Mursik stands the test of time as tastes and how it’s made change
By Fred Kibor | July 18th 2021
In February 2019, one person died in Narok and six others were hospitalised after they reportedly took the traditionally fermented milk commonly known as mursik.
The seven, all family members from Nkaroni village, developed severe stomach pains with symptoms of vomiting and diarrhoea.
They were taken to Sogoo Health Centre before being referred to Longisa District Hospital, where one was pronounced dead on arrival.
The incident is among many other cases where people have reportedly fallen ill or even died after consuming mursik, casting doubts on the handling and preparation of the delicacy that never misses on most Kalenjins’ dinner table.
For years, mursik has been synonymous with the Kalenjin community heritage, a delicacy that is usually used in welcoming home heroes, especially athletes after successful global championships. However, modernity is slowly eroding its values.
Some have even linked Kenyans’ dexterity in athletics to the consumption of mursik, as it is believed to strengthen bones and is the secret behind the endurance and speed of the runners.
The Standard visited the home of Esther Kemboi, a traditional mursik maker who has been manufacturing the drink for almost three decades in Chirchir centre, Uasin Gishu County.
“I have been in this trade for over 25 years. And as you can see I have never adopted any modern ways of making mursik, but stuck to the traditional skills I inherited from my mother,” says Kemboi.
At her factory – a small room in the kitchen – the apparatus and ingredients used in the manufacture of mursik are neatly arranged, with the milk at different stages of maturing in gourds inside a traditional holding structure called lengut.
She makes mursik for her household consumption and also for commercial purposes. In a day, she sells about 50 litres in Eldoret town.
“When I receive reports of people falling ill or even dying after consuming mursik, I always try to figure out how the milk was handled and prepared. Mursik is part of Kalenjin heritage, and the fact that some people are adulterating is a cause for concern.
Kemboi, 54, blames greed for quick cash for the adulteration of milk used in making mursik, eventually making it unsafe for human consumption.
“In the past, mursik was never sold but was meticulously prepared for ceremonies and given to lactating mothers. Nobody traded it because it was highly revered. Nowadays, a lot of impurities are used to make the milk ready for use in record time for cash, making it lethal,” she says.
Kemboi says she started making commercial mursik in 2007 after finding out that a trader who usually buys fresh milk from her sells the drink that is matured after a day.
“Initially I used to sell fresh milk but was alarmed when I found out that my customer made mursik overnight and the next day it was ready for consumption. She used to lace it with some chemicals and modern processed fermented milk,” she narrates.
In preparing mursik, Kemboi explains you need fresh cow or goat milk, which is then boiled and allowed to properly cool before it is poured in a well-prepared gourd locally referred to as sotet.
“The gourd is washed using specially made sosiot (a palm tree branch) and clean, warm water and allowed to dry. The gourd is then lined with hot ash made from special varieties of trees that coats its interior, in a process referred locally to as sut. Hot coals clear any impurities,” she says.
According to Kemboi, a tree branch known as sisitiet or kipchuchuniat is burned to brim red and inserted into the gourd then a stick from another tree variety – itet – is used in cleaning the interior, forming some black, fine, powder-like substance, which is poured out.
“The powder is harmless and members of the Kalenjin community fancy the taste of mursik coloured and flavoured by the substance. The powder is medicinal and adds flavour. Modern mursik makers use plastic containers, thus compromising the quality of the drink,” she says.
The process of the traditional cleaning of the gourd is also respected, and old women often do it at the fireplace, commonly below a reserved place called saina where the ornamental sticks – itet, sosiot and sisitiet twigs are kept.
The gourd exists in various sizes, shapes and styles of decoration that also assist in identifying which contains mursik for the household head, visitors and for the youth. Their hygiene is maintained well before milk is poured in for the process of making mursik.
According to Kemboi, gourds with leather straps with fur are meant for the head of the household.
“Mursik is ready for consumption within three days and should be consumed immediately to avoid making it have a bitter taste,” she said.
An elder, Samuel Chemoror, 74, says the Kalenjin community loves both fresh milk (keyanik) and mursik.
Peter Rotich, however, notes that with continued urbanisation, the use of traditional gourd continues to dwindle as some families now use plastic containers.
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