Kenya traditional cuisine gets UNESCO recognition


Thanks to these Kenyan farmers campaigns to improve nutritional knowledge Kenya has been selected for listing in the Register of Good Safeguarding Practices.

The listing aims to protect the intangible cultural heritage which makes people and communities distinguishable in terms of their history, nationalities, languages, ideology and values according to UNESCO.

It’s taken fifteen years of collaboration between scientists and communities, including school children to earn the distinction.

Back in 2007 researchers became aware of a decline in the country’s food diversity.

They attributed it to a change in lifestyles and the growth of less nutritional convenience foods, but also they claimed colonialists encouraged locals to look down upon their traditional sources of food.

Jodeh Kinyanjui, a 61-year-old mixed vegetable farmer can remember when farming practices were different.

He says: “In the olden days we never sprayed traditional vegetables with pesticides as they would grow naturally without it. We would only add a little fertiliser. We also depend on rainfall for water. That is the advantage of traditional vegetables.”

Meat is seen as prohibitively expensive for most ordinary people, although silver fish, called omena or dagaa, from Lake Victoria is fairly cheap and becoming popular.

Chickens are kept but mainly sold to cover the financial needs of the household. They are slaughtered for special occasions.

Patrick Maundu, an ethnobotanist at National Museums of Kenya is one of the researcher involved in the campaign.

He says during colonial times people grew to view traditional vegetables as inferior to other vegetables such as potato, cabbage, Swiss chard and kale.

“Our research has shown that we have about 220 species of traditional vegetables consumed by the 60 or so communities in the country. But again during the colonial period, people were brain washed into believing that what was theirs was not good. So slowly by slowly people forgot their own traditional vegetables. They moved into eating cabbages and the kale and the Swiss chard and almost forgot their traditional vegetables,” says Maundu.

“These traditional vegetables have as much as ten-fold the nutrient content that cabbage has and therefore we have every reason to promote these traditional vegetables and traditional foods.”

According to researchers like Maundu many of the indigenous foods were in most cases more nutritious than the exotic foods that were replacing them.

Grains from leafy amaranth was found to be a better source of iron and vitamin A than the cabbage by a factor of ten.

Similarly the baobab had nearly 10 times as much vitamin C as the orange.

According to Maundu, the 1970s and 1980s saw a trend whereby exotic foods were promoted over traditional foods leading to less variety in terms of food available for consumption.

For instance, vegetable varieties shrunk to just kale, cabbages and Swiss chard.

Over the years two local groups, the African leafy vegetables programme and the Foodways programme worked with UNESCO.

Researchers looked at Kenya’s traditional foods and how they were prepared and eaten.

They embarked on a mission to rigorously promote traditional vegetables which are also better able to withstand hotter climates.

There was a bias towards vegetables because they can be planted and harvested within one season unlike fruits that take between three to five years to produce a good harvest.

To popularize the neglected vegetables a program that involved a partnership between Biodiversity International and National Museums of Kenya published information on different vegetables and their nutrition value.

According to Maundu, by 2006 there was a notable change in attitude towards the consumption of traditional vegetables.

Now attitudes are completely changed.

Maundu says: ” When we started we had few of these traditional foods in the market. Go to any market in Kenya now, you will see these traditional foods being sold. Especially traditional vegetables. Also go to many of the restaurants, you see them selling traditional foods especially the vegetables again, what we call the African nightshade, the amaranth and other types. Up to 17 species now can be found in the markets.”

“These traditional vegetables have as much as ten-fold the nutrient content that cabbage has and therefore we have every reason to promote these traditional vegetables and traditional foods.”

In a local market 68 year old Francis Nganga is checking out the vegetables.

She says: “We used to consume traditional vegetables in the olden days. However, the colonialists brought kales and cabbages that led to a decline in consumption of traditional vegetables. After a while, we noticed that the exotic vegetables had a negative impact on our health and as we would have occasional stomach upsets. This inspired the need to revert back to consuming traditional vegetables.”

In the capital Nairobi this small restaurant specialises in cooking and serving traditional food.

It was opened in 2014 by Miriam Nabakwe, who is also a consultant in the hospitality industry.

A fitness enthusiast, she likes serving healthy food at affordable prices, less than six dollars US.

Her most popular dish is smoked chicken, ugali (a starchy polenta-like side dish) and amaranth.

Elisha Andende is a satisfied customer.

He says: “I prefer this type of food because 1, it is nutritious, the second thing, its cholesterol content is low as compared to this other foods from KFC(Kentucky Fried Chicken) and the others.”

Nabakwe says COVID-19 has made people generally more health conscious and traditional foods are making a big impact.

“Traditional food restaurants are the future. I have seen it and it has worked for me. I think this is because people are trying to get away from eating these conventional foods like the junk and so they are embracing more to this.”