Sometime in the Fall of last year, Paul Ossom, reporter for the Chapel Hill News, contacted me by email and also by phone with an interest to do an interview. The article later made the front page for the Sunday paper. I got more calls from that article than any other. What caught my eye was the title, "Kenyan Chef Teaches what he Preaches". Since then, it occurred to me that I may as well be preaching. I have been feeling the weight of the Wisdom of my ethnic people but still this wisdom seems to be so misunderstood, worst by those that should be foremost in preserving it. Why is it that Americans are finding a message that resonates with the food movement here and yet the very people whose heritage it is seem to see nothing of value in it?
The food crisis, and by extension the cultural crisis, has a lot to do with the forgetting of folk wisdom that has been refined over the years in favor of western culture that we knew very little about. This forgetting has become of great commercial value to a small group of corporations as they replace things of value in the market with things that are dangerous to our life. So the choice of something as simple as what you put in your mouth has been commodified. The new religion is based not based on what "Thou shall not eat .." to one that says "Thou should eat....". While I claim that food is the most political thing you will ever touch in your life, the power to influence that choice has to come in a close second. This is not at all surprising; I recognize that all things are political however subtle. The idea that Kenyans and the Gikuyu ethnic group I hail from have so conveniently forgotten most of their folk knowledge, essentially obliterating their information about their past, especially among the educated. For awhile this appeared very benign. Yet things are not well on the gastronomic front. The experimental period is over and doubts have started to set in. Some are asking some serious questions.
Without realizing, I found the little knowledge I had managed to acquire from my parents and other elders is now turning out to be more valuable than the very expensive education I have received formally. The folk knowledge about food, music, wise sayings, plants, and life in general has turned me into a crusader for something that not too long ago would have been a symbol of shame. How did this happen? How did once proud people that form the largest ethnic group turn their cultural head down in shame and starting courting amnesia of their own heritage?
A lot of it has to do with the British struggle to build a global empire. The desire for an empire had a lot to do with the country's ability to feed itself and afford a high standard of living. The army had to be supported and rewarded to create an incentive for them to keep fighting for the empire. The growing empire has to be administered and therefore more soldiers were needed. As it were, the empire grew so fast and so big that the British soldiers could no longer protect the empire and wage war without enlisting the help of the very people they were dispossessing. This would end up being the undoing of the empire.
When Kamakia, my grandfather heard that the missionaries had had arrived in our village and set up a church and school, he went to two of his wives in his homestead and instructed them that my father was not to be given any chores around the homestead; necessity had created a new role for him and he could not be expected to forgo his duties for simple errands for my grandparents. His new role was to follow my grandfather everywhere he went for official and unofficial duties as a council of elder and learn all the traditions of his people. My grandfather in some strange way could sense danger from the attitudes that the British judged everybody else. He found it rather strange that besides just land and wealth, they were contemptuous of other People's Gods. Theirs was the only true God. The battle lines had been drawn, and they were deep. The customs of the Gikuyu were in peril, and power that was so firmly in the hands of the Gikuyu, had been violently wrestled from their grasp.
A people that once understood that even spirituality is something that you practice and that it evolves as one evolves. They treated life in as sacred and understood that simply because you do not love something does not necessary mean that you hate it. This people in their very culture knew that food was at the heart of any spiritual as well as political existence. The walking highways connecting villages had "granaries of God" along the highway where local food was available to the travelers for free. These were the offerings that each member would donate for good will. Travelers were welcome to partake to eat to their fill as they continued with their journey.
But behold a new dusk was coming. A new political era, accompanied with a culture and a deity to boot, would be ushered in. This new political and religious system would require the change of focus from serving the people to serving it. Taxes and tithes would be required to be offered for the development, not of the community that gave, but of a foreigner's in a far away land. The old temples of food security where the community shared their harvest with anyone who was in need, would be replaced by a massive empty building where the food-insecure would go and pray that the new deity do for them what they had for years been able to do themselves. These building were not buildings of unity but building that reminded everyone that they were accountable to themselves. What you believe about what will happen to you when you die started taking center stage. Life after death now become more important than what you did with the life you have. This idea became so central that people would introduce themselves by two things, name first and then their anticipation of where they will go after they die.
What was not apparent was that a new insecurity of food would in turn feed an spiritual insecurity and by extension a social and political insecurity. Corruption was born as a center stage concern from this point. A society that had evolved to be most practical in governing itself and fulfilling the needs of its members was in the throes of the largest mass amnesia. Their language started declining, local knowledge of the flora and fauna, the use of herbs as medicines and most of all, the ability to negotiate and organize as a community. It surprised me for example to learn that for ages, women could marry other women in my culture. Though different from civil unions of modern times, at least the thinking was was above that of most other places during that time. Over two hundred years later, the West is toying with such an idea.
My grandfather could sense the limitations of the new thinking. My grandmothers, on the other hand did not sense the urgency, but after many broken pots they realized that things were serious. My grandfather would ask my dad to break any pot or gourd that he was using to attend to an errand for my grandmother. This expensive habit could not continue and my dad was soon free to follow my grandfather full time. Whenever there was a case to be settled, any celebration, induction of new members in the council of elders, or even simply discussion of anything important, my dad was right there. A library was being created one event at a time through this participant observation. Meanwhile, the British were consolidating their empire. This meant wars on many fronts. Soon enough young men from my ethnic groups would be recruited to work for the benefit of the empire. But that was not before they were alienated from their lands. All land in their ethnic nation that make the modern day Kenya was placed under the crown in 1909. Since the ethnic nations did not have one central government, each nation was dealt with individually. The Massai for example simply signed their land away. The Gikuyu not too quickly and not without armed struggle. But finally, it did happen. That meant that Africans owned no land and any land that they would later be allocated would be at the mercy of the Queen.
The next move was the imposition of taxation, without representation, on its new subjects. To pay the taxes one had to have foreign currency that only the British had. While their religious institution accepted goats and food in payment of their tax, the colonial government knew better than accept such payments for its taxation. This required the once free people to now hire themselves out to the British farms and urban industries. The unique thing about the urban communities that were allocated to the African migrant workers was that it was against its by-laws to keep animals, other than dogs. The other animals were a "nuisance". The British knew that keeping animals would free the Africans by earning money through independent means and therefore enabling them to pay the requisite annual taxes without necessarily working for the British. It would also divide the attention of workers from attending to the requirements of the British. By doing so, food insecurity continued to play a big role in colonizing the African.
This did not go very well, with the people on the loosing end. It disrupted their cultural life, food included. My people had no rights that the British were obligated to respect. They essentially became just tools for the advancement of the British and their desires. When war became too much for the British, my people were expected to feel the urgency and cry to the pains that the British felt. When necessary, Gikuyu young men were enlisted to go and fight for the Crown in Burma, otherwise known as Myanmar, and elsewhere. But they were not to have any desire of their own for freedom. This seemed to make sense for a while. The British appeared invincible and unconquerable.
But as more young men were recruited to go to war outside their country, the idea that the whites were superior started dying off. This remarkable realization would make it now conceivable for the Africans and other oppressed people elsewhere to dream of self-rule. My parents were growing up in the whirlwind of this political hailstorm. They would not be scared of it either and embraced the cause with all their might. But the question of self rule is not as simple as they thought. Looking back, some of the policies that the British put in place to ensure their political domination did not go away with lowering of the Union Jack, the British flag.
The idea that their ways were superior and that the Africans were backwards and devoid of any useful knowledge would prove a harder nut to crack. The food security and cultural freedom to define themselves would not naturally come back; this simple fact would even risk undoing the benefits that self-rule was intended to usher in. This was not all coincidence, a lot of it had to do with political subterfuge and a desire to continue the same colonial policies through backhand means.
It has now become apparent that there is no short cut to being free. Foods is one measure of how free a people are. I have found myself preaching those values that we have forgotten. I never perceived my work in this way and have never uttered a single word during my interviews that would indicate so. Yet it amazes me how a people who ate so well not too long ago are now plagued by all kinds of diseases that they knew nothing about. Well, I have agreed to keep the lessons that my grandfather found so useful and my dad honored by passing them to me. What appeared to my grandmother as common sense to everyone with average intelligence, is now becoming a plague. It's so simple to see through the jaded history of oppression and see how the same political goals of the empireristic British are employed elsewhere, and how political battles can be waged right there on your plate. Who will make the clarion call and wake the people up?
So I have to agree with the title the Ubuyu magazine choose for their article based on my interview, "There is more to Food than Meets your Mouth". There is a whole history to why you eat what you eat and it may just be worth asking yourself if you are on the right side of history or not. What values are you advancing? Are they values you are willing to live for and if necessary die for? I say amen to my grandfather's vision; he was merely hosting the ONLY TRUE international flag that binds all men of good will together: FOOD. So take a bite of this history, hoist it's flag and preach.