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Why we should go back to eating traditional foods



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Imagine a Sunday afternoon after church or any other day of rest. A family goes to a fast food joint for lunch in an urban setting. The menu: chips and deep-fried chicken or pizza. Alternatively, they could opt for nyama choma (roast meat of assorted variety) and ugali (usually refined maize flour ugali) and/or white chapati with a vegetable dish such as stir-fried kales (sukuma wiki) and kachumbari (salad).

Another urban favourite is white rice and meat stew. These would be accompanied by soda, and for the children ice cream. For breakfast the family may have taken bread, eggs and tea.

During the holiday season, the same family may visit their rural home. The relatives would probably offer a traditional menu such as whole maize flour ugali; sorghum, finger millet and cassava ugali – or a mixture thereof, eaten with sour milk or a myriad of vegetables such as cabbage, terere, managu, kunde, mchicha etc. with a meat or fish side dish. In the rural areas, githeri, njahi, muthokoi, mukimo of various types are also served. For breakfast, porridge from various grains (maize, sorghum, finger millet, cassava, bulrush millet or a mixture of any of these) is also on offer as well as sweet potatoes, boiled green maize or cassava, pumpkin and arrow root.

David Mbiri Rimi, in his book New Confident Africa: A New Social- Economic Morality, observes: “Africa, without doubt, has the largest variety of food crops for human consumption among all regions of the world, ranging from succulent fruit, grains, tubers to nuts and vegetables.” The food crops, he argues, “contain more than two food groups in their chemical composition, making them exceptionally rich in nutritional value”.


Whereas refined foods associated with modernity are generally unhealthy diets and tend to cause obesity and exacerbate non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as diabetes, those whose diets consist of organically grown African crops do not usually suffer from the above maladies. They tend to live to relatively ripe age.

However, the new generation of Kenyans, even those living in rural areas, consider ugali from the millet family and generally indigenous foods to be a menu for poor people. Such millets are no longer grown on the same scale as maize. Clearly, part of the colonial legacy was to de-emphasise African traditional crops and hence foods.

The food people eat is part of their gastronomical and general culture. It has implications for their food security in terms of availability of sufficient quantities as well as the health dividend derived from the food’s nutritional content.

In Kenya, one could say a combination of white maize-flour ugali and especially sukuma wiki or other available vegetables is the national dish for the majority. Such dish is accompanied by various meats, in keeping with the household’s pocket. Even those who previously were strangers to the dish have become ugali people. Githeri is a competing national dish. For the middle class, white rice and chapati, assorted vegetables and meat stew is a secondary national dish. Often the rice may be served with pulses (beans, lentils, etc).

Apart from a national dish providing the necessary nutrition, it can also act as a unifying factor if widely shared by the entire population. Food often brings people together.

Today in Kenya, there are restaurants that serve Indian, Japanese, Brazilian, Italian, Chinese, Thai cuisines, etc. Such cuisines have been internationalised and commoditised. An example of African cuisine that can be said to be in this league is Ethiopian cuisine whose base is the injera. In Kenya, the Swahili pilau and biryani are consumed widely. Ugali and other traditional foods e.g. wimbi porridge and tubers are served in key hotels for breakfast. Other African foods are offered during special African days or culture nights.

By and large, our cuisines have not gained entry into the global culinary dining table and hence the expanding food economy.

Interestingly, in three recent events, the need for securing the SDG goal number two, which is food security, has been emphasised in both quantitative and qualitative aspects. During this year’s World Food Day, celebrated on October 16, 2019 in Makueni, the theme was “Our actions are our future. Healthy diets for a # zero hunger world”. The focus was a call for action among stakeholders to make healthy diets accessible and affordable to everyone, while asking everybody to seriously mind what they eat.

Healthy diets partly spring from organic or even conservation agriculture. It does not make sense for Africans to produce food crops organically for export and deny themselves such choice crops, which also have medicinal value.

In 2018, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the State Departments of Health and Agriculture and Irrigation produced Kenyan Food Recipes. A Recipe Book of Common Mixed Dishes with Nutrient Values as Prepared by Communities. This book is a valuable contribution for those who wish to return to traditional dishes.

Just like we have the national language and national anthem, we could have a national dress (with the necessary variation for male and female) and a well-developed and exquisite national dish. Such a national dish can be complemented by regional dishes. It is a fact that what we eat, when we eat and how much we eat matters. If we eat junk food, we expose ourselves to bodily dysfunction.

Finally, this week HIVOS held a conference of African thinkers and doers in Mombasa dubbed African Crossroads 2019. One of the areas of examination was the type and nature of the food consumed in the African cities. The conference, among other issues, noted that living in the African city should not deter Africans from consuming African traditional foods whose historical, cultural, nutritional, and health values are indisputable.

Kenya, and Africa in general, should launch a robust campaign for rehabilitating indigenous foods so as to enhance nutrition and improve health.

The writer is the Governor of Makueni County

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