Even My Mother Doesn’t Know: intergenerational struggles in recalling indigenous culinary knowledge

[Translations of select Kiswahili, Luo and Slang words at the end of article]

I realize that in my pursuit of indigenous culinary knowledge, I might have to tap into the metaphysical, because even those back home who might be expected to know, no longer know- don’t want to remember or can’t. That they also aspire to and replicate very similar practises that are dominant in the cultures of former colonial masters. That we can’t go back home and expect to find roots/the originals/ the unblemished bits of our cultural practises/ knowledge. The idea that the next step in decolonization, might not be remembering, but reinvention….but a reinvention that draws from deep within particular value systems, that recognizes our evolution, but still rejects imperialistic tendencies. Also, that the process might require channeling the mystical- calling pon dem ancestors some type of way…In an experience in the recent past, I may have experienced something close to mediumship- enough to have me seriously consider that indigenous spirituality/magic/witchcraft may have some real shit going on, and whilst i don’t fucks with Abrahamic faiths at all, for ever Amen, I may just be persuaded into something else, in a form that has nothing to do with contemporary hierarchical, patriarchal, white religious culture)


By Atieno Nyar Kasagam,
Queue for this reading,

I thought I could go home and lock myself in my mother’s kitchen, watch her cook, eat her cooking, and come out into the world ready to start up a flaming Luo restaurant, oozing with traditional, pre-colonial essence.I have always wanted to start up a restaurant.I am not a consistently great cook, but every other time i trip and put my foot in it, and surprise everyone. Everyone including myself.  I never know exactly what I did. I can never usually replicate it. But these moments have been numerous enough for me to seriously consider setting up a ka-joint some day, some good eating, some good vibes and music.
 I started a blog to showcase some of my recipes, and i found that what i wanted to make- to eat and to share was the food that my mother cooked…the yummy stuff that feeds first the soul then the body. But I also recognized really quickly that if i am going to cook anything for anyone, I am going to pull from a place that I have only passing knowledge of.

 You know, learning about how to prepare this or that while passing through the kitchen while mum or auntie was cooking, heading out or heading in…noticing a thing or two, or smelling another, and the occasional time when I would be cornered and compelled to pluck stems from a harvest of cow peas leaves.

  I regret that boarding school took these experiences away from me. I regret that I didn’t recognize how powerful those moments were- I should have probably  not hovered by the sufurias, but stood right next to them and rolled up a sleeve.

    But I had books to read.

    I had so many goddamn exams to prepare for.

    I had obligations that had nothing to do with ‘life’.

    I had to get As to place into high school.

    I had to get As to place into college.

    Medical school had been the dream for a long time.

     Then politics snuck up on me…

     And somewhere in the mix I happenstanced on an opportunity to skip out on my final exams, KCSE, and go to South Africa, and then ey, to the you ess.

 

Washing dishes the other night,

Because i am goddamn tired of a goddamn messy house,

I was thinking that many of the answers I am looking for,

The techniques,

The magic,

In food preparation,

Traditional Luo food preparation,

Have been long forgotten,

Long gone.

My mother Achieng,
Born and raised in the village,
Alego, Siaya dala,
is now a city woman.
A luo woman,
From the deepest parts of the boonies,
By Nam Lolwe,
Where even the dirt roads do not run,
I tell you,

She is living the city dream,

She needn’t be bothered about how to smoke and save that Mbuta when she has a big ol LG refrigerator.

She needn’t be too bothered about this forageable herb or the other, when she can go down to Soko Mjinga or Marikiti on Saturday, and find all that she might need…and top off at Uchumi or Nakumatt.

My mother needn’t be bothered with the old school rural living that America has forced me to crave.

She din left that life with good reason.

She din scraped by with little money,

Selling home brew kong’o for school fees was not easy,

Was not fun,

She won’t even talk to me about,

Her suffering,

Poverty,

Had to chop down trees,

Sell firewood to make some bread,

Poverty,

In Siaya,

And now her daughter is in America,

Walking these here streets,

in America,

Washing dishes here in America,

Goddamn tired of a goddamn messy house here in America.
In the middle of the night,
Because I refuse to sleep on this,
And I know that books will not give me what I need,
And there are only leftovers at my mother’s feet,
I have to dig deep into my skin,


Dani,
Can you please teach me, your kin,
Kwaru,
Can you please teach me, your kin,
Show me how to read,
Without my eyes.
Show me how to hear,
Without my ears.
Show me how to taste,
Without my tongue,
Show me how to liven up,
Our spirits,
Show me how to cook up a feast
that will wake up the dead.

TRANSLATIONS:
a ka-joint:
a really nice spot/place 
Mbuta: 
nile perch, in my experience, usually wonderfully pungent and smoked and cooked in coconut milk.
Dani: Grandmother in Luo
Kwaru: Grandfather in Luo
Kong’o: Traditional beer/liquor usually brewed at home, often underneath the ‘legal’ framework
Soko Mjinga: translates literally into  ‘stupid market’- an open, sprawling, often muddy,  food and everything else that could possibly be sold market that my mum would shop at in Nairobi every Saturday when I was young.
Marikiti: translates into market- another open market that my mum would shop at.
Uchumi and Nakumatt: Two of the largest supermarkets in Nairobi. (Uchumi has been overtaken by Tusky’s by now, i believe, or something else- it has been a while)

 

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