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You Can Share a Meal With a Kenyan Family and Make a Difference

What’s the best way you can think of to get to know someone?  In my opinion, sharing a meal opens people up and enables a friendly comfortable conversation.  When we travel, it can be difficult to scrape the surface of a place and I often find myself wondering how I can dig deeper and get to know the culture better.  So we decided to give travelers to Kenya that very opportunity by offering the option to enjoy lunch or dinner with a Kenyan family.

We met Patrick, Joy* and their two children several years ago.  Having worked on the edges of tourism for about ten years, Patrick was looking for a way to continue in the industry but also be there for his young family.  Despite their modest living conditions, he was very proud of his wife’s cooking and so came up with the idea to invite travellers to see the “real Kenya” and share a meal with him and his family.  This would allow the family to earn a small income while fulfilling the goals of spending time with his family and working with tourists.  On the first visit, there was another benefit that became apparent – his children had the opportunity to play with the visitors’ children, giving all children the opportunity to learn from each other.

A Typical Family

A lower-class Kenyan family typically lives in a one- or two-room apartment or unit.  Curtains act as walls to divide a room into sitting room and bedroom.  The sitting room is at the front and visitors are rarely invited past that.  The wife spends much of her time in the kitchen and brings out pots of steaming food to her husband and guests.  The kitchen might have a gas bottle with a burner for quickly boiling water and one or two “jikos” which are small stoves that fit one pot and use charcoal.  Bathrooms are usually shared between all the residents of the building.  The toilet will be a cubicle with a hole in the concrete which descends to a large pit.  The ‘shower’ is a cubicle with a small hole in the corner acting as a drain and residents take their own bucket of water to wash themselves (no shower rose or even a tap).  There is usually no plumbing in these buildings so residents buy their water in jerry cans.  Given the lack of space inside, children tend to spend most of their time playing outside.  Many families have chickens running around the yard, which are mainly used for meat on a special occasion.

Each tribe of Kenya has its own traditional food.  Joy prepares a selection of dishes from different tribes to give visitors a good taste of Kenya including:

  • Githeri – a stew of beans and maize
  • Plantain – green bananas boiled and then fried with tomato and onion
  • Rice
  • Mukimo – mashed potato mixed with pumpkin leaves and maize
  • Tilapia – fish found in freshwater lakes around Kenya
  • Chapatti – flat bread originating from India (Kenya has a large Indian population who have influenced the cuisine)
  • Chicken stew
  • Zikuma wiki – kale
  • Ugali – maize meal mixed with water to make a polenta-style dish
  • Cabbage
  • Sweet potato
  • Fruits for dessert

In Kenyan tradition, when we visit friends or family, the etiquette is to bring gifts.  These are probably not what westerners would normally consider gifts; rather we take maize meal, tea, sugar, rice, and other basic food items.  If there are children in the house, you might also take pens, pencils and exercise books and perhaps some sweets.

Kenyans traditionally eat with their hands and so hygiene is very important.  The wife will prepare some warm water and bring it in a jug with a bowl, soap and towel to each guest.  She pours the water over your hands so you can wash, and then offers the towel or a serviette.  As I mentioned earlier, there is no running water in most houses, so it often comes as a bit of a surprise to visitors to be presented with this method of washing hands.  There are a lot of stews on the menu so you might think eating with your hands is going to be very messy, but there are two key dishes that can act as spoons: ugali and chapatti.  The chapatti is clear as it is flat bread which can be curled into a scoop.  The ugali is of such a consistency that it can be formed into a scoop as well.

Kenyan food can take a bit of getting used to.  The meat tends to be a bit tough and the maize tends to be a bit tasteless.  Ugali is not my personal favourite, but it is not designed to be eaten on its own – it is meant to be eaten with a sauce or stew and that is where you get your flavour.  Kenyans don’t use a lot of spices in their cooking – flavour is added by salt and maybe chicken or beef stock cubes.  But the vegetables are fresh, they haven’t been months in cold storage as we often get in the west, so you get the full flavours of the actual food you are eating.

Guests often have mixed reactions throughout their visit.  On first entering the compound and then the house there is definitely some trepidation as it is quite a different way of life than what we are used to.  There’s also uncertainty about how to react if the food proves inedible.  And then there’s relief as fish, rice, chicken, mashed potato and cabbage is presented.  It might be cooked a bit differently, but it is recognizable and definitely edible!  As conversation flows guests relax into their surrounds.  The children play outside together and by the end of the meal there’s pleas from the kids that they want to keep playing.  Friendships are formed, connections made, and bonding over a shared meal leaves everyone with the warmth that comes from being with other humans.  Despite the nerves at the outset, all our guests have come away from this experience with positivity and believe that it was a key part of their whole Kenyan safari.

If you would like to share a meal with a Kenyan family as part of your safari adventure, please email tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com.

*not their real names

Suswa Caves

Kenya is full of hidden gems that we keep discovering and we want to show our visitors all of them!  We recently camped at Suswa Caves, one such hidden gem.  Sometimes you just need to get off the beaten track, and although the road through Suswa is the well-beaten track to the Maasai Mara, the diversion to Suswa Caves is very unbeaten.  So, at the risk of making Suswa Caves Kenya’s hottest destination, I’m going to tell you about our weekend there and how you can enjoy your own adventure.

Eight of us headed to Suswa loaded up with camping gear, food and water.  Laura and Moses came from their camp in the Maasai Mara with their friend Helen who was visiting from the UK.  Kip, Leonie and their daughter Fleur came from Nairobi, like us.  We arrived at the turnoff to Mt Suswa Conservancy at the same time as Moses and Laura so we set off together into the conservancy.  The road was so dusty!  We had to keep almost a kilometre between our vehicles so the ones behind didn’t get lost in the cloud.  On their way in, Kip and Leonie got stuck in a dust drift – that’s how bad it was!

After we entered the conservancy we had to find the campsite and set up camp.  It wasn’t the easiest to find, but some of the local Maasai who take care of the conservancy found us, waved us down and gave us directions.  We were pleasantly surprised to find something resembling a toilet block – a hole in the ground surrounded by a structure with the doorway facing away from the campsite.  There are two campsites in Mt Suswa Conservancy: one is on the rim of the crater (I forgot to mention that Mt Suswa is an extinct volcano) and the other is next to the caves.  We were at the one near the caves.   Apart from the crumbling buildings around long drop toilets, there is no other infrastructure at the campsites so you must bring everything.  Fortunately we are all ex-overlanders so we are used to spending a couple of nights in the bush and had all the requisite supplies for such an adventure.  For a fee the Maasai brought us firewood, but it most likely wasn’t environmentally sustainable firewood.

Maasai water harvesting

The next morning we hiked.  We found a guide to take us up to the crater rim of Mt Suswa.  On the way he showed us the ingenious method the Maasai have been using to harvest water.  Mt Suswa sits in the Great Rift Valley and is one of several volcanoes that caused the Rift Valley to exist; Mt Kilimanjaro and nearby Mt Longonot being two others.  This volcanic activity means there are hot springs and geysers throughout the area.  In fact this activity has resulted in Kenya Power building a massive geothermal power plant in Hells Gate National Park, which is spitting distance from Mt Suswa.  Anyway, the Maasai have put pipes over steam vents in the mountainside in a way that directs the steam down the mountain.  By the time the steam has travelled down the pipe, it has condensed to water and drips into a large jerry can.  Anyone can come and take water from this source.  On our way back to camp after visiting the crater rim, we stopped by the main water collection point and our guide doused each of us in cold water harvested from the steam vents.  It seemed a bit extravagant given the dryness of the landscape, but it was also very welcome as it was so hot.

On our hike we saw rabbits and shy vervet monkeys, a rare species as most vervet monkeys are very cheeky and not at all shy.  We also saw plenty of birds which Kip was thrilled about as he is an avid birder.

In the afternoon, our guide took us to (and through) the caves.  I would never have guessed how extensive they were and how large.  Some were just massive holes in the ground, which might prove a hazard if you weren’t looking where you were going!  Others were narrow passages which weren’t so much my cup of tea.  There were a lot of bats, and I didn’t fancy coming across one trying to get out while I was trying to get in!  We were shown one chamber that was known as the leopard’s eating cave.  I’m not sure if it was true or not, I preferred not to think too hard about it as our campsite was quite close.  One large cave was called the baboon parliament as it is a favourite gathering place for troupes of baboons.  The rocks were shiny and smooth from the baboons sitting on them so much.

Next time we go, I think the campsite on the crater rim is preferable to the one near the caves, if only for the view.  Hikes need to happen in early morning and late afternoon with a siesta to pass the heat of the day.  Conservancy and camping fees are quite reasonable and the man who collects them is very good at knowing that you are in the conservancy – so even if the entrance gate is unmanned, you will still have to pay as he comes to the campsite to check on you.  Keep your receipts though, so you can prove payment in case another administrator comes around to check/collect.

Would you like to visit Mt Suswa and its caves?  Get in touch with tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com and we’ll help you get there.

My 3 Favourite Recipes From Kenya

My 3 Favourite Recipes From Kenya

With 52 tribes in Kenya, extending from the coast to the Rift Valley lakes to the central highlands to the northern desert, the cuisines found in this country are many and varied.  There is also a strong Indian influence as the spice traders started coming to Africa centuries ago and have remained to trade in various other goods since.  Here I present three dishes commonly found around Nairobi.  Two – the matoke and mukimo – are traditional Kikuyu dishes from the central highlands, and the chapatti is from the coast.

Chapatti

Ingredients (makes 15-20 chapattis):
½ litre cold water
1 kg flour
Salt
Sugar
Oil

Method:
Mix water with flour, add a handful of salt, a bit of sugar and a bit of oil (the oil makes the chapatti turn golden when it cooks).  Divide the mixture into balls the size of a child’s fist.  Roll out each ball to a flat circle about the size of a dinner plate.  Fry on a very hot, oiled chapatti pan (flat fry pan) for about 2 minutes on each side or until golden brown.

Chapati; OTA Kenya Safaris www.ota-responsibletravel.com

Matoke

Ingredients:
Plantains (these are green bananas that are starchy and not sweet)
Tomatoes
Cooking oil
Potatoes
Water
Onions
Parsley
Capsicum
Salt

Method:
Peel the plantains and potatoes and soak for about half an hour.  Meanwhile fry onions, tomatoes, parsley, capsicum and salt.  Add potatoes and plantains to the fried tomato mix.  Cover with water and add salt to taste (the salt also helps soften the plantains quickly).  Stew over medium heat until the plantains and potatoes are cooked through.
To cook minji (peas), maharagwe (beans, usually red kidney) and njahi (black beans) follow a similar recipe.  Boil the peas or beans for several hours until soft.  Fry up the tomato mix described above, add potatoes and water.  Finally add the peas or beans and mix together over low heat.

Matoke; OTA Kenya Safaris www.ota-responsibletravel.com

Mukimo

Ingredients:
Beans (red kidney beans usually)
Maize kernels
Onions
Tomatoes
Potatoes

Method:
Boil beans and maize (generally equal amounts of beans and maize) until soft, this usually takes a couple of hours.  In another pot, cook onions, tomatoes and potatoes until soft.  Then add the beans and maize.  Now you have githeri another popular Kikuyu dish (my favourite!).  However, to get to mukimo, cook the stew for another 30 minutes before mashing it all together.  The maize is tough to mash so don’t worry about the kernels staying whole.  The beans and potatoes will mash easily though.
Some versions of mukimo do not use beans; instead use a leafy green vegetable such as kale or spinach which mashes with the potato to make the mukimo green.

Githeri; OTA Kenya Safaris www.ota-responsibletravel.com

The quantities depend on your taste and how many you are cooking for.  Generally for mukimo you want equal quantities of beans, maize and potatoes with the onion and tomato simply adding some taste.  For matoke the plantains should be more than the potatoes, about a 2:3 ratio.  Again the tomato fry mix is simply to add taste so you don’t need too much.  For the chapattis the flour should be twice the amount of water with sugar and salt to taste.

I would love to hear about your experiences with Kenyan food – whether you have cooked it yourself or been cooked for.  Please leave your comments below.

A bird’s-eye view of Southern Kenya

Finally, there it is:  Lake Natron.  What a flight!  Sibera seems like a lifetime ago; I’ve seen so much since leaving the taiga forest – the deserts of Central Asia and Middle East, over lush Ethiopia and now finally Kenya’s lakes where I can stop for some rest, some food …. and some mating!  I hope there’s some pretty chickies to meet down here.

It’s a long journey, but usually it’s worth the effort.  We all gather here for a few months to catch up on what’s going on around the world.  The Spotted Thrush, Rock Thrush and Eurasion Bee-eaters bring the latest news from Europe and the locals catch us up on what’s been happening in East Africa during our absence.  They’ve got a nice life the local guys.  Those flamingos don’t have to travel too far if food runs out.  They have so many lakes like Nakuru, Baringo, Bogoria, and Naivasha within such a short distance.  Not like the months some of us have to travel to find food during the winter.  To be fair, the poor old ostriches can’t even fly so I can’t begrudge them anything.  And the Kori Bustards are so heavy it looks like a lot of effort for them to get off the ground.  I think I’m quite lucky compared to them; at least I can get around and see the world.

The Warblers and Blackcaps will come from around my area.  Everyone loves when the Warblers come in – their songs keep us entertained for hours.  The Kenyan water birds will be there of course, including the crazy old Spoonbill with his ridiculous beak.  And all the Plovers!  There’s always so many of them and I do forget their names much of the time – let’s see, there’s Crowned Plover, Kittlitz’s Plover, Three-banded Plover….

OTA's Easter Birding Tour, Kenya, http://www.ota-responsibletravel.com/#!birding-tour/cfme

I’m looking forward to a good party with all these guys!  The Pelicans can get a bit raucous, which I know annoys the Fish Eagles.  And let’s not even mention the relationship between the sleazy Marabou Storks and the snobby Yellow-billed Storks; it’s hard to believe they are related!  But generally we all get along quite well.  And the great thing about southern Kenya is that if the Hadada Ibis is being too noisy at Natron, we can get some peace at nearby Magadi.

I’m really close now and so far so good; I haven’t run into that unfriendly white-bellied one with the big headpiece.  What’s his name again?  Yes: Go-away-bird!  He’s so rude.  We fly all this way for their Kenyan shindig and he just sits in the tree squawking “Go away! Go away!”  The Hornbills, Kingfishers and Turacos are all fine and in fact I’m looking forward to meeting my old pal the Lilac-breasted Roller.  Some of us prefer the water while others of us prefer the trees…. or I should say shrubs down here.  All the salty water doesn’t make for lush forests.

Hey, there’s Red-and-Yellow Barbet and Masked Weaver.  I’ve made it guys!  It’s time to paaaaaaar-ty!

OTA's Easter Birding Tour, Kenya, http://www.ota-responsibletravel.com/#!birding-tour/cfme

Hammerkops

Surprising Birdlife at Lake Magadi, Kenya

In December 2012 Francis wanted to show me Lake Magadi as a place to bring our guests on day trips.  Nearby, Nguruman is one end of a hiking trail through Loita Hills, whose other end is close to the Maasai Mara, and we also wanted to research that trek.  But the main destination was Magadi’s hot springs!  I was so excited, having visions of natural hot springs akin to Mataranka in the Northern Territory, Australia (i.e. lots of trees surrounding a beautiful natural bath).

How wrong a person can be!  Nairobi is cool due to the altitude and one could not imagine the change in climate that is possible in just 80 kilometres.  But Lake Magadi sits at the bottom of the Great Rift Valley and the weather gets progressively hotter as you descend.  By the time you reach the hot springs, all you can think of is sliding into the pristine water.  You soon remember however, as you dip your toes in, that these are hot springs… and they are really hot (up to 86ºC at the source, but around 45ºC in most areas)!

The big shady trees of my visions, which may have made the hot springs a viable option for a swim, of course were not around.  Magadi is a sodium carbonate alkaline lake and most of its area is covered by water for only a short period each year, during the rainy season.  For most of the year, the lake is a vast salt pan, with small pools around the springs.

On the way to the lake is Magadi town, which I thought reminiscent of mining towns in outback Australia, and indeed it essentially is.  Lake Magadi is the world’s second-largest source of sodium carbonate and the Magadi Soda Factory lies on the northern end of the town, producing soda ash for various industrial uses.  Had I paid attention to that, I probably would have been less hopeful of big trees!

Francis and I returned this New Years Eve.  On our visit in 2012, we decided that day trips to the hot springs may not be so fun, but an overnight camping trip might be better to enjoy a bath under the stars.  The local Maasai bathe during the heat of the day, which I had to admire – I could not even keep my toes in for more than a minute!  It’s still hot but bearable after the heat of the sun has disappeared and our midnight dip was a sublime beginning to 2014.

But the main reason we like Lake Magadi is the surprising range of birdlife found in the area.  The lake is well-known for its flamingos who feed on the algae, mainly in the southern parts of the lake.  In the northern part of the lake are some fresh water springs where other species can be found.  As we drove through the area we were treated to Blacksmith Plovers, Ostriches, a Kori Bustard, Lesser Flamingos and a huge variety of smaller species flitting about (the area is not a complete desert and there are some trees and shrubs for the birds).  Mammals also inhabit the area and we saw wildebeest, zebra, giraffe and gerenuks.

OTA Easter Birding Tour in Kenya, http://www.ota-responsibletravel.com/#!birding-tour/cfme

This Easter we will return and this time we want to invite you.  Between March and June, Kenya’s southern lakes (including Natron and Magadi) are breeding havens for water birds and migrants, so April is the perfect time to experience this area.  Departing Nairobi on April 18 and returning on April 21 the trip will take us on a hike through the Ngong Hills, discover Kenya’s ancient history at Olorgesailie, explore the forests around Nguruman Escarpment, witness the extraordinary birdlife of Lake Natron, and finally a late night dip in Lake Magadi’s hot springs.  Visit the website for more information and register your interest or Like us on Facebook and find the Event page for the full itinerary.

OTA Easter Birding Tour in Kenya, http://www.ota-responsibletravel.com/#!birding-tour/cfme

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