi Okonkwo to send him to England to study and come back to get into formal employment, it is because in the village, “men and women toiled from year to year to wrest a meagre living from an unwilling and exhausted soil”.
That is where Kisii is at presently; after being farmed season in, season out without a break, the soil is unyielding.
Soil fertility has gone down significantly; the portion of land that could fill a granary can no longer fill even a third of it. Whatever people harvest directly from the farm is too little to store; it is dried and taken directly to the millers. Besides, we no longer have the long cob maize variety. “Lately it is small cobs that don’t yield much,” observes Onduso. The harvest used to last two planting seasons (February to August and August to February). Those who did not harvest enough resorted to buying grain in mid-season, which was highly frowned-upon. Now, buying food, or ogotonda, is the norm, as more people have to buy maize from places like Kitale.
Petty theft has become increasingly common. “Stealing of bananas or other ready produce, including chicken, is common across Kisii,” notes Onduso, a testament to the underlying poverty as more people find themselves with little to no land to farm to meet their nutritional needs.
Changing Dietary Patterns
Since Kenya’s independence, the diet of the Abagusii has remained relatively constant. It consists of one part starch, usually ugali made from maize meal, and vegetables, mostly kales as well as the common African traditional vegetables such as manage (black nightshade), chinsaga (spider plant), egesare (cowpea) and emboga (amaranth). For families with cattle, fermented milk is a common delicacy.
Contrary to popular belief, Kisiis do not hold bananas in high regard. A culinary joke that ran for the longest time was that if someone had eaten banana stew for supper and you asked them shortly afterwards if he or she had eaten, the standard response would invariably be, “No, I have not eaten, just banana stew,” a testament to the pre-eminence of ugali as the staple food of the Abagusii. For breakfast, bananas, sweet potatoes, and cassava were the preferred accompaniment for tea, taken black or white.
However, given the shrinking farms, plants such as bananas that need large spaces to grow have become rare, and poverty has driven most families to sell their banana crop to predatory buyers from Nairobi rather than consuming it themselves. The result is that people have slowly embraced bread and other wheat products as a breakfast alternative. And while they can still buy sweet potatoes from Luo Nyanza, the cost has gone up considerably.
Scholars such as the aforementioned Prof. Omosa and Mario Schmidt (writing for the Food, Culture and Society Journal), have noted the dilemma most small-scale farmers face: should they consume the food they produce from their small farms or should they sell in the local markets or to buyers from Nairobi? Often the latter choice carries the day, compromising dietary choices, which partly explains the malnourishment that is prevalent in Kisii despite the region’s deceptively green landscape.
Mass exodus and generational interdependency
According to the Economic Survey 2021, Kisii had the highest frequency of emigration of all of Kenya’s 47 counties. Those who leave Kisii do so with the aim of seeking better opportunities while those who remain behind, usually retired or aging parents and younger siblings, depend on them to send back money. And if things do not work out for those who leave for the city, they may find themselves relying on parents to send food to them from the countryside.
Poverty has driven most families to sell their banana crop to predatory buyers from Nairobi rather than consuming it themselves.
Typically, the young men and women will do all manner of odd jobs, sending a portion of their wages to their parents, which they use to buy seeds for planting. In return, after the harvest, their parents send them food using the services of couriers such as Transline and Ena Coach. This trend peaked during the COVID-19 pandemic when many living in urban areas lost their jobs.
Even so, farming has declined as wealthier families move their parents to the city or outside the country. And for those parents who remain in Kisii, well-off children send money to buy food, since it is no longer economical to farm on the little available land. Rice and wheat products have slowly been embraced as middle class families are likely to afford a more versatile diet, rather than one limited to ugali.
The climate change factor
In early 2018, I went back to South Kisii where I had spent my teenage years and where one of my objects of fascination was River Kuja (Gucha in Kisii), a big permanent river, often classified alongside River Sondu, Nyando, Yala and Nzoia as the main tributaries of Lake Victoria.
When I arrived in Ogembo, the headquarters of the former Gucha District, I was shocked to see that the riverbed was almost completely dry. Most springs have dried up in the once wet and fertile Kisii, and River Kuja was no exception. During the same period, the notorious River Nyando, whose floods often wreak havoc on those around Nyando, had also dried up completely.
When my family settled in Kisii in the 1990s, the climate was steady and predictable; a dry January enabled preparation of the land for the February planting season that guaranteed a harvest come August. February and March brought short rains for the planting and weeding season. April-May brought the long rains that enabled a richer growth of the produce. June-July were dry months, enabling harvesting in August, followed by the short rains that enabled planting for the short season that ran from August to February. Rinse, repeat. With a few notable exceptions, such as the 1997-98 El Nino rains and the occasional prolonged dry spell, the climate remained largely friendly and predictable.
Farming has declined as wealthier families move their parents to the city or outside the country.
However, this weather pattern is no longer guaranteed — in Kisii or anywhere else in the country. Sometimes, as happened in early 2018, the country can go without rain for five months. And droughts can alternate with floods, leaving farmers extremely vulnerable.
“A number of studies indicate that climate change has affected agriculture and food security by shifting spatial and temporal distribution of rain, biodiversity, and terrestrial resources like water, and eventually impacting heavily on food security,” says Bernard Moseti, a Social Development, Policy, and Governance expert.
Evidently, more and more Kisii no longer follow the traditions of the past. Even the crop varieties have been modified to meet the current planting cycle. This means food security risks have multiplied because of the frequency and intensity of climate change-related disasters and extremes.
This article is part of The Elephant Food Edition Series done in collaboration with Route to Food Initiative (RTFI). Views expressed in the article are not necessarily those of the RTFI.
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Taita Taveta: The Land of Dietary Contrasts
Low investments in the agricultural sector, inadequate rainfall, reduced crop yields, lack of water for irrigation, land scarcity, and poverty are among the challenges that affect food production in Taita Taveta, rendering the county food insecure.
The Taita occupy the three sub-counties of Mwatate, Voi and Wundanyi in Taita Taveta County. They are thought to have migrated northwards through present day Tanzania to settle around Taita Hills, the northernmost part of the Eastern Arc Mountains. Taveta, the other sub-county within Taita Taveta County, is occupied by the Taveta-speaking people, and borders Tanzania to the South. Taita Taveta is a melting pot of ethnicities although the Taita and the Taveta are the majority. The county covers an area of approximately 17,100 square kilometres, with 62 per cent of the land taken up by the Tsavo East and Tsavo West National Parks. The rest of the land is occupied by ranches, private estates, and human settlements. Landlessness is acute in the county owing to poverty, displacement, evictions and the limited amount of land available for human activity.
The varied topography of Taita Taveta County—the upper zones which include the Sagalla, Mwambirwa and Taita Hills, the lowlands or plains of Voi and Mwatate and the volcanic foothills of Taveta—affect climatic conditions, water availability, and the viability of the land for agricultural purposes. Due its topography, most of the underground water in the county is to be found in the springs in Taveta and around Lakes Chala and Jipe. Higher rainfall is experienced in the highland areas where the forest cover provides a good catchment area. The plains are mostly semi-arid, experiencing very low rainfall. Three rivers—Lumi, Voi and Tsavo—traverse the county and the largest spring, Mzima Springs, is in Voi sub-county. The temperatures average 17°C in the high altitude areas and 30°C in the lowlands. Rainfall is in two cycles annually: the long rains between March and May and the short rains between October and December.
Like other Kenyans, the Taita eat ugali—the Swahili name for a stiff porridge made with maize meal that they call mswara—with an accompaniment of green leafy vegetables such as sukuma wiki (collard greens) spinach, cabbage, mnavu ghwa soko (cowpea leaves), mwapa (cassava leaves), pumpkin leaves, or foraged wild varieties such as mnyunya (wild lettuce), mgagani (Cleome gynandra), mwapa (cassava leaves), mchicha (amaranth leaves), ndunda (black nightshade), etc. Ugali flour is made from dried maize traditionally pounded with a mortar and pestle, then further ground either by hand or machine. Pounded maize is also used to make another Taita favourite called pure (a mix of pounded maize and beans). The maize chaff is traditionally used for making mbangara, the local beer. The Taita used to eat game meat when hunting was legal, or farmed livestock such as cattle, sheep, goats, chickens, ducks, pigs, etc. The meat was either dried on rocks (mdanda) or smoked over a wood-burning stove. Nowadays, most eat their meat fresh.
Habitual approaches to consuming food in Taita are no different from those of other communities around the country. For the Taita, breakfast and the evening meal are centred around family, but lunch is consumed individually wherever the family members are, which could be at work, home, or school. The packed lunch will most likely be the remains of the previous evening’s meal. However, those who can afford it eat this meal in restaurants and cafés.
Gender, feasts and memories
There is a gendered dynamic in Taita homes as food preparation falls to the womenfolk, and the knowledge is passed down the generations from grandmother to mother to daughter. However, many Taita men also know how to cook and in fact, my sister and I learnt how to cook mswara from our dad. Women’s labour is not limited to food preparation; women are involved in the entire food production chain, from cultivation, harvesting, processing, storage, transportation, buying and selling, and finally, preparation.
Food is central to celebrations in Taita. The community comes together to prepare food for communal functions such as funerals, weddings, and other festivities. Women do most of this communal labour although of late those with means pay for outside catering. Meals to celebrate religious holidays such as Easter, Christmas or Eid are made within the family, with sharing in mind. In our Christian household for instance, whenever an animal is slaughtered for such celebrations, it is done by a Muslim in a halal manner, enabling us to share and celebrate with our Muslim kin and friends.
No celebratory Taita meal is complete without pilau, chapati, kuku fry, maharagwe ya nazi, mbuzi fry, choma, kimanga and mbangara. Oh, and tea, litres and litres of tea. As is the case with many other ethnic groups in Kenya, the Taita food culture has been influenced by the culinary traditions of other Kenyan communities, introducing a demand for new foods that were previously not part of the traditional diet.
Food, land and devolution
Rain-fed subsistence agriculture is the main economic activity in Taita Taveta County, with farmers growing maize, beans, sorghum, cowpeas, pigeon peas, green grams and vegetables for their own consumption and selling the surplus. Livestock farming is either on communal or government ranches, or by small-scale farmers rearing animals in their homesteads or bomas in the plains (kireti). Agricultural labour is provided by the farmers’ families and hired full-time or part-time labourers.
The 2013 devolution of agricultural functions to the county level prompted the County Government of Taita Taveta to work together with farmers, the County Assembly of Taita Taveta, traders, Agro-NGOs and consumers to ensure the county’s food security. According to the county’s budget estimates for 2019-2020, approximately KSh800 million was earmarked for the agricultural, water, and ecology sectors, as well as agribusiness development. Some of the allocated funds came from development partners such as the World Bank, the European Union, and Sweden. This money was intended to improve the agricultural food supply chain starting with production, i.e. development of water infrastructure for irrigation, access to seeds, agricultural extension services, etc., to enable farmers produce the food. To ensure that this produce gets to markets, investments in infrastructure like feeder roads and actual markets were planned for. Investments in the areas of agri-business were meant to supplement farmers or individuals in establishing value addition businesses. As Taita’s main economic activity is subsistence agriculture, the county government hoped that this investment would improve farmers livelihoods thereby increasing their purchasing power.
As is the case with many other ethnic groups in Kenya, the Taita food culture has been influenced by the culinary traditions of other Kenyan communities.
However, a look at the 2020 County Budget Review and Outlook Paper, which reviews the county government’s actual fiscal performance for 2019-2020, shows that out of a budget of KSh4.73 billion, KSh3.96 billion or 84 per cent of the budget, was used for recurrent expenditure, leaving about KSh77 million for all county projects, a far cry from the budgeted KSh800 million for the agricultural and water sectors alone.
Besides the low levels of expenditure for agricultural projects, a myriad of other factors including low rainfall, reduced crop yields, lack of water for irrigation, environmental and climatic factors, land scarcity, and poverty affect food production and accessibility, rendering Taita Taveta food insecure. This food insecurity is felt the most in the drier Taita region and for decades now Taveta has been Taita’s key food supplier. Taveta is able to supply the Taita region for two reasons: its topography and its location.
Sitting on the volcanic foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro, Taveta has fertile soils and, more importantly, it has both aboveground and underground water that can be used for irrigation. With water from Lake Chala and from Njoro Springs, Taveta has been able to irrigate up to 53 per cent of its potentially irrigable acreage, compared to Taita where only 14 per cent of land is under irrigation. In addition, Taveta has more smallholder irrigation schemes per square kilometre—4 per cent, compared to Taita’s 0.55 per cent.
The second reason why Taveta is important as a source of food supply for the Taita region is its location. Taveta borders Tanzania to the South and has a thriving border economy with the country that has been enhanced following the opening of the Taveta-Holili one-stop border post. In addition, the new Taveta market has increased Taveta’s access to agricultural produce—such as maize, beans, vegetables, fruits and rice—from the Northern Kilimanjaro region. To the west, Taveta also has access to food markets in the Kenyan interior via the Loitokitok Sub-County of Kajiado County.
This food insecurity is felt the most in the drier Taita region and for decades now Taveta has been Taita’s key food supplier.
The county government of Taita Taveta is trying to promote a move towards commercialisation of farming as evidenced by the mandates of both its departments of Agriculture, Livestock, Irrigation & Fisheries and Water, Environment & Sanitation. These departments have drawn up strategies that include increasing the acreage under irrigation, developing irrigation infrastructure, mechanising farming, encouraging the formation of cooperatives in the agricultural sector, supporting value addition agri-businesses, etc., to improve farming output and the agricultural supply chain. The government is also supported by development partners in this commercialization push, either through direct funding or expertise. Livestock farming, fish farming, macadamia farming, bee keeping, rice farming, and groundnut farming, are some of the areas being encouraged and supported.
There are a few major private agro-estates and ranches, such as Lualenyi Ranch and Teita Estate, and a few county government ranches that produce milk and beef for sale outside the county.
Farms, food markets and seed culture
Apart from the climate challenges, land scarcity, deforestation and low rainfall that are creating food insecurity, the cost of farm inputs is another challenge for Taita farmers.
Traditional seed preservation and sharing methods were cheaper for the farmers as they could swap or sell seeds to each other. Where formerly farming families kept back seed for planting in the next season, this is now impossible given the seed laws that have criminalized sharing, exchanging or selling uncertified and unregistered seeds, creating dependency on seed companies. Having said that, one must acknowledge that due to the lack of water for irrigation and low rainfall, the farmers need to move to other farming technologies that would improve their crop. To resolve this issue, there is ongoing research within the county, undertaken by NGOs and research institutions, to develop drought-resistant seed varieties that can do well under Taita Taveta’s climatic conditions. However, this still does not address the concerns regarding the draconian seed laws which ignore the fact that, according to Greenpeace, up to 90 per cent of seeds planted in Kenya come from informal seed systems on which 80 per cent of smallholder farms rely.
Value addition is another key area that is lacking along the food production chain in Taita Taveta where most of the produce is sold or consumed in its most basic form. The county government is intent on developing capacity for value addition businesses in order to safeguard agricultural produce, create employment opportunities, and avail markets to the farmers. Calls for stalled projects to be completed, such as the Taveta Banana Processing Plant, are frequently heard.
Food production in Taita is also affected by human-wildlife conflict, with cases of marauding elephants from the neighbouring national parks rampaging through farms and destroying crops, baboons harvesting farmers’ crops or big cats making away with livestock being frequently reported. A 2020 study found that most farms in the Taita Hills were raided on a weekly basis by monkeys and, to a lesser extent baboons, and that this posed a serious threat to food security in the area. Local NGOs have embarked on a project to create a forested wildlife corridor along the Voi river, linking the Taita Hills with Tsavo East National Park to keep the primates away from the farms (although the study’s findings that farms close to the forests are raided more frequently may cast some doubt on the utility of this approach if farmers keep encroaching on wildlife areas).
According to Greenpeace, up to 90 per cent of seeds planted in Kenya come from informal seed systems on which 80 per cent of smallholder farms rely.
In addition, frequent clashes between pastoralists and farmers due to land scarcity are another area of concern. According to a 2013 study, Taita Taveta has since pre-colonial times experienced societal disruptions caused by cattle rustling, and persistent droughts that have weakened pre-existing regional networks of interaction, exchange, and crisis management. The establishment of the Tsavo National Park, which alienated traditional land, and land grabs by local elites related to commercial farming and mining opportunities, have further intensified these conflicts, leading to disruption, displacement and loss of life, with the attendant impacts on access to food.
All is not gloom and doom, however. Together with the newly operationalised modern markets in Mwatate and Taveta, the County Government of Taita Taveta has also opened many markets throughout the county, improving access to food, and creating avenues for the people and the county to earn revenues while also bringing improvements to other sectors such as the transport sector. These and other initiatives that the agriculture stakeholders in Taita Taveta are taking should surely turn around the food security situation in the county.
This article is part of The Elephant Food Edition Series done in collaboration with Route to Food Initiative (RTFI). Views expressed in the article are not necessarily those of the RTFI.
Food Culture at the Kenyan Coast
Coastal cuisine is known for being cheap and providing value for money. However, ironically, in the rural areas and informal settlements within the coastal region, a balanced diet is often inaccessible.
For many years the 1420-kilometre-long Kenyan coastline has provided home and sustenance to Arab, Swahili, and Mijikenda societies and boasted food influences from far and wide. These culinary influences have at various stages in history included Chinese, Portuguese, African, Arab, Indian and Italian cuisines. In A history of African Cuisine James McCann defines a cuisine as “a distinct and coherent body of food preparations which is based on one or more starchy staples, a set of spice combinations, complementary tastes, particular textures, iconic rituals, and a locally intelligible repertoire of meats, vegetables and starchy texture … form[ing a] structure of both preparation and presentation”. Swahili cuisine is a blend of Bantu, Indian, Arab, Persian and Portuguese cuisine that Nasra Bwana describes as a diverse and flavourful culmination of inter-community exchange that it is “rooted in lengthy history”.
Swahili cuisine ranges from the simplest to the most intricate of dishes catering to a wide palate. The mix of cultures, ingredients and cooking methods has produced a wide variety of signature foods. Take the case of Italian cuisine in the north coast area of Malindi that was introduced by Italians who came to work at the Broglio Space Centre that served as a spaceport for the launch of both Italian and international satellites between 1967 and 1988. Many went back home after the launches stopped but a few stuck around long enough to introduce their cultures and cuisines to the local communities. Today the town brims with Italian restaurants, pizzerias, delis and gelato shops. Pizza, pasta, lasagna and risotto are the legacy of their continued stay here. Kenyans along the north coast have picked up these foods and incorporated them into the local restaurant dining experience.
Commissioner James Robertson notes in a 1962 report on the Kenyan Coastal Strip Conference that “apart from the period of strong Portuguese influence in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the presence of Europeans as residents is comparatively recent and can be measured in decades. Arabs, Persians and Indians, on the other hand, have been present in the Coastal centres for as long as there is recorded history”. This is reflected in some of the notable dishes that form Swahili cuisine.
Pilau, a very fragrant dish of rice made with a variety of spices including cloves, coriander and black pepper, has its origins in pulao, a similar dish originating in central Asia. Pilau can be eaten on its own or with chapati, urojo (a popular Zanzibari meat stew or spicy soup) and kachumbari (a relish made with onions, chilli peppers and lemon juice). Like chapatti and urojo, Biryani is a popular dish originating from South Asia, specifically India and Pakistan, a legacy of the historic trading links with that region.
Cloves are a typical Swahili spice, often used in pastries, beverages and foods. The prevalence of this particular spice is a nod to the region’s long association with Zanzibar, where a spice trade flourished prior to the arrival of the Portuguese at the end of the fifteenth century. Following their expulsion by the Omanis in 1698, large-scale clove plantations were established, with indigenous Africans used as slave labour, and by the second half of the nineteenth century, the archipelago had become the world’s single largest clove producer. The then Sultan of Oman, Seyyid Said, had at the time moved the capital of his empire to Zanzibar and the Kenyan coast came under his dominion.
Other spices to be found in your typical coastal kitchen are cinnamon, black pepper, cardamom and chilli, seasonings used in pilau, biryani, kahawa chungu, tea or mahamri. Meals are centred on communal dining that brings together extended family, neighbours and guests. The food is served on a sinia, a round shallow plate from which everyone eats with their right hand.
The then Sultan of Oman, Seyyid Said, had at the time moved the capital of his empire to Zanzibar and the Kenyan coast came under his dominion.
Kahawa chungu is very similar to Arabic coffee but has a strong clove and black pepper aroma. It is usually served without sugar hence its name chungu which means bitter. Mahamri and mandazi are pastries that look similar but taste different. While mahamri are made with flour, yeast, cardamom and coconut milk, mandazi are made using either flour and yeast or baking powder but no spices are added.
Coconuts are a local crop that is used in most dishes; while coconut water is used to quench thirst (madafu), coconut milk is used to prepare mbaazi, mahamri, beans, rice and fish. Sea food is also an integral part of the food culture here because it is easily available.
In the past, interaction between the coastal strip and the Kenyan hinterland was limited by terrain. Robertson writes, “Until the construction of the railway line in modem times, the dry, unfriendly stretch of scrub land starting from twenty to thirty miles inland insulated the Coastal Belt from contact with the African interior more effectively than the oceans separated it from Asia and Europe, and it was undoubtedly for that reason that the slave trade routes and the early exploration of the hinterland started from Zanzibar through what is now Tanganyika and not from Mombasa.” However, modern Swahili cuisine is today dependent on produce from the rest of the country. In his PhD thesis Positioning The Gastronomic Identity Of Kenya’s Coastal Strip, Dr Anthony Pepela notes that most of the strip’s signature foods “relied on materials from other regions which were procured from the local market. [Chefs] consented that they could not do without these ingredients in preparation of their dishes. They only had a small fraction of ingredients sourced from the local farmers which created the distinction”.
Street food—from snacks to complete meals—is popular in Lamu, Mombasa, and Diani. Street food vendors cater to different clienteles, with some specialising in pastries and sweets such as mahamri, dates, halwa, ubuyu kashata and achari while others sell fast foods like French fries, viazi karai, samosas and mishkaki. Whole meals such as chapati maharagwe biryani are also sold on the street. Beverages include sugar cane juice and tamarind juice (ukwaju).
While the preparation of meals in the home is largely a female affair, both men and women prepare and sell food in the restaurants and on the streets. However, women are the custodians of recipes in families and even in spaces that are visibly male. They are often the glue that holds the business together, either as partners or as aides, with some cooking at home the food that the men sell on the streets, or helping in advertising it online.
Huda, a food vendor in the Sunpark area of Malindi, wakes up early every morning to prepare breakfast dishes for her customers. Early in the morning, as soon as Muslim prayer of fajr is over, Huda and her husband both head to her kitchen where duties are divided: he prepares the dough and she does the frying. After their children have had their breakfast and left for school, Huda sets out tables on the street in front of her house and starts serving customers while her husband remains in the kitchen cooking the rest of the food. Customers buy takeaway breakfasts or sit quietly sipping their spiced tea. Mahamri and mbaazi are top sellers that sometimes have to be booked in advance as they quickly run out.
To make mahamri, dough is mixed with cardamom, yeast, sugar and coconut milk, then allowed to rise before frying the pastry. This has to be done at least an hour before customers start streaming in, says Huda. Breakfast is served until around 9 a.m. by which time most of the items on the menu have been sold out. The lunch menu is biryani, pilau, and accompaniments which are usually prepared early in the morning or the night before depending on the workload. The best seller on the lunch menu is biryani kuku (chicken biryani) and ukwaju juice, with kachumbari as an accompaniment.
The popularity of street food at the coast is due to the influence of communal dining while the practice of eating outdoors is greatly influenced by the environment and the coastal weather; it is easier to keep cool during meal times and also to accommodate a large number of guests. There is also a high degree of customer trust in the integrity of food vendors, which means that you can stop anywhere in Mombasa, Malindi or Lamu to purchase food. Unlike in cities like Nairobi, sea food at the coast is fresh while access to the ocean also means that unlike the case with Lake Victoria, there is a wide variety of fish. This, however, does not mean that seafood is cheaper at the coast. In 2021, fish was more expensive in Mombasa than in Nairobi because of the availability of cheaper imports in the capital city.
By observation, the population of the Kenyan coast is less segregated socially, which means that, regardless of class, everyone eats more or less the same thing. Trust in the safety and quality of the ingredients used to prepare meals also undergirds outdoor dining and the popularity and accessibility of quality Swahili food explains why fast-food restaurants find it harder to penetrate markets within the coastal region than in mainland Kenya.
Swahili cuisine offers the diversity that lacks in many modern fast-food restaurants/franchises. While fast-food franchises offer competition, it is not enough to put street vendors out of business en masse. For franchises to survive at the Kenyan coast they have to incorporate local cuisines as has been done elsewhere, such as on the Indian subcontinent. Dr Pepela’s study found that although the perception of hygiene in an establishment could drive a preference for fast foods, particularly among those reluctant to try new foods, the majority of international and local tourists visiting the coast prefer the local cuisine.
By observation, the population of the Kenyan coast is less segregated socially, which means that, regardless of class, everyone eats more or less the same thing.
Because of the integral part that local foods play in the lifestyle and culture of the community, coastal communities have been able to hold on to and transmit knowledge of Swahili cuisine in spite of modernization. It is a normal and highly encouraged practice for many local Mijikenda, Swahili, Arab or Indian households in neighbourhoods such as in Mombasa’s Old Town to live in extended families under one roof or in close proximity. This allows knowledge in the form of recipes to be passed on from one generation to next. Because women are the guardians of culture and tradition in these communities, knowledge is transmitted from generation to generation within the confines of the kitchen, with recipes often passed down from mother to daughter.
Food preparation is group work, with specific persons taking up the menus that they are best skilled at. Younger men and women, and those yet to master certain recipes, get to learn from those with the experience and expertise. Proximity to vendors and markets such as Mwembe Tayari is another reason why the street food culture has flourished, especially for consumers who want to take away food to eat at home.
Food festivals have become an annual affair; the Lamu Food Festival and the Mombasa Food Festival bring together food lovers and food vendors with the aim of cultivating the interest in the region’s food cultures and developing the local food economy. The events lean on the organic 24-hour economy—especially around the entertainment industry—that has enabled the street food culture to flourish and compete favourably with mainstream fast-food franchises or restaurants.
Digital media has expanded the interest in Swahili culture and cuisine, with pages like @lifeinmombasa (twitter and Instagram) showcasing it through photography. Vlogger @Swahiligal (twitter, YouTube and Instagram) showcases Lamu through videos and photos and organizes visits to the coastal town, enabling visitors from the mainland and from outside Kenya to get a taste of Lamu.
The increase in online chefs and food bloggers has also brought the cuisine to a wider audience. Chef Ali Mandhry has a page providing a step-by-step guide on how to make even the most intricate Swahili dishes. @shobanes says his aim is to make cooking Swahili food as simple as possible and uses slang to reach a much younger and urban audience. YouTube is the platform of choice that both professional and novice cooks use to share recipes with a much larger audience.
Coastal cuisine is known for being cheap and providing value for money. However, ironically, in the rural areas and informal settlements within the coastal region, a balanced diet is often inaccessible, especially when the rains fail. In 2020, local health officials warned of a surge in cases of malnutrition in children under five, with around 90 children diagnosed with severe malnutrition in Mombasa town alone. In 2021, health officials raised the alarm about nutritional deficiency in Kilifi where they estimated that 148,000 people were facing possible starvation, with this number rising to 200,000 in 2022. Kilifi is a paradox in that while the street food is very cheap in urban areas like Malindi, Watamu and Kilifi town, the county also has a 90 per cent malnutrition rate in babies under two years.
The increase in online chefs and food bloggers has also brought the cuisine to a wider audience.
Acute poverty and lack of access to food in some areas has led to reliance on wild fruits. Residents of the Bofu Magarini area have been known to eat cactus and many homes restrict themselves to one meal a day. Children are constantly fed unsweetened maize porridge leading to nutritional deficiencies like pellagra in infants and pre-schoolers. While street food offers pocket-friendly balanced meals, it turns out that it isn’t truly pocket friendly for everyone, especially those without a regular income.
The construction of new roads, ports, dams and irrigation schemes by both county and national governments, and the influx of Kenyans from upcountry, will likely have an impact on and enrich the variety of Swahili foods and their methods of preparation, just as interaction with the outside world has always done. It has given us a rich food history such that many towns around the country are now opening restaurants specialising in Swahili dishes to bring these food varieties to other counties. Still, it is important to continue to document the cuisine, the recipes, the history and culture that have evolved over the many years of interactions between the Kenyan coast and the rest of the world.
This article is part of The Elephant Food Edition Series done in collaboration with Route to Food Initiative (RTFI). Views expressed in the article are not necessarily those of the RTFI.
The Emblems of Food Aid in West Pokot
In the eight decades since drought was first recorded in the 1940s, food scarcity still afflicts the region, creating a demographic of the satisfied poor who count on relief food to supplement their production.
Up until the advent of devolution in 2013, several regions of West Pokot including Kacheliba, Alale, Kongelai, Lelan, and Sigor, had one thing in common: the bags of yellow maize that would arrive promptly from the National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB) storage facilities about two months into the planting season, or when the stores of the previous season’s harvest began to diminish.
Food aid from donors, development partners, state agencies and well-wishers had over many decades become crucial to the residents of these regions despite the significant pockets of onion, maize and beans farming.
While food scarcity affected the better part of the region all the way north to neighbouring counties, it tended to be more pronounced in these areas where underdevelopment had left the populations mired in a continuous struggle for food. So neglected were certain parts of the region that, for example, the electrification of Chepareria Town under the NARC government was greeted with relief and jubilation.
Market days in places like Ortum, Orwa, Kerelwa, Kanyarkwat, Chepunyai, and Morpus were a hive of activity, with barter trade taking place between farmers from the outlying hills where furrow irrigation fed the hillside farms that produced onions, cassava, millet, maize and beans.
Still, for decades, the imported yellow maize continued to occupy a central place in the diets of a population scarred by decades of political marginalization. Yellow maize provided relief to food-deprived households, especially during the drier months and just before the harvest season. The relief food also benefited isolated herders who would move with their cattle through towns like Sigor, Orwa, and Sebit in search of pasture.
The locally manufactured hand-operated maize mill was a rare sign of self-sustenance in a region that before devolution offered little opportunity for advancement. Milling maize into flour using grinding stones was more common—a tedious and time consuming chore often left to the womenfolk.
The first major drought during which food aid was provided to the region occurred in the early 1940s and changed the colonial administration’s policy towards the North Rift region. The drought prompted the colonial government to push pastoralists into the cash economy; locals were forced to sell their herds of cows, goats and sheep to the colonial administration in exchange for jobs and cash.
The locally manufactured hand-operated maize mill was a rare sign of self-sustenance in a region that before devolution offered little opportunity for advancement.
In the mid-1980s, catholic missions and Scandinavian donors stepped in to try and alleviate the perennial food scarcity caused by drought and insecurity, inadvertently laying the grounds for high reliance on food aid. The poorer families among the Pokot would camp at food distribution centres, at church missions and at the offices of non-governmental organisations waiting for food donations.
President Daniel Arap Moi’s frayed diplomatic relations with donors in the 1980s, the structural adjustment programmes imposed by the International Monetary Fund in 1990s and their impact on the economy, as well as the area’s agricultural systems, further negatively impacted the fortunes of many households in the lower economic ranks. In the 40 years since the food aid framework was put in place, food aid continues to occupy a significant place in the region’s socio-political and dietary conversation.
The available data exploring the rainfall patterns, food security and land use, as well as vegetation cover in West Pokot between 1980 and 2011 shows that rainfall has been erratic. Farmers report declining rainfall, rising temperatures and a shortened growing season that has lowered food production. A meteorological mapping of the region over the last few decades confirms the farmers’ observations, leading to notable changes in policy responses such as increased stocking, crop diversification, crop area expansion, but also a reliance on food aid.
Dependence on food aid is, however, not uniform across the highland zones; Kapenguria and Lelan have a lower dependency rate than regions like Chepareria or the more food crisis-prone areas like North Pokot and Kacheliba.
Being a semi-arid, food-deficient and food insecure county, West Pokot requires constant climate change impact assessments, the study of local agro-systems and their incorporation into the formulation of modern adaptation strategies.
The droughts that followed in the wake of the failed rains between 1999 and mid-2002 proved to be the worst in the county’s history. Recorded levels of crop failure were at times as high as 97 per cent, animal numbers fell and aid agencies had to step in yet again to address the food crisis.
Deforestation is the unintended consequence of insufficient food production. Small-scale farmers cut down trees and burn charcoal for sale to supplement their meagre incomes. Sacks of charcoal by the roadside are a common sight, targeting commuters on the Orwa-Wakor-Ortum-Chepareria route.
Sigor, where trees covered 19.9Kha in 2000—or roughly 10 per cent of the land mass—had lost 378ha of humid primary forest or 8 per cent of its tree cover by 2020, leading to an overall decrease in vegetation cover of 7.6 per cent over that period. This has had a direct impact on the recorded rainfall within an area that relies on rain-fed subsistence farming.
The droughts that followed in the wake of the failed rains between 1999 and mid-2002 proved to be the worst in the county’s history.
In the eight decades since the 1940s drought, food scarcity still afflicts a significant portion of the population of the region. In March 2020, exactly 80 years after the first recorded drought, the national government sent food aid into the county: 150,000 kilograms of rice, 120,000 kilograms of beans, and 60 cartons of corned beef were given out to 31,000 households affected by drought across the county at a per capita ratio of 6kgs of rice and 4kgs of beans.
The effects of climate change and population growth have forced farmers and pastoralists in parts of the county to move towards diversification of food sources. One example is the Wei Wei Farmers Association that was formed in the late 1980s to implement an irrigation scheme that would sustain year-round farming. The project involves 600 pastoralists who have put 225 hectares of land under irrigation, with a potential of 1,200-2,000 tonnes of produce per cropping season that could bring in KSh100 million annually.
Food production remains a key priority and a challenge for the county’s leaders. The devolution of agriculture in 2013 placed the responsibility of overseeing food systems in the hands of local leaders who are engaging smallholder farmers, reviving ageing agro-projects, and establishing new ones. But ten years after devolution, many households still partly depend on relief food from local aid agencies and state agencies to supplement the production from subsistence farming.
The effects of climate change and population growth have forced farmers and pastoralists in parts of the county to move towards diversification of food sources.
In 2021, humanitarian agencies in the wider North Rift region placed the number of those at risk of starvation at about 250,000. Decades of partial dependence on food aid in the county have produced a demographic that sees little need to pursue development amidst a perennial food crisis and the predictable intervention of non-state actors. Poor farmers and pastoralists have come to expect—and have incorporated—relief food into their requirements as their incomes are not enough to meet their food needs, factoring in the black tax and reliance on donors and well-wishers.
This demographic is referred to as the satisfied poor in a theory that combines learned helplessness, cognitive dissonance and the subjective quality of life to map out instances in which certain persons and regions outsource their food autonomy to aid agencies irrespective of the projected size of their annual harvest.
Developed by Geraldine Olson and Brigitte Schober in 1993, the paradigm attempts to explain the satisfaction paradox—why some people who are objectively deprived nonetheless claim to be satisfied with their quality of life. They concluded that “being unhappy with the living conditions and yet ‘knowing’ that all available coping-strategies will have no positive effect on the situation, creates a cognitive dissonance within the individual that he will try to reduce. This reduction can be achieved either by finally using an effective coping-strategy or by the re-evaluation of the perceived situation with adapted (lowered) standards”.
Thus when the long-term structures that shape access to and affordability of food do not present clear pathways towards self-sustenance, poor households may learn to lean more heavily on the relatively more predictable provision of food by aid agencies, the state and well-wishers despite the fact that such efforts are meant to be temporary stop-gap measures.
In the longer run, this reliance on aid may result in deliberate disengagement by some from the affairs of the community. In fact, in recent years, the county administration has decried the rise in idling as a social malaise in the region.
Still, it should be noted that the structure of aid programming can also induce dependence, particularly in instances where the aid is sporadic and poorly connected to the food sourcing and storage needs of the local communities.
One can laud the sustained efforts to alleviate food insecurity in West Pokot—where 57 out every 100 residents struggle to meet their basic nutritional needs—while remaining cognizant of the need to move beyond aid. The local administration has brought together a collaborative team from across several sectors with the expectation that a wider pool of stakeholders will more ably fight food insecurity in the region.
Initiatives such as the pro-active poverty graduation policy are closely linked to the mission of West Pokot County Integrated Development Plan (CIDP), the overall framework that seeks to transform livelihoods through an equitable and sustainable utilization of resources in order to bring to an end the dependence on food aid.
In the longer run, this reliance on aid may result in deliberate disengagement by some from the affairs of the community.
To deal with the social and psychological underpinnings of the helplessness that is driving dependence on aid, the CIDP has placed the focus on food and nutrition security, and on improving equity in socio-economic opportunities by 2025.
Given the current food scarcity and impending crop failure, state agencies must continue to coordinate with aid agencies and well-wishers in the provision of relief food. However, critical medium and long-term interventions need to be implemented to undo the learned helplessness that decades of food aid have engendered in the minds of the poor.
A broke treasury, near-empty county coffers and failing rains means that in the short run dependence on relief food might actually escalate. However, aid providers must begin to robustly debate how food self-sufficiency might be achieved both in terms of availability, access, affordability and nutritional diversity.
It just maybe the right time to start working towards not just ending food dependency but also phasing out the gunny bags and the many emblems that symbolise the reality of dependency among the local farmers and pastoralists.
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