A look at a typical Kenyan meal and its implications for the world today

Ugali: a mix of cornmeal and water. It is a gelatinous mound on the plate, the taste of gritty, bland corn in your mouth, and a concrete-like weight, slowly solidifying in your stomach. But when the options are to eat this starchy, nutrition-less food or starve, the decision is easy. During the two months I spent volunteering at a children’s home in Kenya, I ate ugali every day – the same diet as the Kenyan children and house parents I was working with. It is not that they are very poor, but that ugali is a staple food in a country where hunger and malnutrition are not the exception, but the norm. Dense, starchy foods are the key in most developing countries: they allow aching bellies and tired minds to sleep. When we repeat the phrase “poor, starving children in Africa”, we misrepresent the real problem: the developing world lacks less in food quantity as it does in value.

Tonight, I am hosting a Kenyan dinner for three of my American friends. I begin to pour the corn flour into a boiling pot of water. I take a glance at the label on the back. Eighty calories per serving – almost entirely carbohydrate. Each serving is three tablespoons, and there are about ninety in the bag. I will use over half. The ugali begins to form, at first runny and granular like porridge but thickening as I continue to add flour. My arm muscles pound as the mixture turns more solid, like mashed potatoes, or whitish-yellow Play-Dough.

In my mind, I see Emmanuel, a ten-year-old boy, dishing ugali out of a large pot onto my plate. “You must eat all to-night, so you will grow more strong like me.” I smile, knowing there is no way I will eat even half; the food looks and feels useless to me. Yet I know that for him, the taste and thickness of ugali in his belly is satisfaction, and the food itself is associated with his country, friends, and family.

All of the children stuff in large, repeated scoopfuls, mouths bulging, cleaning their plates in a matter of minutes. Dinner is a pile of ugali with perhaps half a cupful of soupy, salty cabbage. There is no one in the room to oversee their eating, as my mother used to tell me to eat my broccoli. Here, no calorie ever goes to waste. If there is any ugali leftover in the pot, it is doled out again to the younger children, saved to offset their hungry bellies the next morning.

I am preparing that same dinner tonight. The cabbage is shredded and simmering in a pan with oil and onions (a delicacy to add some flavor). The ugali is ready, sitting like a tall, grainy white cake on the serving plate. My friends: Kayla, Derek, and Ryan all enter and take a seat. I dish each a slice of the ugali and a small pile of cabbage and teach them the proper eating techniques.

“It’s not bad!” they all exclaim. “Ya, I was a little afraid,” Kayla admits.

“It’s pretty calorie-rich, right?” asks Derek, who never has to watch his weight. We begin to discuss the properties of the meal. There is no protein, which is a concern for brain development, and inhibits children in their education. The children’s home I worked in does give each child a small serving of beans or lentils with rice at lunchtime, but this is a rare insight. Many East African households will go much longer without any source of protein. More vitamin-heavy vegetables and fruits are occasionally available from the garden – maybe once or twice a month if in season, more often if there are fewer mouths to feed.

Besides the nutritional content, however, the meal has some obvious value. “You did well for a picky eater like me,” Derek joked, “You can’t go wrong with corn and cabbage!” Indeed, most Kenyans do eat and love ugali. It is reliable and hardy. It is the typical food for everyday use, a social equalizer because it means that consumption actually varies little based on wealth – the greater difference is usually the amount.

The real problem, then, is how little ugali is able to do in the long run. As my friends and I lounge and talk in the dim light of my apartment, there are numerous casual references back to the food. “There’s a brick on my diaphragm!” Ryan laughs, and Kayla quickly agrees, “Yup! I’m still feeling it.” I think about the nights I spent with the children in Kenya, laughing, telling stories, and comparing our “watoto chakula” – or food babies – round stomachs full of ugali. In reality, such a diet rarely leaves you feeling any better than fat, and it lacks much in essential nutrients. But it does allow people to eat, live, and sleep without the pangs of hunger; and therefore, well.

As Kenya now imports more and more Western fast foods, this scarcity-driven mindset is creating even worse problems for the country. Instead of ugali, how about a hamburger and French fries? People are starting to diversify their diets, but the focus on cheap, filling foods rather than nutrition has led to an increase in hypertension and diabetes. Kenya could very well import the modern obesity problem as well. Hunger and nutrition is a global issue in which the consumption patterns of one place may very well influence lives and countries elsewhere. For Kenya and our own sake, we must take seriously the question of how to develop a healthier world. We can learn a lot from ugali: food is meant to sustain rather than entertain us. Of course, though, neither ugali or fast food are the best answers. Perhaps if we combine our resources and knowledge, our countries can begin to find healthier solutions together.