Monday 22 April 2013

True Swahili Hospitality

Culinary appreciation takes a while to develop here in Mombasa. It has taken me two months to value Swahili food, and it’s not because the food is bad by any means, but because the variety available is not so obvious at first glance. With time I have come to understand that diversity comes with different locations. What people eat in Mombasa city is very different to what people eat in rural Mombasa. The people in the city come from all over Kenya and put preference on convenience, which is reflected in the food they eat. But go to the slow paced rural areas of Mombasa, and this is where you will find true Swahili food. The Swahili people are descendants of Arabic settlers and the indigenous Bantu people of Sub-Saharan Africa. They are hospitable, laid back, and very resourceful. Visiting these rural areas, you are forever reminded of the cross breed of cultures in the food they eat.

A recent visit to a small farm in Diani, the south coast of the Mombasa, was a perfect example of Swahili culture. We went to visit a group of farmers who were finding that their farm was too reliant on farming inputs. They were looking at ways of reducing this with assistance from a Japanese intern called Toshihiro Yoshida. Toshi’s task is a big one, and I wanted to see how he plans on overcoming these problems, by visiting the farm and talking to the farmer group.

Walking to the farm

Our journey began on the main tourist strip of Diani, where we were met by Toshi, who led us down a dirt track and away from the fancy beach hotels. As we headed inland, we noticed, that coral rocks still made up much of the ground. This is a problem for many farmers in the area as the coral that runs deep into the ground makes farming difficult, whilst also contributing to serious flooding during the rainy seasons because of it’s impermeable nature.We strolled through lush vegetation and darker soil for about 30 minuets. As we head towards the farm, we began to notice the plants around us: mango trees, coconut trees, cashew trees, maize and cassava. Hardy plants that are common across the Indian Ocean. Settlers introduced many of these plants to the coastal area for their ability to grow in tough conditions. Salty water and sandy soil has meant that there is little variety when it comes to growing fruit and vegetables. The difficult environment also means that only a few varieties of introduced crops have actually survived.

Toshi and Kursheui

When we arrived at the farm, Kursheui, the Chief farmer of the Mwakamba Farmer Group greeted us and introduced us to the rest of the farmers that comprised of both women and men. We talked about the lack of rain, and the expected yield of the season’s produce. We then discussed problems faced by the farmers with regards to their reliance on external inputs and considered ways of reducing this. As we talked, they began to reveal other problems: too much diversification, unpredictable weather and member fallouts. We took a look around their farm and noticed signs of trailed and failed projects: a big greenhouse; water tanks; a well with no pump; and an empty chicken coup. Classic examples of projects that have had heavy foreign investment but no post monitoring. A common problem in Africa. 

Mwakamba Greenhouse

This aside, (I don't really want to delve into the politics of agricultural development in this post), the farmers were very happy to consider our suggestions. We drew diagrams in the dirt to explain how they could make their own manual pump for the well, harness rainwater, and create their own compost heap. Communication can sometimes be hard, but in this case it was extremely hard as we had three languages in the group: Swahili, English and Japanese.

To show their gratitude we were treaded to a feast of fresh produce from the farm. We began with freshly gathered cashews. I had never really thought about how cashews grow, so I was really surprised to see this:

Cashew fruit growing on tree

Cashew fruit and pod

The cashew fruit smelt deliciously sweet when cut into. But because it was under ripe, it was extremely sour, and the skin was a little bit chalky. Despite this, I liked it. It was refreshing and juicy, which was exactly what we needed after three hours in the sun.

We then took our cashew pods and roasted them whole. This took as little as ten minuets. The tricky part was cracking the pods. Their exterior shell is extremely tough, which makes getting out the nut intact rather hard.

Raw cashews in their pods

Geting the cashews out of their pods, roasted

Roasted cashews

I can honestly say that freshly roasted cashews, straight out of their pods, are in my top five flavour experiences. The texture, the warmth and the nutty flavour was just incredible. I sat there in silence with the biggest smile on my face.

After this, we uprooted a cassava (mogo) plant and pulled off the edible roots. We rinsed them and peeled off the exterior then began munching on the white flesh. The milky starchiness of the root was thirst quenching, like sugar cane, whilst also being distinctly rooty… or earthy. Like maize, cassava can be ground into flour and is used to make mogo ugali, mogo bread and mogo ugi. It can also be boiled, roasted… and my favourite: thinly sliced, deep fried then sprinkled with chilly powder, salt and heavily limed. 

Peeling fresh casava

To top this off, a small semi dried coconut was collected. It was cut in half and we passed around the sweet coconut water.


The white flesh was removed and everyone was given a piece. We were told to eat the raw cassava and coconut together and combine the two in our mouth for a third dimensional flavour… WOW! The fibrous texture of the cassava and the crunchiness of the coconut were harmonised by the simultaneous milkyness released by both counterparts. It was definitely an unforgettable flavour combination that I never would have thought of putting together.

Eating coconut and raw casava together

We refreshed at the well and as we did, Kursheui invited us to his house, which we were told was “20 minuets” away, in the adjacent coastal district of Tiwi. Without contemplation, we accepted. We said our good-byes to the other farmers and made our way by foot to Kursheui’s home.

In true African style we took the scenic route and walked “pole pole” through a few villages were we got distracted a few times and stopped and talked to people. We then came to a river crossing, where there was a man on his canoe, who, for 10 bob helped people get to the other side. “Before this, we used to cross the river by foot,” explained Kursheui. 

Crossing the saline river

We huddled into the tiny canoe and took in the surrounding beauty. On the other side we noticed these little funny guys:

Mangrove Crabs

We continued our safari in the stiffening heat for about 40 minuets, until finally we arriving to a Kurcheui’s “little” compound of self-sufficiency. A typical mud hut nestled amongst towering trees. We were taken around the compound and shown projects that Kurcheui was working on:

Natural fencing


Sour fruit, used in cooking

Custard apples

As we relaxed under a big mango tree and sliced up a ripe mango. We talked about how Kurcheui’s father had passed down the land to him, about his future plans for the compound and his dreams to see his farming group grow.

We rested for an hour or so before heading to the local hospital for a cold soda. I noticed a few colourful murals on the wall aimed at spreading awareness about HIV. I noticed most of the people in the hospital were women, and that all were Muslim. The set up looked pretty good, and I was impressed by the accessibility for the local villages.

Poster, raising awareness about HIV

We downed our sodas and made our way to the main road. Our trip took longer then expected, but in all honestly I could have stayed longer. There was so much to learn and talk about that I felt that our trip was cut short.

Empty soda bottles

We got on our bus back to the hustle and bustle of Mombasa, and as we entered the city, I began to notice how different the Swahili culture of the city and rural areas are. The people, the language and the food of Mombasa are so different because of it's foreign influences, compared to the rural micro-culture of the rural villages.

This is what makes community specific projects important. At times when organisations are low on funding, they can hardly afford to go to the field and meet the communities they need to meet. Desktop research becomes the norm, and that connection with the community is lost. This is exactly what a great deal of organisations are suffering from. The organisation forgets about their initial intentions and gets bogged down with finding funding… and this is dangerous.

In the case of Mwakamba, they are lucky to have Toshi working closely with the farmer group over the period of two years. This integration and immersion process is vital in identifying actual community needs and implementing a sustainable project. It costs very little, or at least it should. It means that the community will eventually take control over their project with close training monitoring. Most importantly it helps preserve the community’s culture. It’s a timely process, but it means that projects last because they are community specific. Innovation not duplication is crucial.

The sincere hospitality I have experience here in Mombasa from small-scale producers is inspirational. They have all been through hard times, but despite this, they continue to welcome outsiders, such as myself. I feel like I have learnt much more then I can ever give, which makes these people are my inspiration. Asante Sana!  

No comments:

Post a Comment