Into Africa

The Traveling Table

Into Africa

IN MY YOUTH I had a thirst for Africa. I started out hitchhiking in Morocco and Algeria, and later traveled overland from the port city of Alexandria in Egypt to the deserts and swamplands of Botswana in the south. For my seventieth birthday, I returned to Africa with my wide, Flavia, for a two-week safari in Kenya.

Under the care of an expert guide, we watched an extended family of elephants—some immensely large, others endearingly small—browse thorny acacia bushes and drink from a muddy river. We saw majestic giraffe, formidably solid hippos, warthogs and Cape buffalo, thousands of zebra and numerous species of antelope—impala, gazelle, waterbuck, eland, oryx, wildebeest, hartebeest, topi, and the uncommon, long-necked and fleet-footed gerenuk. We saw, up close, tiny, skittish dikdik, and we watched playful Vervet monkeys and troops of baboons grazing under the shade of patchy trees.

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We saw lions lounge nonchalantly during the heat of the day; at sundown on our first night, we glimpsed a solitary leopard, eyes gleaming, survey her prospects from a high rock ledge. These great predators, along with hyenas, jackals, wild dogs, serval cats and crocodiles, added drama and a note of menace to the otherwise tranquil landscape— an ever-present threat to the grass- and leaf-eaters that surround them. Invariably, the very young, the weak, the disabled and the old fall prey to their appetite. In the final reckoning, no one is spared.

On the subject of meals, my wife and I ate very well in Kenya, thank you, though with somewhat less ferocity than our carnivorous counterparts. Sosian Ranch, a 24,000-acre spread on the sparsely populated and semi-arid Laikipia Plateau in the Central Kenya highlands, combines wildlife tourism with cattle ranching, and places emphasis on good stewardship of all its resources. In addition to a thousand head of dry land-adapted Boran cattle, the ranch has a small dairy herd for its own milk supply, as well as modest flocks of chickens and ducks for eggs and meat. When not combing the vast landscape in search of its wild inhabitants, we dined there in style on grass-fed beef and lamb, along with local vegetables, some from the backyard garden. (Simon Kenyon, one of the managers at Sosian, confessed there would have been more produce from the ranch’s one-acre garden had it not been recently stormed by a group of hungry elephants—something that puts our local deer problems into an entirely different perspective.)

Kenya has two distinct rainy seasons: the “long rains” that come in extended downpours from late March through May, and the “short rains” that come in brief bursts in November. The rest of the year is predictably dry. We were at Sosian just before the arrival of the long rains, so the land was ready for a good drink. The ranch is fortunate to have a perennial river running through it, fed from the high slopes of nearby Mount Kenya and the Aberdare Mountains. At roughly 6,000 feet above sea level, Sosian enjoys a climate of warm, sunny days and pleasantly cool nights. In parts of Kenya where the soil is sufficiently fertile, it’s possible to grow tomatoes and zucchini year round—as long as water is sufficient.

The majority of Kenyans still live in the countryside, where they practice their own form of subsistence agriculture. Most families have a small patch of land—from a quarter-acre to an acre or two—on which they maintain a vegetable patch and keep a few sheep or goats, and possibly a cow. The women usually take care of the garden and the animals while the men are employed away from home. Food produced beyond a family’s needs is usually sold in nearby roadside markets. This local agriculture is, of necessity, organic—chemical fertilizer and pesticides are too expensive for the average rural Kenyan. Soil fertility comes from animal manure worked back in.

The Maasai diet until recently was almost exclusively made up of just three ingredients: raw milk, blood and meat....I asked our guides how the blood of their cattle tastes; they told me it was salty, but good. If some were available, I would like to have tried it.

Kenya is largely self-sufficient in terms of its major food needs, and agriculture is the biggest contributor to the country’s economy. This is impressive, since less than 20 percent of the total land mass is suitable for crop production. The rest is either too dry or insufficiently fertile, or both. The leading export crops are tea, coffee, and cut flowers, along with some vegetables and fruit. Kenya’s equatorial sun is favorable for the cultivation of a range of tropical fruits, including pineapples, melons, mangoes, papaya, oranges, lemons, bananas, paw paw and passion fruit, though these are more often grown on larger, commercial farms than in family gardens. (For breakfast at Sosian, most mornings we were treated to a platter with at least a few of these local fruits. The pineapple, in particular, was deliciously sweet.) Until January of this year, the Kenyan government banned the commercial use of GMO seeds. Advocates for local agriculture and self-sufficiency fear that the expected influx of GMO seeds will undermine the nation’s subsistence farmers, who have traditionally saved their own seed. Contrary to popular wisdom, most GMO crops are heavily reliant on fertilizer and pesticides.

About half of Kenya’s semi-arid marginal land has some limited potential for raising livestock, principally cattle, sheep or goats, but over-grazing is a danger, particularly during the dry season or periods of severe drought.

The culinary arts vary somewhat among the different tribal groups in Kenya. There is a strong strain of Indian cooking, especially in Nairobi and Mombasa. Most Kenyans eat only small quantities of meat once or twice a week—the mainstay of the Kenyan diet is ugali, a kind of maize or cornmeal, which is added to boiling water and allowed to simmer until it turns into a thick paste. Other popular and widely grown foods include potatoes, sweet potatoes (white, red and purple), green beans, dry beans, lentils, peas, squash, tomatoes, sweet and hot peppers, carrots, onions, spinach, and a nutritious and locally adapted variety of collard greens called sukuma wiki.

After leaving Sosian, we traveled to southern Kenya and spent four days and nights in a tented camp at Maasai Mara. Our guides at the Mara camp, Joseph and Kapeen, were both members of the Maasai tribe. Their knowledge of the land, the wildlife and the local ecology was extensive, and their ability to spot animals and birds at great distance was extraordinary. Most Maasai are semi-nomadic cattle herders, and, not surprisingly, Maasai herdsmen have an abiding adversarial relationship with lions (which view domesticated cattle as an easy and quite satisfactory meal). Until recently, the usual rite of passage for a young Maasai man was to kill a lion with a spear. In the 1990s, with the lion population plummeting, the Kenyan government outlawed the practice, though lions are still often killed in retaliation for their taking livestock (the punishment for those responsible usually is not severe).

The Maasai diet until recently was almost exclusively made up of just three ingredients: raw milk, blood and meat. Ebu cattle, with their distinctive fatty hump behind the neck, provide milk in the normal way and are favored by the Maasai. The cattle also provide blood via a non-lethal nick in the animal’s jugular vein. The Maasai also keep herds of goats or sheep, which supply most of the meat they eat; except on important ceremonial occasions, such as marriage or the birth of a child, the Maasai are reluctant to kill their cattle, which they regard with much reverence.

In the twenty-first century, though, the Massai diet is a little different from what it was. Milk and meat are still important elements, but the drinking of raw blood (usually mixed with milk) is today largely limited to ceremonial events. To make up for the shortfall in blood, the Maasai now consume some grains (primarily maize) and beans, along with a few vegetables and fruit, all of which are now more widely available.

I asked our guides how the blood of their cattle tasted; they told me it was salty, but good. If some were available, I would like to have tried it—perhaps it would have quenched the thirst for Africa I once had, and maybe still do.

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