Friday, November 12, 2010

Ugali Flour A Tortilla Does Not Make

I’m sure the milling process is almost the same. Someone from Mexico would recognize the whirring machinery, the wheels that grind the corn, the giant trucks pulling up with their loads of raw product. Even the mealy output, spewing out into sacks at such a fast rate, would be so familiar despite the distance of 7,000 miles. But when you take that sack home and try to make a stinking tortilla, the differences are instantly apparent. Ugali meal is simply not Harina. Between Emily and I we have 48 years of education, and no one ever told us how the subtle differences in how you grind corn result in delicious tortillas or delicious ugali, but not both.

We took one look at the proliferation of avocados, the fresh red beans, the abundant cilantro, the delicious red onion, gorgeous tomatoes, ripe mangoes and widely available cumin in Kisii and of course thought – Mexican food! Our Kenyan friends who enjoyed our meal have given up all dreams of visiting Mexico.

In theory, yes, but when we found out that for the millions of pounds of maize meal here in Kenya, we still have friends that import their Harina from the States, we realized the extent of the mistake. Our tortillas were just…not good.

The good news is that everything else, the mango and tomato salsas, the guacamole, the rice and beans, were spot on. Life goes on.

Ugali, for the record, is African polenta that comes in brown or white and you eat with your hands to scoop up your food. It’s not a relative of the tortilla, despite shared humble beginnings in a field of corn.

Now if you are able to move on from that visual of a Mexican feast with a grand tortilla fail, join me and a crowd of local Kisii children that have suddenly realized that Emily – a mzungu! (white person) – is rapidly approaching down the road!
What should we do? Stare? Obviously.

But there must be more we can do. Does someone have something, anything that makes a noise? There, that bottle! Grab that! Now can we organize a cheer? I’m sure we can! Mzungu, M-zoon-goo, mmm-zoooon-goooo! (thump thump goes the bottle). “White Per Son! White Per Son!
If we celebrated every person of different color that walked down our streets, our nation might be an exhausted but better place. But it does feel pretty special when you’re the only one in town.

Take the visual of a mzungu cheer with wide-eyed children chanting, and scale it up. Let’s say…300. That was our community visit this week, where we took three offroad vehicles into the villages outside of Kisii to visit a family that has a child recovering from malnutrition. I wish the focus was mainly on that child, but I think the vehicles (think jerry cans, roof racks, winches, snorkels, off road tires, and a step to get in) plus a wazungu-fest (think 5+ white people with coats and ties) plus a whole cast of important and wonderful hospital staff and administrators made for an event that blurred the fine line between a party and an unruly mob. Let’s go with party.

All the grandeur and excitement aside, the women of the community greeted us in song, shook each of our hands, hugged us and were just as genuine as our entourage was ridiculous. There were some real relationships made, between both the hospital administration and the people of the community as well as between the hospital and local healers. Good things were in the air, but it also happened to be a fantastic spectacle. Whatever you’re imagining, you’ve almost got it – now add a family of chickens.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

A weekend in Kisumu

I can't get over the size of the Marabou Stork (Leptoptilos crumeniferus).  We bumped into this guy on the shores of Lake Victoria near Kisumu.

A Week (and a half) in Kisii

When a place is so other, you can be surprisingly aware of its unfolding.  From the first impression to the next is a string of unexpecteds, but the first impression has a lot of staying power - busy and green, green, green.

Things that followed that first impression:
Driving on the left
Storks the size of a large child
The amazing quantity of produce
The fluidity between cars, cows, people, goats and motorcycles
Jaw dropping stares
...followed by huge smiles
...followed by "How are you!?"
The too-long handshakes
Giant bees and bats

Kisii feels like a normal Kenyan town, like Scranton was a normal American town before The Office.  It's fun to be here and peer in on normal days and normal life.  It's a little tiring because Emily and I feel like the most abnormal part of the whole experience.

We walk by the bus station and a chorus of "Where are you going?" announces our presence.  The answer, "Kisii, right here" is met with stunned silence.  I think most visitors transit through as Lonely Planet recommends.  We're staying, at least for a little while.