Bless us oh lord, and these thy gifts
Which we are about to receive
From your bounty
Through Christ our Lord
I learnt this prayer at a young age in the Catholic kindergarten school that I attended in a small town on the outskirts of Nairobi. It was like learning the a,b,c’s: a compulsory knowledge incorporated into the school’s curriculum that every kid who schooled there must acquire. At the time, none of us students knew what the individual words meant, merely learning by rote what our nun teachers taught us. Twenty young ones in a class raced to sing out the words, which after some repetitions, had become a part and parcel of them.
I would not understand the words myself until much later when I had stopped saying the prayer. The prayer is beautiful, but the rote form of learning in a language that was as yet foreign meant that the attempt to teach me to appreciate my food, the ‘gifts’ I was about to receive, happened at a distance from me and my experience.
A friend and activist, the late Eduardo Shimahara, often says that food is the (r)evolution. Food and water are two intimate places where we encounter our Earth relations, the beings with whom we not only share this Earth but also depend on. It is also the place where our need to be in relationship with other beings is most evident. It is in our bodies in hunger pangs or dry throats in a visceral, immediate way for all of us. In this is a ripe space for transforming our relationship from one that happens at a distance – one of consumption – to a closer relationship – one of communion.
“When we approach with respect and reverence…”
Woman Standing Shining says.
I’m eating a late lunch
as I listen to her talk.
Half-listen because I have also
Been harvesting the fruits of
The countless courses I’ve been on.
Fashioning them into lessons I can share.
And yet there are deeper, more rooted lessons
In front of me
On a plate.
Travelling by spoon to mouth,
Chewed, tasted, swallowed.
And they teach me.
They teach me in the just gone,
They teach me in the present,
That most difficult place to inhabit
They teach me in the to come.
Trusting one’s body, and one’s experience of the world is not celebrated or tolerated in the formal education forced on Africa through missionary and colonial education. The repository of knowledge is no longer acknowledged as the Earth, and the individual and cumulative experiences of the world through our bodies and elders’ and ancestors’ wisdom passed down.
School and religion alienated me and us from ourselves, and from the Earth. I, and we, learnt to trust only in our teachers and in the state-approved textbooks for knowledge. Anything else was “wrong” and a failure indicated in bold red marks in one’s book, and verbal deprecations as when one of my teachers once told me he was shocked at my performance since when the thought of animals, he did not classify me as one.. Or worse, failure brought the corporal punishment of slaps and canings, and the torture of being made to wear smelly articles around one’s neck if caught speaking “vernacular,” i.e., a non-colonial language. Across the continent, I have heard of rotting bones hung on a string, a box of faeces, and a goat skull. For many on this continent, our trust in our bodies, as the way to know the world, was beaten out of us.
In the just gone,
The lesson was about
Being made aware
Of my hiding.
I made a big meal.
I called people, gathered co-celebrants,
To warm my new home.
The ingredients and I
Had come together,
To make a magic
That called out even to those passing on the road:
“Here there is beauty.
Here is love in a thousand flavours.”
Pilau is a spiced rice dish in East Africa where it has links to Oceanic trades and exchanges spanning centuries. On the Kenyan coast, pilau is a frequent, even daily dish, but further inland, we make pilau at festivals, celebrations, and on holidays. It is a special food. My mum makes hers in the largest pot she has, and a family of more than 10 eats it over 2 or 3 days on holidays.
You must ensure it browns properly. Good pilau is brown. The onions need to be cooked to a crisp brownness before you add spices, meat – or if making a vegetarian pilau, pumpkin – water and then rice. Pilau is ideally only eaten with kachumbari or lemon squeezed over it. So the salt also needs to be just right. This is the make or break. Under-salted pilau tastes like a disharmonious choir.
- Cut meat and set to boil with enough water to cover the meat. Let boil for at least 30 min or until soft. If making a vegetarian pilau skip this step and start at 2.
- Chop onions. Lots of onions.
- Begin frying onions till very brown. This will take some time. Salting the onions helps with this. My friend Sebiha says putting only a little oil helps. My mum adds that in addition to salt, stirring constantly helps. I say get ready for an arm workout.
- While the onions are frying, prepare your spices.
You will need garlic, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, coriander, cumin, clove, and salt (the number 1 spice). More cumin than all the rest. Pilau tastes best when using whole spices. Grind the cumin, coriander, and some of the cinnamon and cardamom in a mortar. If a mortar is unavailable, crushing the cumin with your hands, and grating the cinnamon a bit produces some powder. This all helps to add brownness to the rice.
3.5. After the onions are crisply browned, the fun begins.
But before that, measure out your stock from the meat. This determines how much rice you need in a 1:2 ratio as with all good rice. The pot also determines this. Use the largest pot always.
Measure the rice, rinse and set aside.
- The onions are ready. Ginger and garlic go into the pot first. Stir. Then the spices, except I put my cloves in the stock set aside rather than in the oil because I find clove releases better in water than in oil. But that’s just me.
- Throw spices in, then your meat. Fry the meat with the spices for a few minutes. This part feels like a marathon. Lucky it’s a Kenyan dish. Make sure you don’t burn anything.
- Add the stock to the mix. Ideally, it should be a dark, dark brown colour (did you fully brown the onions?)
- This next part is the most crucial and critical part. Add salt to the pot containing stock, meat, and spices. No, really. I wasn’t kidding. It’s the number 1 spice.
— If you don’t believe me you can take a break now and watch this song from Queen of Katwe. Or proceed without salting, make tasteless pilau then next time you will add enough salt.
But what is enough salt?
This is the secret my mother and I have discovered (and which means I can now take over her Christmas pilau-making duties). Add salt to the point that it tastes like you put *too* much salt.
What? It sounds like a brain trick, doesn’t it? Or a tongue trick? But really, though.
Add salt, stir, taste. Does it taste like it’s almost too much? The rice will absorb the salt but without enough, the spices will end up tasting like a disjointed band. It tastes worse than it sounds.
- After the salt is enough, bring the stock to a boil. This won’t take long because it was just boiling. Add rice. Stir. Bring to a boil again then lower the heat and cover with a lid.
- Take a deep breath after that sprint and wait for the fire to do the rest of the work. Aka you’re just making rice.
- When done, fluff with a fork and taste. Did you put enough salt in?
When I am hosting guests, I make pilau. It has taken me some years to perfect, but I have done it well enough that I have now taken over pilau-making duties from my mum. Growing up with three boys in the house and being the youngest, however, I saw the early signs of cooking duty destined to fall on me when I was first asked to chop potatoes and onions. And I ran in the opposite direction, flatly refusing to learn how to cook. I was sure I would be tasked with feeding the boys while they watched TV – and I didn’t want to miss TV, or be the only one serving others. My path to subverting this dynamic and reclaiming the “power of the kitchen” as Yemisi Aribisala writes, happened miles away from home. Studying in Boston and needing to cook for myself during summer breaks, I could take the time to experiment and really get to know what it meant to combine myself and ingredients to make food. Love and power, vulnerability and pleasure.
(Some begin to eat).
When a call is made,
“What about prayer? We haven’t prayed!”
What I heard was:
“We haven’t opened with a call to a White Saviour.”
What I should have heard,
Out behind my fences was:
“We haven’t acknowledged we all who are gathered here,
Witnessing and bearing witness,
All earth-relations relating.”
I let someone else make a call to the White Saviour,
Stayed silent at the amen,
And we ate.
How many times does my hiding and my silence
Betray those of my earth-relations
I am in relationship with?
I left the Catholic church after twenty-one years of my life. It’s been ten years now that I have been walking a path of indigenous reconstruction, reweaving life, seeking and searching in the silences about indigenous African ways of being, knowing and doing. Much of the reconstruction has been embodied, and has happened in doing: libations, writing, dressing, singing, dancing, cooking! Sitting in a garden and speaking to whoever is around me, animal spirits, plant spirits, water, rocks, all allies in the path. Reconstruction has also happened through the generosity and gifts of people I’ve met while travelling, of my ancestors, and of the Earth.
A lot of this reconstruction happened outside of my childhood home, however, and its radical challenge to the coloniality and domination of Western ways of life in Kenya is contrary to the seemingly natural expectations about life and the world for many of my people. Moving back home, my changed self did not go down easily for my family. The pushback I experienced was so intense that at one point I wasn’t speaking with family members. In reclaiming relationships with more of my embodied and unembodied Earth relations, plants, animals, water, rocks, soil, ancestral spirits, I am simultaneously losing the relationships that have shaped my childhood community. To some in my family, I am lost. In some spaces, the founts of coloniality, I introduce myself as a practitioner of African indigenous spirituality, making space for what could not die, unafraid to show up in my fullness. In others, such as around my family where coloniality has inflicted deep wounds, I pick and choose how I show up according to my energy reserves.
I put my plate away.
Spoon down, the last bite swallowed,
I say Àṣẹ.
And avocado, sukuma, spinach, nyanya, ngano, kitunguu,
muwa, chai, tangawizi, maziwayang’ombe,
chumvi, berbere, nazi, maji, moto,
Saw me from the inside.
I had acknowledged them,
And they went to work,
Healing work, nourishing work.
Colonial appropriative violence, the kind that rethinks life dead and makes land, peoples’ bodies, being-ways, knowledge-ways, economies, cultures, and psychologies, embodied and unembodied earth relations, and the interrelationships amongst all these into inert sources of potential capital, or wastes them as unuseful, marked Kenya, a settler colony of the British, in ways we are only beginning to come to terms with.
This extractive violence emptied all of spirithood or personhood. It made all living things parts of a machine, a means to an end…which in an ironic painful cycle foretells the end of all in the present. Acknowledging the selfhood of food, the plants and animals that gave themselves to nurture and nourish animals like myself, and the earth minerals, fire and water that participated in the conversion of these individual voices into a melodious choir, put a pause on the lie of dead machine things. It also helps me to be present and choose what kind of interaction I want to have with all my Earth relations.
Malidoma Some says that for the Dagara, “ritual is the yardstick by which people measure their state of connection with the hidden ancestral realm. We enter ritual to respond to the call of the soul.” Responding to the call of life, wanting to live. In the meal, I am in ritual space, where my spirit is present to other spirits, interacting in the language that joins us together. I consider this ritual the opposite of the rote prayer with unknown words that I learnt in my childhood. In trying to reconnect broken relationships, I recollect and learn new practices that reaffirm the intrinsic value and self-possession of embodied and unembodied entities that collectively share the Earth. Re-ritualising my life in the daily moments.
Food was one of the beings that appeared on my path of indigenous reclamation, along with other helpers. I learnt how to cook, researching indigenous African crops and trying out new things with ingredients sometimes labelled lost, which is to say lost to a colonial-capitalist mode of being (and then sometimes found for health-food fads). Away from my mother’s kitchen, I made my own world, experimenting by baking with ndũma, eating pearl millet as morning cereal or in meals rather than white rice, learning to cook njahi, pumpkins, and amaranth, foods which were absent from my urban family’s kitchen and table growing up. In experimenting, I was supported by the idea that the foods indigenous to my homelands must be known in other spaces as well and possibly approached in different ways. A way of reimagining the old.
I pick up practices in travel as well. The most simple and deep meal-opening ritual I have encountered was in an artists’ house in Bogota, Colombia. The pot of rice was cooked and ready to be shared amongst several plates and hungry bellies all seated around the table. The dancer who’d invited me offered the back of his fork across the table. Everyone proceeded to clink their forks with his and each other. Acknowledging the being together, brought together by food. Without words but with melodic sound.
The heart that had been frozen
And eyes burning hot yet dry,
Flowed with tears,
from the hard ice melting inside.
Grief, mourning, feeling.
For all that is yet to be mourned.
The ways in which we were yanked,
and enticed off our paths.
And the ways we are regaining direction.
I hosted a meeting of a collective I convene to heal Africa’s colonial past and renew indigenous new-old worlds and ways. After we had set up the potluck lunch, and before everyone dished up, a member asked, “Shall we pray?” This time I eagerly said yes. Beginning with the breath, that word at the root of spirit, breathed deeply to take in the melodious aromas of food, and coming back to presence, I addressed the food,
I am glad you are here with us now.
May you ripple out life
to all the paths that brought you here,
May you ripple in life
to us in communion with you now.
An offering creating a space of seeing food as an alive being like us. An offering that is not hiding or disappearing our Earth relationships. An offering that is flexible and changing with what is present. At different times I am glad, joyous, excited, amazed, grateful… At different times I ask for life, love, happiness, laughter, soothing, etc, rippled out and in.
And always close with the Yorùbá affirmation:
Power, ability, life force,
That which moves all.
And may it be with you,
And move you.
Wangũi wa Kamonji
is a regeneration practitioner who researches and translates indigenous Afrikan knowledges into experiential processes, art and honey. Her work is motivated by the twin challenge of healing and generating new realities for the present and future. Through research using academic and indigenous methods; storytelling in written and oral forms; traditional Afrikan dance and movement practice; and facilitating spaces for critical consciousness and transformation, Wangũi seeks to provide rooted embodied tools for Afrikans to heal the colonial traumas of past and present, and (re)create ways to live regeneratively with themselves, Earth and ancestors again i.e., for us to decolonise and reindigenise.
Wangũi centres Afrika, ancestrality and the Earth in her storytelling, which pours forth in the form of short fiction, poetry, song, essays, and oral storytelling. Her children’s story, The Giraffes of the Desert, appears in the anthology “Story, Story, Story Come.” Her essays are published on Open Global Rights, Africa is a Country, The Elephant, ChaKula Magazine and Transition Network. Her ancestrally-inspired songs are shared on SoundCloud, and she has performed stories at the Re-imagined Stories Festival and the Great African Caravan showcase in Nairobi. She integrates poetry into her non-fiction to trouble borders and holds close Micere Mugo’s call to find the songs lying around us and sing them for all to hear.
Wangũi is based in Ongata Rongai, East Afrika and online @_fromtheroots.