After they left the U.K. in the early 60’s, my Mother, her siblings and my Grandparents left for my Grandfather’s post in Nairobi, Kenya. For several years they lived in a newly independent Kenya, returning after the birth of my uncle, Stephen, who became the family genealogist. To that end I have no family memories of the March on Washington, because they weren’t here! 🙂
Kenya in the early 1960’s, specifically Nairobi was an incredibly exotic place for my Mom and her siblings. When she read one of my favorite authors, Barbara Kingsolver, (famous to foodies as author with her husband and daughter of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle) she was deeply moved by The Poisonwood Bible, identifying with the play of the strange and familiar in mid-20th century Africa. That was Pat and her sisters! Only my family weren’t missionaries, in the Kongo, and were not white…..But….LOL, Africa on the cusp of indepdendence from colonial powers was scary, eye-opening, and identity-shifting for my Mom and her family.
Consider the story of “Johnson’s Mother.” Johnson was a young modern Kikuyu man; a city boy. His mother was not. If she had been from my Grandmother’s native Alabama she would be called “as country as a sugar sandwich.” She wore the cloth tunic, had long, pulled ears, and always carried a panga (a machete)–the major agricultural tool used in cultivating farms and gardens. She was shaved bald and smelled of the Kenyan earth, herbs and the smoke of her cooking fires built on three stones. Johnson’s Mother came visiting the new people who knew her son one day. My mother answered the door, saw the near toothless woman and promptly slammed the door.
“MAMA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” she cried out for my Grandmother. My Grandmother calmly opened the door, and equally startled, did her best to maintain her composure as she invited Johnson’s Mother, who found this introduction quite funny, to have a seat. Mom and her sisters came out from hiding and thus began a friendship with a really beautiful woman who did what to them were really strange things. Johnson’s Mother and my Grandmother had long conversations using a combination of broken English, Swahili, gestures, mime, Johnson translating, and un-spoken understandings. Furious with the British presence and fully supporting the Mau-Mau party, Johnson’s Mother came in one day and repeatedly slammed her panga blade against the table in angst, screaming “THE ENGLAISER!!!! THE ENGLAISER!!!!” Grammy didn’t understand much of what Johnson’s Mother said but she understood her frustration, coming from Birmingham, Alabama herself.
Shortly after my uncle was born, he came home with Grammy from the hospital. He was to be her last child. When Johnson’s Mother finally got to meet the child, she sought to give it the blessing of Ngai–the Kikuyu term for G-d Almighty. She stroked the baby’s light hair, propped open his mouth and spat directly in. This apparently is a blessing in Kikuyu culture–to spit in the mouth of the baby. My Mom said “at that point we we gave her the ‘what the hell look,’ and decided if necessary we could take her!” Once again however, the incident was quelled and order was restored among the Townsends of Nairobi, Kenya.
My light-skinned, red-tinged hair, light brown-eyed Grandmother must have been a really exotic sight to Johnson’s Mother. Her food must have seemed strange too, but she appreciated the corn and cornmeal, sweet potatoes, okra, greens, rice and fish that were common in Grammy’s cooking. In Kenya my family was introduced to curry–via a Sri Lankan woman, cooking bananas, plantains, and wild animals as pets. For a time my Mom and her sisters had a pet antelope, known as a Dik-Dik. One of the foods that the family ate in Kenya was called Kachumbali or Kachumbari. The recipe is reconstructed from a combination of memory and cookbooks. It’s extemely healthy and extremely tasty–so enjoy it as a salad, a relish, a side dish, or a filling. Add chicken, tuna, or rice for a nice pita sandwich, or eat it alongside basmati rice and fish.
Johnson’s Mother’s Kachumbali (With Hints of Michael W. Twitty)
1 cucumber–peeled, sliced thin
1 red onion—peeled and sliced
1 carrot, peeled and sliced thin or grated
3 tomatoes, sliced and chopped
1 green chili, seeded and chopped
1 tablespoon of cilantro, chopped
Juice of 1 Lemon (Try a Meyer Lemon for a hint of sweetness)
Juice of 1 Lime
Kosher Salt, to taste
Black Pepper, to taste
Madras Curry powder, just a pinch!
(Cabbage can be added as an optional…1/2 cup, shredded for good measure)
Mix all the ingredients and stir well. Add the salt and seasonings and cover with saran wrap or foil and allow it to sit in the refrigerator to set for about 20-30 mintues. Enjoy!
Many other things happened in Kenya. Mom went to school with Jomo Kenyatta’s daughter and supposedly my Grandmother made a sweet potato pie for Malcolm X during his African travels and he wrote a thank you note–but to this day this has not been corroborated. I don’t care, I’m telling you anyway.