Saturday, August 6, 2011

Feast and Famine

Last month a German friend emailed to ask how my summer in Kenya was going. He also asked whether I was being affected by the famine. I was a bit taken aback by the question. I had heard people complain about food insecurity in the villages we had been visiting – they even gave the recent bout of hunger a nickname, “Ocampo Six,” after the six accused perpetrators of post-election violence currently on trial in The Hague before the International Criminal Court chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo. But Ocampo Six did not really seem like a famine, and no one we met seemed close to starvation. It was just a few days later that news of the famine currently ravaging Northeast Kenya hit the local press and I realized this was what my friend was talking about.

News of the famine has now become inescapable. International aid agencies have rallied to support relief efforts and ordinary Kenyans are doing their part to help, too. One of the more inspiring responses is “Kenyans for Kenya,” a fundraising effort led by Kenyan corporations and media houses. Kenyans for Kenya has also set up a system through which people here can donate money to support relief efforts via M-Pesa, the highly popular system of banking by mobile phone. In the village I visited yesterday, one of the residents, who was clearly of humble means, told me that he was planning to organize with his neighbor to donate to the relief effort.

The Kenyan government’s response has been less inspiring. Just last week, a government spokesman declared that there have been no known deaths attributable to the famine. Furthermore, many observers have pointed out that the drought which caused the current famine is an annual occurrence, and the government should have been prepared. There have also been reports of relief funds being diverted.

I was chatting with my German friend again last night and he said he’d read my blog and found it rather depressing. Chagrined, I told him I was just planning to write about the famine. He told me to go ahead, saying “I guess that’s what we like to hear about Africa.” That comment made me depressed, since I don’t want to contribute more to the Afro-pessimism that is so rampant in the West. (I’ve even had a professor encourage me to focus on a different region of the world, since Africa is pretty much hopeless). But hopefully shedding some light on local relief efforts like Kenyans for Kenya illustrates that the situation here is not as dire as some would have us believe.

In the spirit of Afro-optimisim, I’ll end this post by talking about Kenyan food, which is abundant for many people living here. Like Tanzania, the staple food is ugali, a stiff porridge made from maize. You eat it with your hands, rolling it up into a little ball and then using it to sop up whatever is accompanying it (often sukuma wiki, a local kale that is quite delicious, or some kind of meat or fish stew). I’ve become quite fond of yellow ugali, which is made from yellow maize and is a bit coarser and also more flavorful (think polenta). Living in Nyanza Province I am close to Lake Victoria, so fish is plentiful – especially nile perch, tilapia and omena (tiny, sardine-like fish). One of my favorite things about the food here is that it’s a lot closer to the source than much of what we eat in the U.S. In other words, it's hard not to be a locavore. The avocados, mangoes and pineapples are amazing (and so cheap!) and the French fries really taste like potatoes. My main complaint about the local cuisine is the use of too much cooking oil. That said, I have developed a weakness for mandazi, the fried donuts available on every street corner. But I figure all the walking I’ve been doing around the villages, (not to mention running in the Migori hills and even going to aerobics classes!) will cancel them out.

And with that, I'm off to lunch at a friend's place, having just confirmed with him that even though I'm an mzungu, I do eat ugali.

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