ONE common stereotype (and subject of endless memes, Twitter trends, blog posts and rants) in Kenya is that “Kikuyus can’t cook”. Kikuyus, the country’s most populous community, are notorious for a version of one-pot combination cooking that many other Kenyans find unacceptable, indeed, bordering on sacrilege.
There is usually photographic evidence to accompany the claim, such as a riotous combination of maize, beans and noodles; or whole tilapia fish, diced bananas, onions and cowpeas, sitting in a watery stew – and an obligatory potato. Kikuyu food is never complete without the potato.
This understandably rouses much outrage, along the lines of “How dare you do that to food?”
We cannot independently confirm the veracity of the photos that circulate ostensibly proving the lack of culinary skills among the Kikuyu. But for the purposes of this article, let us go with the position that there is some truth in the disorderly, one-pot gastronomic style that the Kikuyu are (in)famous for.
WHEN COOKING IS BIGGER THAN COOKING
All animals need to eat, but cooking is uniquely human; indeed, it is literally what made us human – Michael Pollan in his delightful book Cooked (also available as a four-part documentary by the same name on Netflix) delves into evolutionary biology to make the case that harnessing fire is actually what transformed Homo erectus into Homo sapiens.
Our closest primate relatives spend up to half their waking hours chewing, as did our early ancestors, as a way of breaking down tough plant and animal fibres. Cooking acts as a form of pre-digestion, meaning that less time and energy is spent chewing, and in digestion.
That makes the gut smaller – and more energy available for making brain tissue. In other words, you can’t have both an inefficient digestive system and a big brain (both are energy-hungry tissues). In that way, being able to control fire was key to the evolution of Homo sapiens.
If we extend the argument, food, and the various ways it is prepared, isn’t only a function of geography, climate and available ingredients.
It also gives us a hint on the political and economic realities that form the foundation of community life, and a hint about way we organise society – whether people choose to boil, fry, spice or roast their food has something to do with whether it “makes sense” for them to do so.
Which brings us back to the question on ‘bad food’. Generally speaking, communities that live along the coasts have more access to foreign trade, influence and diverse ingredients. Coastal people are not only traders but fisher-folk as well, which means that their primary source of food is sought once a day, often by men – leaving the women at home, sometimes with a fair amount of time on their hands.
That lends itself to elaborate meals as there is both time and opportunity to experiment and come up with “good food”.
Living in mountainous regions, as the Kikuyu traditionally do, is an arduous life, where every extra hand must be put to the fields or little will come of the land. It means that there is little time to be experimental and artistic with food.
It has been said though, that in the case of the Kikuyu, the Mau Mau experience of the 1950s contributed to their legendary “bad food”.
The Kikuyu were garrisoned in concentration camp-like villages during the insurgency by the colonial administration.
The villages were surrounded by a six foot-wide trench filled with sharp spikes, and the only way in and out of the village was manned by the hated African colonial police known as ‘homeguards’.
VERY POLITICAL FOOD
People were allowed to farm on the land outside the garrison for a few hours a day; curfews were sometimes arbitrary and unannounced. That meant that a woman could find herself having to pull up whatever she could find – a handful of potatoes or a clutch of greens – before the homeguards started shooting at her heels. Under such conditions, it is not entirely surprising that the Kikuyu would have little interest in fancy meals: eating is what matters.
But there could be something else there. In my own view, people only spend time on a task if it benefits them, otherwise, sloth is the default human condition. “Good food”, therefore, must benefit the cook if one is to expend the effort cooking. Societies with pronounced class divisions and social inequality have an incentive to prepare “good food” – food is one of the ways to ingratiate yourself with the king, the court, or the sultan.
That explains how a mountainous people like much of Ethiopia could have “good food”– the traditionally feudal society is based on class division that lend themselves to elaborate rituals around food, which was lacking in mountainous Central Kenya.
SEX AND PATRONAGE
The other way to ingratiate oneself, of course, is sex. In the east African context, it is said that Rwandan, Tanzanian, and Ugandan women are good in bed.
For those that can afford it, a bridal shower in Nairobi is never complete without a Ugandan ssenga (auntie) being flown in to show the bride some special tricks that leaves everyone wide-eyed. The legendary kigodoro (mattress) dance from Tanzania is as raunchy as the name suggests, performed by women at weddings, sometimes in the nude – there are videos you could search for.
And many Kenyans were aghast, and delighted, when they learned about the Rwandan/Burundian/ western Ugandan sex practice called kunyaza/ kakyabali, not to mention the labial elongation they are famous for.
A society that invests in teaching (mostly its daughters) these kind of tricks for sexual pleasure is doing so because it “makes sense” to do so; they are not necessary for procreation per se – a poor but beautiful girl who’s good in bed could be married of to an aristocrat and change her family’s fortunes in a very literal sense.
But for a relatively classless society with no hereditary titles –as most Kenyan communities traditionally were – there is little incentive to go through all this, if your intention is mere procreation.
In other words, you could say that “bad sex” could be an unlikely marker of an egalitarian society.