I love my Ugali

When raiders attacked our village one night in 1982, my mother gathered up my three siblings and me and fled. She left the food she was about to serve still in the cooking pot over the fire place. I was eight years old but a quiet, tiny little girl.

We joined other fleeing families of mostly women and children. Men ran to defend the village against the raiders.

We trekked over ten kilometres towards the lower parts of the village area, where trees were tall and bushy.

In my village there is no electricity or sealed roads, so we walked through thickets and bushes, following foot paths that we could barely see. It was pitch black. Even the moon was absent in that night sky. I thought that maybe the moon was also hiding from the raiders. The smell of fresh leaves mixed with dust filled the air as people trampled on them running for safety.

I had no shoes. Not that I had left them back at home while fleeing, no; my parents couldn’t afford to buy us children a pair. Thorns pricked the soles of my feet. I kept bending down to pull them out and fell behind. I couldn’t keep pace with the others. My mother wasn’t impressed and kept coming back for me. She accused me of laziness, oblivious to what I was going through. I almost burst into a scream when I hit my big toe on a stone. The pain was excruciating. A cold sweat ran down my back and my face felt moist. I wanted to scream but I feared that the raiders would find us. I bit my lower lip to quieten the scream and ease the pain. I sat down and held on to my foot, feeling the bleeding toe that the stone had cut.

‘You will make us get caught, get up quick,’ my mother whispered to me harshly, pulling me so roughly by the hand my shoulder hurt. She didn’t care; we were running for dear life.

I wished I had been left behind but the fear of death kept me going. I had heard stories of previous wars. One was of a village that had been massacred by raiders one night. By daybreak, vultures were feasting on their bodies, cooked by the heat of scorching summer sun. I couldn’t bear to think of my family going through the same ordeal because of me, so I got up and kept going regardless of being exhausted and in pain.

We settled under a huge Tamarind tree. Its branches hung loose, almost touching the ground.

“It is the best place to hide during such times,” my mother whispered to another woman in the group.

My mother picked some leaves off the tree and spread them on the ground to make a bed where we lay for the night. Three other families and my stepmother lay under the same tree with us.

The night was long and cold. A chorus of frogs from a stream nearby and crickets chirruping was as if they were competing to be heard by their new visitors. In the middle of the night it rained and the blanket got soaked. We shivered where we lay. My brother, Rock, woke up and asked for food. When mother told him that there was none, he started yelling. She cupped his mouth with her hand, but he kept crying. Mother pinched his ear. He stopped and whimpered quietly. She promised him food at daybreak. He nodded and drifted back to sleep. I was also hungry but as the eldest, I persevered.

In the morning I felt weak and not able to get up on my own. I tried to lift my head up but I felt dizzy. My mother tried to assist me but I couldn’t rise and she laid me onto the leaves. Our village still wasn’t secure after the raid. The other families proposed that we move further inland. It became hard for my mother to carry my brother and I, as well as my baby sister and to follow them. We were left under the Tamarind tree.

‘You will get us killed. What shall I give you to make you strong? My mother asked me in a voice of despair, cupping her head in both hands. Tears stung my eyes but I couldn’t help it.

I drifted into sleep. I was awoken by the aroma of warm food. My mother had sneaked home, cooked some food and brought it for us. It was ugali and sour milk.

Ugali is a maize meal made from corn flour mixed with water, a traditional food of my people. It is high in energy and fills the stomach, sustaining for a long time.

Mother propped me up against her lap and fed me like a toddler. She then placed me sitting upright against the tree trunk. After a while my energy returned and I was able to walk unaided.

My love and appreciation for food and its importance in our lives was realised that fateful night. The aroma and taste had been comforting; it had nourished me, given me strength and energy to carry on without hindrance to my family, to seek refuge and a safe haven away from danger in the face of adversity.

Another time in primary school, when life in our village had resumed and children started going back to school, I missed dinner and fainted during the morning parade. Children made fun of me. My elder sister gave me a nickname, ‘chebo tel tel’, meaning the weak one.

From then on my mother ensured that I ate until I was old enough to feed myself. At puberty, I gained weight thanks to food and good health. I grew curves where it matters; I was envied.

When I came to Australia, things changed completely for me. I experienced culture shock. The culture is different. The taste of food was also not as that back home. It became hard for me to find food to my liking. However, I never gave up looking for my Ugali among the various cuisines in the country. I tried all cultural foods from the spicy Indian food to Italian dishes, from Thai delicacy to Japanese sushi. The experience from all these diverse cuisines was marvellous.

One day in 2014, after one year of relentlessly searching for food similar to that from Kenya, I accepted reality. I ate the best food that I could find.

Last week, a work colleague and friend stopped me in the corridor and jokingly asked me if I was expecting. I asked her why, she pointed at my tummy and she said it was growing big. I said ‘Obvious, I’m always expecting good health, what do you think!’ We laughed and went on our ways.

Unfortunately, distorted body images continue to influence people’s eating habits, compounded by food and body image-related advertisements. These advertisements create a “toxic cultural environment” that harms our relationship with what we eat, pioneering author and ad critic Jean Kilbourne told an audience at Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health on March 3, 2015. “Women and girls compare themselves to these images every day,” Kilbourne said. “And failure to live up to them is inevitable because they are based on a flawlessness that doesn’t exist”.

For me, food (and drink) should be embraced for its cultural values, social importance and enjoyment, and, of course, for its health benefits and life sustainability.

I always remember what a friend said to me once. She said, ‘It would be a boring world if we all looked the same, made the same food and ate the same meals.’ Do you agree?

Image: Matt Jones

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IMG_1456Caroline Yego was born in Kenya, East Africa. She worked in Television Production, Public Relations and now Health Care. She is an upcoming writer of memoirs and creative fiction. She lives in Cranbourne North, Melbourne, Victoria.

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