In Kenya, a First Taste of Hunger

28 Apr 2010

I never experienced hunger. In fact, my life has revolved around avoiding it. Three meals a day was my rule. My grandmother Odette was from Lyon. She’d drool over the saucisson lyonnais, quenelle, gâteau de foies de volaille she’d serve us, or anything really that included cream or butter, cheese or meat. My grandmother Marguerite is from Villeveyrac, in Languedoc – a region more Mediterranean; her repertoire plays around bouillabaisse, ratatouille, and barbecued lamb. I was spoiled. I am spoiled.

When I decided to go to Kenya, I didn’t think about food. After years as an executive in big companies, I wanted to push myself out of my comfort zone. Work with the poor, live their lives, and try somehow to change something. I read about NECOFA. I talked to Samuel Muhunyu, its coordinator for Kenya, and leader of Slow Food in the country. He spoke about the nation’s food security issues; how people deserve the right to access a culturally acceptable food; how they should have access to it with dignity – all ideals I believe in.

Samuel suggested that I join them for two months, basing myself in the city of Molo. Food and nutrition security is an even bigger challenge for families affected by HIV, he said. Nutrition is even more key for the infected, as a balanced diet improves people’s immunity as well as adherence to anti-retrovirals. He wanted me to meet these families and understand the problems they face. Speak with institutions and NGOs to identify what kind of support already exists. And come up with ideas on how to empower the families to achieve their food and nutrition security. Don’t give me fish, teach me how to fish, a Kenyan proverb says.

Food has always been for me a haven in difficult times. But what I find here does not give me what I’m longing for.

My aunt worked in West Africa for more than 15 years, and my childhood was bathed in her stories of friendly people, mesmerizing landscapes, and exotic animals. Life is simple there, so much easier, she said. She was the adventurer, divorced in a seriously Catholic family – a woman alone in Africa, threading her way through a foreign land. And so her Africa became my fantasy.

When I arrived it was raining. Through the cars’ fumes I could see run-down buildings covered with grime. We finally arrived in Molo. My new life was beginning.

Most of the roads here are made of dirt, and those of asphalt have been ruined from the heavy rains that frequently flood the country. People walk with heavy loads on their heads. The lucky ones have bikes that they load with bags of potatoes, jerrycans of water, or metal pipes and push up the hills. Many of the children go barefoot.

Photo by Pascale Brevet
My arms hurt on Sunday nights after a day of washing. Electricity is rationed on Mondays and Thursdays. Though sometimes on Tuesdays too, without notice. Invitations are hand delivered, even if it means driving two hours from the office. I’m the mzungu that people point at. The baby girl at the vegetable stall cries each time she sees me; I terrify her.

The HIV-positive people I meet are rejected by their families. Their communities refuse to buy products from them for fear of contamination. They are starving, and the lack of food weakens them further. They stop taking the free anti-retrovirals provided by the hospital because they make them hungrier.

Food has always been for me a haven in difficult times. But what I find here does not give me what I’m longing for. Corn flour boiled in water, ugali, is tasteless. Its texture is so compact it could make you choke if you’re not careful. Corn is an integral part of the diet. You can buy barbecued corncobs from street vendors. Boiled corn grains mixed with mashed potatoes and stinging nettle compose another national dish, mukimo. But the corn available now is hard and starchy; the sweet corn comes later in the year.

The meat is tough and stringy. Ground in samosas, it remains hard to chew. Even boiling, the usual cooking method, can’t change that. The alternative lies in highly processed sausages or fried chicken.

All the vegetable dishes look the same. Greens like Swiss chard or kale are sautéed in margarine or stewed in water with a little tomato and onion. Potatoes, arrowroots, cassava, and sweet potatoes are boiled and served plain. Chapatis are good, but one can’t live on chapatti for several months.

In a place like this, so rife with hunger, I should be grateful to have the food I do. Food has become for me a matter of nutrition; more a science than an art. I make sure that I have my daily dose of proteins, carbohydrates, fibers and vitamins. I avoid raw vegetables and ask for my tea water to be boiled for three minutes.

I find pleasure elsewhere. Yesterday an HIV-positive support group sang and danced for me the “fruit dance.” They clapped three times, then stamped three times to thank me. Today, children asked me questions about France. About the weather and the roads and the towns. Work. How much this and that costs. Whether we have tribes. Whether we have Masaïs to entertains visitors in our zoos.

Here I’m able to challenge my idea of food from within. Food is not only about fine dinners shared with connoisseurs. It’s not only about taste and entertainment and pleasure – aromas, textures, and flavors. For most of the world, and certainly for most of the people of Kenya, food is necessary fuel for a life of toil. To understand that is one thing; to live it even for a few months is entirely another.

This article was first published by The Atlantic Monthly.

Pascale Brevet is a French freelance writer, food consultant, and compulsive traveler. After working for years as an executive at Christian Dior, she gave up her job and moved to Colorno, Italy, where she received a master’s degree in Food Culture and Communication from UNISG. Most recently, she worked on food and nutrition security for HIV/AIDS patients in Kenya.

Slow Food in Kenya is currently fundraising for the Aid livelihoods for 90 HIV affected Kenyan homes project to improve access to good food for HIV positive individuals and families. Click here to donate.

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