by Bethuel Muthee
Food is a personal thing. We have individual preferences to what we eat, where we at, and even with whom. The smell of a food we like engages our memory, we can even taste it on tongues, we think of good times, of people we have not seen in years. In most cultures when people come together, there is food to be shared among those present. Sharing a meal is an act of communion, an affirmation of life, it is welcoming others into what is a highly personal activity and space. It is an encounter with the world that can be as simple as the gesture of breaking bread; to have a plate of food, thus, is also political.
In a country in which food is used as metaphor for political power- kukula nyama, our turn to eat- what does it mean that millions of Kenyans cannot regularly access sufficient and nutritious food? What does it mean that those entrusted with the task of ensuring food security are embroiled in scandals involving food in national reserves? Where “eating” is the denial of basic needs for millions, what does economic justice mean? Food security is more than what is portrayed as a problem of famine, extreme hunger and food aid, it is a problem that means the availability of food, economic, physical and social access to nutritious food for all. It is a human right that ensures that all people are able to feed themselves in dignity.
Article 43 (1) (c) of the Constitution of Kenya is a political commitment in which every Kenyan has a right to adequate food of an acceptable quality The Constitution in Article 21 (2) also gave mandate to the state to take legislative, policy and other measures in order to fully realize the economic and social rights of all Kenyans. In acknowledging the right to food, the government provided a basis for analysis, action, accountability, and continuity even after government change. The government has the duty to respect, protect and fulfil the human right to food and guarantee its enforcement. Kenyans were given a claim with which demand and realise their right to food by establishing procedural and legal means necessary for providing solutions against the state for failing in the commitment to guarantee the access to food.
It is with this in mind that on Sunday 27th August, seven years since the constitution was promulgated, during the Nai ni Who? tour through Eastleigh organised by the GoDown Arts Centre, I sought to observe the daily practices and cultures surrounding food, to immerse myself in the tastes available, in the joy of sharing with others in an attempt to understand what it means to be food secure within an urban context. As we set out from Saint Theresa’s Church, our agreed meeting point, we were handed maps and it is with this that I sought to explore the routes to food.
Famous as a business hub and the second highest earner of revenue in the city after the central business district, Eastleigh is a bustling neighbourhood that offers much to be observed. Following the outbreak of bubonic plague in the early years of Nairobi, Indian traders who had run their businesses from the town bazaar were moved east of the river in what was an attempt at managing hygiene and also a method of racial planning, to what would be named Eastleigh in 1921. Also relocated were a small number of Somalis of the Isaaq and Hawiye clans who had made their way from what was the Northern Frontier District having come with Hugh Chomondely, 3rd Baron Delamere from his hunting missions through Somalia. The small community continued to live there trading and it was after the implosion of Somalia during the civil war that some Somali refugees who were able to move to Kenya and settle in the area and call it home that it earned the moniker “Little Mogadishu”. Somali writer Nuruddin Farah in his essay “Of Tamarind and Cosmopolitanism” writes of the old Tamarind Market in Mogadishu which he describes as:
This [place] was always abuzz with activities, its narrow alleys filled with shoppers. You could see entire families pouring into its alleys and plazas soon after siesta time, some shopping for clothes, others wishing to acquire what they could find in the way of gold and silver necklaces made to order.
The description is one that could still be used to describe Eastleigh, a cosmopolitan place full of shopping complexes dealing in textiles, electronics, gold and silver, and numerous other products from around the country and the world. This same diversity is evident in the food that is available, it is a melting pot and its fragrance and tastes are some of the things that make the place what it is, vibrant and always on the move.
After walking through numerous malls with loudspeakers urging passersby to shop along crowded streets, the group takes a break in a hotel and we are welcomed to an important aspect of daily life in the area, we sit and are served camel milk tea. It is served hot and as we sip slowly, we become participants in what we learn is a way of life, the sharing of tea and stories, shaah iyo sheeko. Camel milk widely available in Eastleigh, is transported daily from Isiolo, Moyale and Garissa and is gaining popularity beyond the area for its nutritional benefits. Rich in proteins, iron, vitamins, and lacking lactose, it is a healthy alternative for those who are lactose intolerant. The milk vendors are women who have organized themselves into groups that work together to ensure sufficient supply, they give testimony to the benefits of camel milk including strong bones and detoxifying the body.
Most butcheries we walk past advertise hilib geeb, camel meat, in addition to goat meat and beef. In most restaurants these are served alongside other dishes. Nyirinyiri are small strips of camel meat which are sun dried and for some make for a hearty breakfast when taken along with black tea. In restaurants such as Kilimanjaro Food Court that offers a broad menu that includes Somali cuisine including deylo, young goat meat that is boiled and lightly fried, aleso which is mature goat meat boiled. From my observation, a lot of meals are accompanied by rice which we see being sold in wholesale in stores. Other meals offered include baasta saldato that is prepared using pasta, spices and sauce.
Making our way down Sixth Street past Hidaya mosque, I sit with Fardosa Ahmed. She sells potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, garlic, and fresh fruits as she shields herself from the sun under a fading green umbrella on which the words Day-to-Day can be faintly read. As she packs potatoes into a plastic bag, she bemoans the high prices of food and what it means for her daily sustenance. It is the day before enforcement of the plastic bag ban. She is unsure what that will mean for her business, new alternatives might be more expensive making the cost of things and life in general a little harder. As I walk away she offers me a clean carrot and tells me it will help with my eyesight, it might help see what I am looking for.
Walking through Eastleigh one question comes to mind – where does the food consumed come from? Is it local or imported? If imported – where from? The stacks of rice in the wholesale shops along the streets are imported from Pakistan while other basic food commodities like milk powder and cooking oil come from countries in the Middle East. The cost of importing goods, transporting it and distribution in the market raises the price of food leading to lack of access to those who cannot afford, who also happen to be a majority.
The Food Security Bill (2014) tabled before the Senate is one of legislative means through which the right to food enshrined in the constitution can be implemented and made a reality. It outlines clearly the objectives to provide a framework that promotes realisation of the right to freedom from hunger, the elimination of discrimination of marginalized groups, mechanisms for coordinated implementation of national policy and county programmes, establishment of institutions that will advance co-operative governance. FAO in 2006 recommended five areas of action for the successful implementation of the right to food: advocacy and training with the aim of strengthening the capacity of government to meet obligations and empowering rights holders to demand accountability, providing information and undertaking as assessment to enable the government to identify those who are food needy, legislation, coming up with strategy and implementation through coordination, monitoring and tracking performance.
It is from Keguro Macharia I learn that political imagination is rooted in our daily experience, in the day to day just like Fardosa’s umbrella. In demanding political commitment to the right to food, to implementation of legislation and policy what do we imagine a food secure Kenya to be? Keguro asks
- Describe a typical day in this transformed Kenya in as much detail as possible, from waking up to going to sleep.
- Describe a typical week in this transformed Kenya in as much detail as possible.
- Describe a typical month in this transformed Kenya in as much detail as possible.
- Describe a typical year in this transformed Kenya in as much detail as possible.
- Describe a possible trajectory for your life in this transformed Kenya in as much detail as possible.
By asking political leaders to take up their commitment to ensuring a food secure country in which the right to food is a fact, we must find new ways of imagining the politics of food. It is essential that we come together to co-imagine what Kenya can be and this imagination must be rooted and take hold from the daily lives of those whom this right is denied. This means moving beyond policy meetings in hotels with five-course meals, it means shifting our language from one of dense jargon to a common language rooted in the quest for freedom and justice for all. It means sharing our freedom dreams, building from that base of collective responsibility in which our day to day experience is acknowledged and aligned to a shared goal: food for all at all times.
The issue of food security in an urban context is one that is frequently overlooked by those who have been mandated with the task of ensuring that all Kenyans regardless of ethnicity, religion, political affiliation are able to have a plate of food on their table. The translation of this right into tangible results requires concerted effort of all charged with the responsibility of implementing the law and devising new ways to think of this problem starting from the local, with small communities, empowering people to understand and demand their rights. It means thinking of the children whose growth is stunted as result of not having sufficient food and making it a priority and not simply a knee-jerk reaction to emergencies. A need to re-think economic policy is vital if the goal is to ensure that food is available to all always.
We need to think of sustainable urban food policy and rethinking space. To be hungry is to be constantly teetering on the brink of anger, it is an immense pressure that might explode as has happened in countries such as Venezuela. We must find new ways of feeding our imagination and our bodies.
Bethuel Muthee (BM) is a Kenyan poet.