August in Food and History





To a young boy growing up in early-eighties Kenya, the month of August excited as if it were an Eclipse. We could count our list of pleasures with just a few fingers; but we needed only one: the outdoors, which we had in abundance. Therein were all kinds of worlds.

    But the endless desire for more plagues everyone, including children. As a boy during August, I wanted to leave the city and head to the village where my mother lived as a farmer and keeper of the ancestral land. This land was magical to me. It was as if I already recognized that this was the closest thing to heaven that I would ever see. My life in the city, where everything seemed fake and disingenuous, only sharpened this perception. The village was different from that. My mother, my aunts and my cousins lived there. There were friends, numerous boys to play with and numerous girls with whom to learn what crushes were. But above all, the month of August was corn season. Albeit unknowingly, I was betting on what would become the god of the world.

    I refused to sleep an extra night in the city after school let out. But like Odysseus, I had to pay a high price before coming home, as though I were being punished for having left home for the city to live a life of poverty among lost souls. Lost souls are not easily redeemed and mine was no different. The odyssey was no joke. I’ve often toyed with the idea that if Karl Marx was to travel to my village at the time, he might have questioned his ideas about the opiate of the masses. The transportation system from the city to the village was nothing short of a religion. Public service vehicles known as Matatu mostly handled the journey from the city of Nairobi. Matatu in Swahili means trinity. While I knew nothing of careers at the time, I knew very well that if I did not do well in school, I would end up working in one of two religious industries, either the Matatu industry or a seminary.

    The trip from Nairobi to Kangema lasts about three hours. I would always start my journey at Munyu Road, where my father and his friends ran a bar and restaurant named after our ancestral home, Kangema. I’d take my report card to my dad; in exchange I’d receive my Matatu fare and several messages for my mother. Most importantly, I would get his blessings: for surely I’d need all the blessings he had and more.

    At my father’s, I would pick up a few items for my mother, eat lunch, and then head to the Matatu terminal. The terminals were always easy to spot.  Matatu men made loud noises in an effort to attract travelers. They were rude, and looked high on holy waters or holy smokes. They did not live by the morals of mortals, but instead a single-handed salvation of profit. They were interested only in filling up a vehicle, getting paid, and then seeing it on to glory as the next car moved up the line.

    But these men could perform magic. They could transform their own into passengers. They, like their religious counterparts, understood human psychology. They, unlike their religious peddlers of hope, actually peddled hope of time. It is interesting to note that with the coming of  Western culture, as much at it promised, the one thing that it took away was time. Everybody all over a sudden seemed to have become poor in the currency of time. Those who were actively engaged in the midwifery of the new western thought were the first victims. These vehicles would periodically start to pull off slowly but would back up again to its original spot, having given false hope to the occupants and hopefully tricked a hesitant passenger to finally jump into the vehicle. So they would pose inside as though they were travelers, and as more passengers got in, the fake passengers would jump off.

    Once the vehicle was full and all the seats taken, young travelers would be asked to stand up. Here the test of strength would start. The vehicles are so low that I’d have to bend at an angle of about 55 degrees. Any grown adult would bend to an even higher degree. The vehicle was stuffy; the bend was hell.

    Those seated were not in paradise either. They were arranged like sacks to maximize the number of travelers that could fit in the vehicle. You see those men did not see bodies or people; they only saw money. More people were more profit. I don't remember anyone ever getting angry enough not to pay. People would murmur to themselves about being uncomfortable, but they would ultimately resign to their fate and pay the fare as though it was a title demanded by the gods of the highway. But conversations would distract the standing souls. Many stories I claim as my own were actually overheard en route to the holy village.

    The drivers were tyrants. They would sometimes demand a song from the passengers, especially when the bus was climbing a hill. They might also park the bus in front of a bar, go inside, and enjoy three or five beers. No one dared to complain. Most of the passengers were smart and travelled with a four-course meal in their baskets. So while the preacher drank wine, the passengers ate bread.

    It would sometimes take us a whole day to cover the three-hour journey, but patience paid. It didn’t bother us a great deal that we were traveling like animals. August was holy, and I paid homage to it. I eventually got home, and it was as if my feet had kissed the ground. I would run as fast as I could to see my mother. We would exchange warm greetings. She would inquire about the other world, the shadow world. I would convey my father’s messages and then sit in the kitchen as my mother prepared some homely meal. There was always food; this was heaven after all.

    I would then visit the cowshed, note the new calves and then check on the other animals. Finally, I would go to the garden and walk around the cornfields to check how far they were from being ready to harvest. I would envision the annual rituals that occured every harvest season. For many late nights my brother and my cousins would stay up late roasting corn on the bare fire. During the day, my cousins and I herded the cows, and brainstormed ideas for making a flying oven called Nugi. It would keep us cold in the grazing fields as well as roast the corn in record time. I did not know then that I was repurposing cocoa cans and Kimbo, a brand of hydrogenated oil for dead souls. This tradition and the flavors embedded in my memory come back all at once when I harvest corn. It is called Mutungo. To all those who have their own visions of youth: say Mutungo. My mother and father will smile, along with all the drivers who delivered me from Memphis, the city of the dead, and landed me safely in Kangema to see my lovely mother and find yet another taste of a holy meal among angels, the likes of which I will never see again. I will forever remember thee and will forever compare others to thee, despite being unjust. Though guilty I may be, I hope that you will forgive me for being high on my memories of these people. Their lives and labor are encapsulated in this simple crop with such a complex ritual. Mutungo, Mutungo, Mutungo.