You can share a meal with a Kenyan family and make a difference

What’s the best way you can think of to meet someone? In my opinion, sharing a meal opens people up and allows for a friendly and comfortable conversation. When traveling it can be difficult to scratch the surface of a place and I often wonder how I can go deeper and get to know the culture better. So we decided to give travelers to Kenya that same opportunity by offering them the option of enjoying lunch or dinner with a Kenyan family.

We met Patrick, Joy * and their two children several years ago. Having worked on the margins of tourism for about ten years, Patrick was looking for a way to continue in the industry, but also to be there for his young family. Despite his modest living conditions, he was very proud of his wife’s cuisine and that is why he came up with the idea of ​​inviting travelers to see the “real Kenya” and share a meal with him and his family. This would allow the family to earn a minimum income while meeting the goals of spending time with their family and working with tourists. On the first visit, there was another benefit that became apparent: their children had the opportunity to play with the visitors’ children, giving all the children the opportunity to learn from each other.

A typical family

A lower-class Kenyan family normally lives in a one- or two-bedroom apartment or unit. Curtains act as walls to divide a room into a living room and bedroom. The living room is at the front and visitors are rarely invited in. The wife spends much of her time in the kitchen and brings pots of steaming food to her husband and guests. The kitchen may have a gas bottle with a burner to bring the water to a quick boil and a “jikos” or two, which are small stoves that fit in a pot and use charcoal. The bathrooms are usually shared between all the residents of the building. The toilet will be a cubicle with a hole in the concrete that descends into a large pit. The ‘shower’ is a cubicle with a small hole in the corner that acts as a drain and residents take their own bucket of water to wash (no pink shower or even a faucet). There is generally no plumbing in these buildings, so residents buy their water in jerry cans. Given the lack of space indoors, children tend to spend most of their time playing outdoors. Many families have chickens running around the yard, which are used primarily for meat on special occasions.

Each tribe in Kenya has its own traditional food. Joy prepares a selection of dishes from different tribes to give visitors a good taste of Kenya, including:

  • Githeri – a bean and corn stew

  • Banana – green plantains boiled and then fried with tomato and onion

  • Rice

  • Mukimo – mashed potato mixed with pumpkin leaves and corn

  • Tilapia: fish from the freshwater lakes of Kenya.

  • Chapatti: flat bread originating in India (Kenya has a large Indian population which has influenced the cuisine)

  • Chicken stew

  • Zikuma Wiki – Kale

  • Ugali: cornmeal mixed with water to make a polenta-style dish.

  • Cabbage

  • Sweet potato

  • Dessert fruits

In Kenyan tradition, when we visit friends or family, the etiquette is to bring gifts. These are probably not the gifts Westerners would normally consider; rather we eat cornmeal, tea, sugar, rice, and other staples. If there are children in the house, you can also bring pens, pencils and exercise books and maybe some candy.

Kenyans traditionally eat with their hands, so hygiene is very important. The wife will prepare some warm water and bring it in a jug with a bowl, soap and a towel to each guest. She pours the water over your hands so you can wash yourself and then offers you the towel or towel. As I mentioned earlier, there is no running water in most houses, so it is often a surprise to visitors to be introduced to this method of hand washing. There are a lot of stews on the menu so you might think eating with your hands is going to be very complicated, but there are two key dishes that can act as spoons: ugali and chapatti. Chapatti is clear as it is a flatbread that can be rolled into a ball. Ugali has such a consistency that it can also be formed on a spoon.

Kenyan food can take a little getting used to. The meat tends to be a little tough and the corn tends to be a little tasteless. Ugali is not my personal favorite, but it is not designed to be eaten on its own, it is meant to be eaten with a sauce or stew and that’s where its flavor comes from. Kenyans don’t use a lot of spices in their cooking – the flavor is added with salt and perhaps chicken or beef bouillon cubes. But the veggies are fresh, they haven’t been in cold rooms for months like we usually get in the west, so you get all the flavors of the food you’re eating.

Guests often have mixed reactions during their visit. When you first enter the complex and then the house, there is definitely some uneasiness, as it is quite a different way of life than what we are used to. There is also uncertainty about how to react if the food turns out to be inedible. And then there is relief when fish, rice, chicken, mashed potatoes, and cabbage are featured. It might cook a little differently, but it’s recognizable and definitely edible! As the conversation flows, guests relax in their surroundings. The children play outside together and at the end of the meal the children beg that they want to continue playing. Friendships are formed, connections are made, and bonding over a potluck leaves everyone with the warmth that comes from being with other humans. Despite the nerves at first, all of our guests have come out of this experience positively and believe that it was a key part of their entire safari in Kenya.

If you would like to share a meal with a Kenyan family as part of your safari adventure, please email [email protected]

* not their real names

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