Sometime back, we ordered lunch in a restaurant. When the waiter turned to my girl and asked her if she, too, wanted ugali, she laughed. When the anxious waiter asked what was funny, she answered, to our amusement: “I am not daddy!”
Yes, like most youngsters whose parents can afford to give them a choice of what to eat, ugali is the last thing on the list. Of course in schools, ugali and githeri alternate on the table at lunch and dinner time, but we know well that it is a forced menu.
In short, they do not understand why we insist there is something ‘sweet’ in our ‘tasteless’ ugali and the ‘bitter’ greens like managu and lisutsa. Unlike in rural Kenya, red meat isn’t what it is to adults, they prefer chicken and fish. Indeed, there is a generational disconnect in our dietary preferences.
The pride of every parent surges between June and October when the harvesting of maize is at its peak. There is roasted and boiled maize for breakfast. Over lunch a dash of freshly harvested maize and beans would send our saliva dripping. Dinner would be ugali with the distinct taste of the freshly harvested, dried and grounded maize. Milk and vegetables with limited pieces of meat floating on generous serving of soup, would be the accompaniment.
However, behind this pre-Christmas eating spree is the sad tale of maize production that involves more prayers and hope in God for rain, than logic of production. Last year, there was massive drop in production, because of low-quality fertiliser that the State subsidised and distributed to farmers. Then drought stuck as it always does, especially in election year or the one before!
Meanwhile in Eldoret, based on the sinister co-relationship between the economics of demand and supply, Uganda and Tanzania maize farmers found new market courtesy of our conniving wheeler-dealers. When the little that the Kenyan farmer got hit the stores, you heard them crying out for Government to order higher prices that would ensure they redeem what they injected and force a surplus for their sustenance.
Many of us know the frustration of growing maize. It takes months to mature, unlike beans, which are ready for harvest in three months. Beans have a ready market; local hotels, schools and the nearby prison. Yet, being truly Kenyan, we would love to go through the dreary stages of ploughing, harrowing, weeding, top-dressing, cutting and stacking to dry up. Then we remove cobs, get the grains off the cobs and dry them anywhere available, including tarmacked roads and stadiums. Thereafter we put them in sacks and pray for good prices!
In between these processes, you share your crop with birds, squirrels, monkeys and common village thieves. When you finally get to sell the produce under pressure, it is the middlemen who dictate the prices. Millers too are keen to rob you with a polite smile. If you stick to the harvest waiting for a good opportunity to come, our friends in power will have made contact with the Brazilian and Mexican maize dealers. Then the market is flooded and you have the choice of selling at throw-way prices or sharing with it weevils in the stores.
The story of maize and the vicious cycle is repeated the next year and the year after. But like the donkeys in our households, we keep coming back to the compound for a few cabbage peelings and sturdy grass. Yes, we feel loved! We are also lulled every year with nice stories by Government with promises of irrigated millions of acres and cheaper inputs and credit.
It is not that maize doesn’t bring in money; there are many farmers who have made millions, but that is on large-scale basis, where they maximise on the economics of scale and mechanisation. Many would rather plant enough for domestic consumption and to protect the family’s pride.
But where is the millet, sorghum, pumpkin, arrow root, peas and cassava of our grandparents' age? Our freedom from ugali’s slavery will come the moment we retrace our footsteps, diversify our crops and invest in storage! But as they warn in parking lots, park at your own risk, let us continue to rely on leaders and business groups at our own risk.
Mr Tanui is Deputy Editorial Director and Managing Editor, The Standard