Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Trying Kenyan Food

I'll be honest: I had no idea what might constitute Kenyan food when I first received my assignment. There were plenty of Ethiopian and Eritrean restaurants in my part of the U.S., but I had no exposure to neighboring Kenya's cuisine. Sure, we tried Googling it - but Google can only tell you so much.

I was delighted, then, when my friend from church agreed to come over on a Sunday and have a little cooking party with me! It turned into a proper feast.

I love to cook, but I usually don't bake - especially from scratch. (Yes, I usually love the taste of packaged brownies and cookies more than the homemade stuff.) As a result, my poor friend had to improvise when she discovered I don't have a rolling pin. We tried bottles to no avail but finally found success with a cucumber! She was such a trooper.

It was totally worth it for the tasty, tasty chapati (pictured uncooked above and finished below). Aren't the colors beautiful? Chapatis can be made plain, but this recipe called for shredded carrots and cilantro (well, we used parsley because I picked up the wrong herb at the store). It still tasted amazing!

It's like a thin pancake, closer to the texture of a British pancake but savory instead of sweet. It also reminded me of a less flaky paratha bread. It was the perfect amount of firm and oily and all-around delicious.

Then there was sukuma wiki, which literally means something akin to "push the week" in Kiswahili because it helps you power through the workweek. I think the traditional version is made with collard greens but I've seen the sukuma wiki label applied to kale, as well. It's sliced thin and sautéed with onions. I wish I had captured a photo of my friend's skilled slicing technique: she just holds a bunch of the greens in her hand and then runs the knife terrifyingly close to her fist! I'll probably stick to the cutting board for my own safety.

Of course, there is no trying Kenyan food without having the ultimate staple food: ugali! Ugali is a simple dish made by mixing maize flour with water. The best way I can think of describing it is the flavor of couscous with the consistency of firmer-than-average polenta. Needless to say, unfortunately, most Americans are not a fan (M included). I do like it - as long as I get to eat it right away. My attempts to store it and eat it later have been utterly unsuccessful.

Ugali pretty much just absorbs the flavor of anything else served with it, anyway (in this case, the tasty beef, carrot, and tomato mixture below). It also has the added benefit of making every meal somehow look and feel three times larger.

Last but not least, I have to give a special shout out to mandazi, which we proceeded to eat every day for a week. A mandazi is like a slightly sweet, spiced doughnut. On the Swahili coast, they are usually made with coconut milk and cardamom. Ours used cow milk and cinnamon, and they were amazing! We couldn't even wait until we were sitting at the table to start munching. We ate so many that by the time the rest of the food was ready, we were halfway full.

I got to have this wonderful cultural experience thanks to my talented and kind friend! I'm sure it won't be our last time in the kitchen together.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Surviving Wild Hippos (Where "Out of Africa" Was Filmed)

We went on a group trip to Sanctuary Farm on Crescent Island, Lake Naivasha. It was incredible. I've never been so close to hippos - one of the deadliest animals in the world! Thankfully, our guide helped us feel very safe. (Don't mind the collection of skulls at the entrance.)

Crescent Island is a pretty special place. A lot of the wildlife did not originate or migrate there naturally, but they were instead brought to serve as backdrops during filming of the famous classic movie "Out of Africa". (See the photo I took of the runway Denys Finch Hatton used below.) I watched the movie for the first time right before I left for Kenya, and although it's problematic and a product of its time in a lot of ways, it's also easy to see why it's so popular.

They simply left the wild animals there after filming, so now there are giraffes and zebras and Thompson's gazelles, but no lions. I think my favorite of the animals you can see on safari here is the giraffe. They're so beautiful and graceful, whether they're eating or walking or staring back at you.

There are lovely walking paths, but the guides are happy to walk visitors off the paths and right up to the wild animals. I'm amazed I was able to get such good photos on my smartphone. (Though I learned a valuable lesson: don't get so distracted by following the animals that you step on every thorn in the park and then have to stop to pull every one out of your shoes.)

Can you spot the buffalo (I think?), Thompson's gazelles, and zebras in the below photos? I think what others told us about safaris will hold true: we'll never be able to go to a zoo again after walking freely with animals in the wild like this!

Monday, September 11, 2017


"Where were you on 9/11?" is an expression that highlights just how much of an impact the terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon had on the average American. It elicits different responses from different generations, reflective of the experiences they had in 2001 and afterward.

In my case, I was a little kid in school. To be honest, I was too young to understand what was happening at the time. Here's what I do remember: adults crying, school closing early, and parents coming to pick everyone up early. I remember waiting in a room for my parents to get me, too. I think I even saw images on the news of a burning tower, but I didn't really understand what they meant.

Although my recollection of that exact day is hazy, it's had a major impact on my life afterward in all types of ways. Many scholars of recent U.S. foreign policy history divide it into two segments: before and after 9/11. There were all kinds of consequences for how America chose to engage in the world after that - some good and some bad. I still see it in my career and even social life today.

Yet when I reflect on 9/11 each year, there are quite a few things that have uplifted me and given me hope. I am always moved by the courage and sacrifice of first responders and the impromptu heroes that emerge during a tragedy. They truly represent the best of us. You can read their stories and learn more about 9/11 on the 9/11 Memorial website here.

I also love re-reading every year the remarks President George W. Bush gave merely days after the attacks. I'm including them in full below, as they are worth seeing in their entirety. President Bush had every political opportunity to turn the marginalized among us into the enemy, particularly the visibly Muslim, but he went out of his way to let them know he would defend them. In my view, despite his faults and mistakes, he showed true statesmanship here. He said:

"Thank you all very much for your hospitality. We've just had a -- wide-ranging discussions on the matter at hand. Like the good folks standing with me, the American people were appalled and outraged at last Tuesday's attacks. And so were Muslims all across the world. Both Americans and Muslim friends and citizens, tax-paying citizens, and Muslims in nations were just appalled and could not believe what we saw on our TV screens.

These acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith. And it's important for my fellow Americans to understand that.

The English translation is not as eloquent as the original Arabic, but let me quote from the Koran, itself: In the long run, evil in the extreme will be the end of those who do evil. For that they rejected the signs of Allah and held them up to ridicule.

The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That's not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don't represent peace. They represent evil and war.

When we think of Islam we think of a faith that brings comfort to a billion people around the world. Billions of people find comfort and solace and peace. And that's made brothers and sisters out of every race -- out of every race.

America counts millions of Muslims amongst our citizens, and Muslims make an incredibly valuable contribution to our country. Muslims are doctors, lawyers, law professors, members of the military, entrepreneurs, shopkeepers, moms and dads. And they need to be treated with respect. In our anger and emotion, our fellow Americans must treat each other with respect.

Women who cover their heads in this country must feel comfortable going outside their homes. Moms who wear cover must be not intimidated in America. That's not the America I know. That's not the America I value.

I've been told that some fear to leave; some don't want to go shopping for their families; some don't want to go about their ordinary daily routines because, by wearing cover, they're afraid they'll be intimidated. That should not and that will not stand in America.

Those who feel like they can intimidate our fellow citizens to take out their anger don't represent the best of America, they represent the worst of humankind, and they should be ashamed of that kind of behavior.

This is a great country. It's a great country because we share the same values of respect and dignity and human worth. And it is my honor to be meeting with leaders who feel just the same way I do. They're outraged, they're sad. They love America just as much as I do.

I want to thank you all for giving me a chance to come by. And may God bless us all."

Well said. I don't know how successful we as a public will be as far as the campaign to #NeverForget 9/11 is concerned. After all, many have forgotten December 7 even though it changed our country and the world. Although it's impossible to properly and actively reflect on all historical atrocities committed on their anniversaries (or we would never really do much else), I think 9/11 has had such a powerful impact - both damaging and refining - on our modern national character that it is worth the reflection. Whether I blog about 9/11 in the future or the not, no matter where in the world I happen to be, I'll strive to #NeverForget. It's the least I can do.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Kenyan English

Kenyan English is definitely different from what we're used to in the States. I know from previous travels (*cough* Trinidad *cough*) that English can vary wildly even between places where it's the main language.

Some of the things that stand out to me about Kenyan English are simply British English - holdovers from the colonial era. Here are a few examples of the ones that still make me chuckle:

  • Crosswalks here are "zebra crossings." I mean, they have black and white stripes, but still.
  • "In future" and "in hospital" are perfectly acceptable, as in "I hope to be a doctor in future" or "My mother is in hospital." In the U.S., we'd never say these phrases without "the" in the middle.
  • "Chips" are fries, "crisps" are chips, and "football" is soccer.
  • Spellings are British: "colour" instead of "color" and "defence" instead of "defense," etc.

Others don't seem to me to be particularly British but are rather uniquely Kenyan. (Any readers in the UK, please feel free to correct me if I'm wrong.) Here are a few of note:

  • In Kenya, "you're welcome" is used just as "you are welcome here" might be in the U.S. For an American who is used to only hearing "you're welcome" after "thank you," this is really disorienting. Every time we go out to eat at a restaurant, the server says "you're welcome" unprompted once we've been seated. It's so confusing, because we didn't say anything - let alone "thank you" - beforehand! It's a lovely sentiment, though.
  • I've heard "Tusker" (a famous Kenyan beer) used as shorthand for not only beer but an alcoholic drink in general.
  • "Are you getting me?" means "Do you understand?" I don't think it's casual or rude, because I hear it at work.
  • "Even me" is more common than "me too," but I have no idea why.
  • "Bob" is slang for shillings, which are like cents here.

One of the best parts about this job is the opportunity to learn languages and be exposed to different linguistic varieties of the same language. I hope by the time we leave Kenya we'll be able to get through the basics of not just Kenyan English but also Kiswahili.