I continue to marvel at this question, asked of every traveled-abroad, lived-elsewhere Kenyan upon returning home. It is, of course, a question designed to detect the least bit of pretension. After all, ugali is the most basic Kenyan food, a food designed to be eaten with hands.
The naïve returnee who dares to disavow this deliberately undelicate food announces his (I use the pronoun deliberately) deracination. He has failed the test and tongues may now wag about how “even as a child” and “his mother was right to be worried” and “these ones of today,” statements all the more absurd because they come from his peers.
Perhaps what I find most fascinating is the naïve belief that all ugali is the same, or even close.
- My primary school cafeteria served something that approximated approximation. Depending on the day of the week, a deep cut into the rubbery mass yielded an even more rubbery inside or uncooked flour.
- My high school cafeteria served ugali that was so terrible, I suffered psychic pain and had to go see doctors who told me, over the course of two years, that nothing was wrong with me. Still, I stayed awake all night writhing in pain.
- My mother gave up cooking shortly after I was born. Having taken care of the ones who preceded me, she preferred to watch Dallas. I grew up on stories of the “time when mom used to cook great food!” Yes, I feel abandoned. Why do you think I read Freud?
- My brother makes what, I have been told, is some of the best ugali around. I am too traumatized to try it.
- And, finally, most of my experiences eating ugali elsewhere have often been disappointing.
In truth, my Kenyan food is NOT ugali. It is chapati.
How is it that a taste for ugali, one of the most capricious foods, capricious in its difficult simplicity, marks a kind of authentic return, or what I term a desire to be truly Kenyan?
To the heart of the matter: to ask the returnee whether he still likes ugali presumes that he liked ugali before he left. I did not and I do not.
As for my love for polenta, well, that’s a whole other issue.