18 May 2017

Kenya: If You Want to Understand the East Africans, Follow Their Food

Photo: Francis Nderitu/The Nation
A couple at the Ronald Ngala branch of Tuskys Supermarket in Nairobi purchase a packet of maize flour on May 17, 2017.

Food: Its recent soaring price, and shortage had become a hot political and social potato in Kenya.

There was even commentary that if the prices, especially of unga, didn't come down, it could cost President Uhuru Kenyatta a few votes come the August 8 elections.

However, the corollary was also politically risky: As an opposition, you really don't want to defeat the incumbent on the promise that the cost of tomatoes, flour, and vegetables will be cheaper as soon as you are sworn in.

It might not happen, and you would have voters angry with you during what should be your political honeymoon.

One of the intriguing aspects of this food story has been its regional ramifications.


There are reports of Kenyans "flooding" Uganda and Tanzania to buy food.

One story even spoke of Kenyans "invading" Uganda for food.

Coming from near the Uganda-Kenya border, the idea of an "invasion" is laughable.

It can only come from people who are not border folks.

There are many reasons why people marry across the borderline.


One of them is political and economic insurance.

In the 1970s and early 1980s when Uganda was in turmoil, some Ugandan men married across the border and set up homes in Kenya where the economy was working.

After President Yoweri Museveni and his ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) took power in 1986, Uganda was on the up, and Kenya this time was in the doghouse.

The opposite happened. Several border Kenyans moved their family operations to the Ugandan side.

To this day, shrewd polygamists still have homes - and gardens and keep domestic animals - on both sides of the border.


When I was a little boy still falling off bicycles, I remember distinctly relatives from the Kenyan side coming to our grandparents' home to "collect food because there was hunger [kech] in Kenya". And when there was "kech" on the Ugandan side, a visit across would yield several sacks of food.

We were too young to be interested or to comprehend what was going on then. Later we did.

The same thing happened, with an interesting twist, on the Uganda and then Sudan border during the war between the Sudan People's Liberation Army and Khartoum.

Because the same peoples live on both sides of the border, many SPLA fighters were both Ugandans and Sudanese.


Like in most of Africa, during the rains, there was usually little fighting because the soggy grounds make moving heavy vehicles difficult, and it's easy to track your movements.

Many SPLA fighters would "disappear" across to their homes on the Ugandan side, hide their guns in the grass thatch of their huts, and go out to till their gardens and plant crops.

In situations like that, during the harvest, when the men needed to go back to oversee the harvest, is when you hold cease-fire and peace negotiations.

Typically they collapse when the harvest is done.

The point here is that the rituals around food are among the handful that still totally defy the colonial borders.


But they are also what most drive the region's knowledge of itself. Not too long ago I went to a funeral in a far corner of eastern Uganda.

At one point a village leader came and pulled me aside. He had a complaint about what he called, "your Kenyan people".

They were travelling as far as the local roadside market to buy food, and thus pushing up the prices beyond what the local people could afford.

I could understand his pain, but I was totally fascinated. How, I wondered, would Kenyans know about such a remote small food market?

Last year I took a flight to Kisumu, and travelled by road from there to Tororo, and then to Kampala. My driver, an unassuming young man from the lakeside, asked me where we were going. I told him. He knew my village.


Two days later, we headed to Kampala. I was again giving him directions. "Ah, I know the directions," he said.

It was at that point that I asked him how he knew all the places.

He told me he regularly drives to Uganda to pick up eggs, and bring them back to Kenya - all the way to Mombasa.

He had been to more corners of Uganda in search of eggs, than I had ever been.

I pushed back my chair, and mostly slept all the way to Kampala. I had nothing on him.

The author is publisher of Africa data visualiser Africapedia.com and explainer site Roguechiefs.com.

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