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HomeFood and Farming ScienceNourishment in the time of COVID

Nourishment in the time of COVID

COVID-19 has offered us an invitation to re-think our relationship with food as a source of nourishment, recognising that food is the way in which human beings connect with Earth, and the way Earth connects with human beings. We are prompted to embrace our vulnerability with courage. Here is how I am learning to do this.

When I fell ill earlier this year, my mum brought me soup bones from the butchery. Bone broth is a healing food. I had never made my own soup before, so we cobbled together a recipe. We put the bones in a big pot, filled it up with water and threw in some onion, ginger and garlic for flavour. We then let it boil furiously for an hour. I drank the soup. It was OK, but it wasn’t amazing. Usually you use your bones at least twice to make soup, but since I was underwhelmed with the meal I’d made, I fed the bones to my neighbours’ dogs and that was that.

I only later realised that to make good bone broth, you need to do it on a low heat over a long period of time. And that properly made bone broth is gelatinous and jiggles when cold. This realisation came after my illness invited me to interrogate nourishment. During the months when I was unwell, I had difficulty feeding myself. My landlady and neighbour realised this because she didn’t hear my pestle and mortar pounding spices anymore – a sign that I wasn’t cooking. For weeks she brought me delicious food three times a day, always asking, “Have you eaten?”

In a ritual I did at the beginning of 2020, I set a desire and intention for nourishment to hold me through the coming year.Ac cording to indigenous knowledge, when you make a stand for what you want, all that you don’t want gets up so it can leave.

Illness seems the opposite of nourishment, yet it created the conditions that allowed for nourishment to happen. It revealed my vulnerability in an incontrovertible way. Just like COVID-19 has revealed the vulnerabilities and therefore, interdependence of us all, as humans and Earth. Vulnerability does not sound like a virtue – it sounds like the opposite – something to avoid and reduce by whatever means necessary.

The Western modernity project, beginning in the European Enlightenment, asserted the individual (hu)man’s control over all life, Earth included, and created an illusion of invincibility. These ideas and ways of being were later transplanted violently across the world through colonialism. I would argue that to regain one’s wholeness from this illusion, involves regaining one’s acknowledgement and comfort with vulnerability.

There is another reason to want to reduce one’s vulnerability. Trauma from living within dehumanising systems such as extractive capitalism, sovereignty robbing imperialism, controlling patriarchy, boxed in heteronormativity, and so on, creates a need for certainty and control to counteract the powerlessness one feels when experiencing harm. 

Paradoxically, acknowledging our vulnerability is crucial to having nourishment, and therefore, life. To be human is to be vulnerable and (inter)dependent.

Nourishment – that which aids growth and development – involves beings outside of ourselves. In order to have nourishment, we must be able to receive.

It sounds easy, but when we believe we are complete impervious selves (the illusion of Western modernity), or when we carry trauma, receiving becomes difficult. It reminds you that you are vulnerable. That you need other people. That you need the Earth.

When I was ill, I needed other people, and thankfully they were there. I also needed food, and food showed up. In fact, food showed up with her bags packed to stay and teach me some more life lessons from when we had last had a major encounter eight years before.

My story with food begins with refusing to learn how to cook at home so that as the only daughter, I wouldn’t be asked to cook for my brothers. I learnt how to cook by myself, far away from home. I experimented, made mistakes, and a fascination with indigenous foods was born. At that time, I realised that the nature of colonialism had been to freeze us, and consequently our knowledges and practices, such that we ceased to innovate upon them. I questioned why ndũma, for example, was only eaten in one predominant way: boiled for breakfast with tea. I wondered what else might be possible when we break out of frozen suspension and continue to innovate. For ndũma, maybe ugali, stews, breads, desserts, or lots more.

During this COVID-19 period, food came back to continue our lessons. As working from home became the new normal, I moved the big table from where I worked and had meetings into the kitchen, to create space to teach dance classes online. Food had begun to call me back to her bosom and another re-adventure of inquiry and experimentation began.

One of the diagnoses I had received from the many trips to the doctor, was of polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). Doing research to understand what this condition was and how to alleviate it without relying on allopathic medicine, I came back to food (and trauma). In fact food became an all-consuming presence, and for weeks, I constantly had food on my mind: how often to eat, when to have my largest meal, what to include in a new diet to rebalance hormones, what to say goodbye to. In essence, how to nourish myself in a new normal that had finally been given a name by this acronym – PCOS – although I had lived with it for some time already. Through it all, food’s agency in my learning was evident.

So, I learnt how to bake with wimbi flour: it requires more liquid than baking with wheat. I made biriani with sorghum: soak the sorghum for at least 1-2 days prior to allow softening and slight fermentation. I made porridge from ndũma: blend with coconut milk, it’s a match made in heaven. I made fermented milk: it’s so much cheaper than buying from the shop. I began to eat mawele and finally replace white rice in my diet. Baobab, thabai and simsim entered my kitchen and stayed. I finally started using those clay pots I had bought a year ago, and I even learnt how to make bone broth that gelatinises.

Gelatinous bone broth is an indication that collagen, a protein found in connective tissues and which is critical for maintaining bone, skin and tissue health, has been drawn into the broth.  I sometimes joke that I am the dancer and not my food, but when my bone broth jiggles, I know I am nourished. I also know that making broth is a skill that my Maasai ancestors probably had, to gain all the nutrition available in cows that are revered and rarely slaughtered.

To create regenerative realities in the present and future, we will need to recover and reimagine skills and ways of being that have been forgotten or discarded along the way. And, learn some new ones. One of the places to reskill is to understand nourishment, both in terms of nutrients in our food, and the ways of being that allow us to recognise, affirm and celebrate our vulnerability and interdependence, so we can receive and give nourishment.

COVID-19 was one more in a series of invitations to come home again and again, and with each time, discover new layers to a rock I thought already familiar. At the hearth and the table, I continue to learn from food, and not only about food – to reskill, embrace vulnerability, and receive nourishment.

Wangũi wa Kamonji is a regeneration practitioner exploring how to heal the colonial traumas
of past and present, and (re)create new-old regenerative realities for the present and future of
the Afrikan continent in partnership with human, earth and unembodied spirit relations.
Find her online @_fromtheroots

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