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 a lot of calls from that article than any other, what caught my eye was the title. "Kenyan Chef Teaches what he Preaches" the title of the article read. 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 seem to be so misunderstood, worst by those that should be foremost in preserving it. Why is is 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 on 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 year 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 am hail from has so conveniently forgot most of their folk knowledge, essentially obliterating their information about their past, especially among the educated. For a while 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 out 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 saying, 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 higher standard of living. The war had to be financed and soldiers rewarded 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 give 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 Peoples 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.
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 guard that he was using to attend to an errand for my grandmother. The expensive habit could not continue and my dad was now free to follow my grandfather full time. Whenever there was a case to be settle, 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. 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. The land in their ethnic nation was placed under the crown in 1909. With many ethnic nations, the alienation took on different methods. The Maasai 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.
This did not go very well, with the people on the loosing end. It disrupted their cultural life, food included. My people had not rights that the British were obligated to respect. They essentially become just tools for the advancement of the British and their desires. When war became too much for them 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 desired of their own for freedom. This seemed to make sense for a while. They British appeared invincible and unconquerable.
But as more young men were recruited to go to war outside their country, the idea that the whites ere superior started dying off. This remarkable realization would make it even conceivable for the Africans and other oppressed people elsewhere to dream of self rule. My parents were growing up in the whirl wind of this political hailstorm. They would not be scared of it either and embraced the cause with all his 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 they Africans were backwards and devoid of any useful knowledge would stick more and even risk undoing the benefits that self-rule eventually brought. 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, previously oppressed, are. I have found myself preaching that 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 eat 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 below average intelligence, is now becoming a plague. Its so simple to see through the jaded history of oppression and see how the same political goals of the imperial British are employed elsewhere, and how political battles can 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 international flag that binds all men of good will together: FOOD. So take a bite of this history, hoist it's flag and preach.