Outside Catering, Kenyan Style

I don’t know how I get myself into these situations. Somehow I was in the back of a matatu driving out into the countryside around Kisumu; several kilos of fresh tilapia fish were leaking their juices through a bag onto the floor. Philip and I had slept for barely two hours after the previous night’s dancing. We were seven, the “outside catering” team, crammed in amongst a marquee and huge, metal pots.

We pulled in through a gate leading onto a large garden, in the centre of which stood a single storey house. Chickens roamed around, unbeknownst to the fate that would await them. I hadn’t a clue where we were, just that it was around an hour and a half’s drive east of the Kisumu. Fantastic looking hills rose just beyond a field in the distance.

Having erected the marquee, we started to cook for the hundreds of guests that would arrive. This was to be a memorial for the patriarch of the family who had died a year previously, and everyone from the local villages were invited. Estimates put it at around 300 mouths to feed; six of us would be cooking.

We dug holes for the three large fires that would serve as our stove for the weekend. We killed and plucked chickens; a cow—its legs tied together—was slaughtered and we hacked it to pieces; fish were scaled. We drew water from the house’s well and left it to boil for the massive urns of tea we would produce.

As the night advanced, under a star-filled sky the sound of crickets filled the air, singing in the local Luo dialect floated over from the nearby tent where a local preacher kept those assembled entertained, mixing with the smoke from our fires. At 5am, I was still up, rolling out chapatis for the morning’s breakfast. Come late morning, we were stirring huge pots of ugali with utensils that seemed more like oars than wooden spoons, at home rather in a rowing club than a kitchen. The stench of the tripe from the stewing matumbo filled my nose as I wandered past the fires, turning my stomach.

The guests were surprised to see a white man present in this rural corner of the country. I was surprised to be here. Before every meal, I would perch on a stool, pouring water from a small jug for people to wash their hands, staring at a line of hands as they file by. As two girls served the masses, one returned to our “kitchen”, asking me to come forward; a table had requested that the muzungo serve their meals. Everybody laughed.

I hadn’t slept for three days, but during that period I received quite the education in Kenyan cuisine, and the Luo rural culture. Here’s to saying “yes”.