Ruminating on the route to food in urban Kenya
The tray of Kenya’s food scene is awash with colour, flavour and miscellany. It makes for a superb culinary experience of both traditional and contemporary meals that are rich in the cultural esteem they hail from.
Like all other individuals globally, Kenyans have preferences of what’s eaten, when, and with whom; but by and large, food is communal. Sharing a meal is an act of communion, it is an affirmation of life, a welcoming of others into what is a highly personal activity, an encounter with the world that can be as simple a gesture as breaking bread or as intricate as a relationship’s milestone.
Beyond this, Kenyans often use food as a metaphor signifying corruption, greed and gluttony, using terms like kukula nyama and ‘it’s our turn to eat’ when discussing the public pot of tax shillings. What irony! Article 43 (1) (c) of the Constitution of Kenya articulates every citizen’s right to adequate food: nutritious, affordable and accessible – as an obligation of the government. However, given the government changes at constituency, county and national level, the culture of ‘it’s our turn to eat’ is embraced, devolved, and leaving this right grossly violated and highly politicised.
It is with this in mind that on one fine Sunday in August, I take a Nai ni who? tour through Eastleigh – a bustling Nairobi neighbourhood characterised by fast-moving retail businesses and thriving Somali culture – organised by the GoDown Arts Centre. I seek to observe the daily practices and cultures surrounding food, to immerse myself in the tastes available, in the joy of sharing with others, attempting to understand what it means to acquire food and attain food security in an urban context.
Present day Eastleigh is geographically Nairobi city’s second highest source of revenue, after the Central Business District. Eastleigh came to be after an outbreak of bubonic plague in the early 1900’s when Indian traders who had run their businesses from the town bazaar were moved east of the river in what was an attempt at managing hygiene and also a method of racial planning, in 1921. Also relocated were a small number of Somalis of the Isaaq and Hawiye clans who had made their way from what was the Northern Frontier District, having come with Hugh Cholmondeley, 3rd Baron Delamere from his hunting missions through Somalia.
The small community continued to live and trade there. It was after the implosion of Somalia during the 1990s civil war that some Somali refugees who were able to move to Kenya, settle in the area and call it home, that it earned the moniker ‘Little Mogadishu’. Somali writer Nuruddin Farah in his essay Of Tamarind and Cosmopolitanism writes of the old Tamarind Market in Mogadishu which he describes as: “This [place] was always abuzz with activities, its narrow alleys filled with shoppers. You could see entire families pouring into its alleys and plazas soon after siesta time, some shopping for clothes, others wishing to acquire what they could find in the way of gold and silver necklaces made to order”. The description is one that could be used to describe Eastleigh – a cosmopolitan place full of shopping complexes dealing in textiles, electronics, gold and silver, and numerous other local and imported products. This same diversity is evident in the food that is available.
Our first stop is at a local hotel, where we’re served camel-milk tea and a host of stories – shaah iyo sheeko. Camel milk, which is widely available in Eastleigh, is transported daily from Isiolo, Moyale and Garissa and is gaining popularity beyond the area for its nutritional benefits. Rich in protein, iron, vitamins, and lacking lactose, it is a healthy alternative for those who are lactose intolerant. Camel meat is equally abundant in butcheries, consumed either as a dried breakfast food or stewed for lunches and dinners. In many of the restaurants we visit, menus lean heavily on Somali cuisine: deylo, young goat meat that is boiled and lightly fried, or aleso, which is mature goat meat that is boiled; served with rice or pasta.
On the streets though, the ingredients remain heavily local with potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, garlic and fresh fruits in abundance. The prices of these are prohibitive for many, with the basic nutritional options far from reaching the masses.
This makes me wonder, where does this food come from? Is it local or imported? If imported, is it from neighbouring countries or from far away? I peer into the wholesale shops along the streets and see stacks of rice sacks, all of it imported from Pakistan, while other basic food commodities like milk powder and cooking oil come from countries in the Middle East. The cost of importing, transporting and distribution of food in the market raises their prices, making food unaffordable for many.
Is Kenya’s minimum taxable monthly salary of Kshs. 13,475 sufficient to acquire food?
The aspects of food rights: nutrition, access and affordability, indicate this isn’t feasible. With soaring prices, quantities and (many a time) quality go down to meet a family’s minimum food requirements.
The Food Security Bill 2014, tabled before the Senate is a legislative means to reach the constitutional right to food. It provides a framework to realise the right to freedom from hunger, the elimination of discrimination of marginalised groups, mechanisms for coordinated implementation of national policy and county programmes and the establishment of institutions that will advance co-operative governance. Moreover, in 2006, FAO provided guidance to the government through five channels that will achieve adequate, affordable and nutritious food for all. These are advocacy and training with the aim of strengthening the capacity of government to meet obligations and empowering rights holders to demand accountability; providing information and undertaking an assessment to enable the government to identify those who are food needy; legislation; coming up with strategy and implementation through coordination; monitoring and tracking performance.
By asking political leaders to take up their commitment to ensuring a food secure country, as is their mandate, we must better understand the politics of food acquisition. It is essential that we come together to co-imagine what Kenya can be and this image must be rooted and take hold from the daily lives of those whom this right is denied.
I realise that the issue of food insecurity in an urban context is frequently overlooked. However, the translation of this into tangible results requires concerted efforts by all charged with the responsibility of implementing the law and devising new ways to tackle this ongoing problem, starting from the grassroots where people understand and demand their food rights. It means opting out of knee-jerk reactions to chronic emergencies and rethinking as well as reworking socio-economic policies that ensure food is available to all, always.
Eastleigh, with its diverse food, people and culture, reveals a hub of possibilities amongst a hard-working community. Perhaps this is a space to learn from: a slice of Eastleigh to Kenya’s food diary.
By Bethuel Muthee. Bethuel supports the Route to Food initiative.
Photograph by Armstrong Too.