Saturday, December 19, 2009

Socializing and Eating (II)

The Staff Luncheon

Christmas is approaching – fast! – and no one reading this post will be surprised to learn that in Nairobi – as everywhere else – the holiday parties, staff luncheons, evening events, and celebrations in general have already begun. My team at the client workplace chose Friday for a group luncheon, and they invited me to come along.

What a good time we had! We drove miles away, to a huge outfit that was put together solely to provide a place where big groups of people could meet (there were ten in our party, but some tables seemed to be set for 20 or 30 people!) and have a celebratory African lunch.

Well, try to keep in mind that in Africa putting the words “celebratory” and “lunch” together means, for one thing, you’re talking about what here is called “Swahili time.” This simply means that – being essentially patient and relaxed people – the Kenyans don’t worry (especially for a social occasion) about exactly when an event is to start, what time people arrive, and – by no means – what time it might end.

So just to give you a quick picture, this “luncheon” started at about 2.00 pm and went far into the afternoon, almost until dark (about 6.00 pm). Did anyone notice? Did anyone care? You know the answers. After our long drive we got to the meeting place, other people arrived in a more or less casual timeframe, and we spent the afternoon visiting, talking, telling stories (again), and just having lots of fun being together.                 

Before the food was served, one of the staff came around with a big basin with a bar of soap and a pitcher of warm water, and each of us washed their hands. There were no towels – not done – so we just let our hands air-dry or we used a serviette (there were many of these, batched all around the table and I soon learned why).

The food was super, all African (of course) and all brought to the table in big batches. In this case, we did not have large portions piled on our plates (as is apparently usual here, on such occasions, because we were all eating together from the food in the center of the table and we simply took what we wanted (my friends spooned mine up for me, since I was something of an “honored” guest). Then we sat back and ate with our fingers.

What did we eat? Mostly nyama choma, literally “burnt animal,” which are roasted meats. I could see the staff slicing the meat off the bone just a few feet away, but there there were plenty of chunks served on the bone as well, and we simply  brought them to our mouths with our hands and gnawed them off the bone. We started with goat, then had mutton, then chicken (which in the conversation I found out was very special – chicken is pretty commonly eaten in Kenya but at home it is for special visitors and was brought out on this occasion because it was a holiday party). We wrapped up with fried beef, served with a sort of thick broth or stew (try sopping that up with a piece of meat or a chunk of ugali, using only your hands!).

All through the meal, we had ugali, a sort of thick maize dough which some people find too bland but I like it (and, yes, I sprinkle a little salt on it, as do most Kenyans, I note). And we had my favorite, irio, which I had discovered at the restaurant at the client workplace and, I have to say, I probably eat it two or three times a week, whenever it is on the menu. Irio is a Kikuyu dish, mostly creamed peas, maize, and potatoes, but it can have lots of other things in it as well, including pumpkin leaves, arrowroot, and even onion gently sautéed. Other different ingredients are boiled or sautéed, and then the whole mess is mashed up together (except for the maize kernels, which being left whole add a nice crunch). A friend made it for me recently, and I was amazed at the things she put in the irio (and it was delicious).

Just as at the Jamhuri gathering, we loved telling stories (although to be clear I was the only non-Kenyan in the group,so my stories had a slightly American flavor). For the others, there were several people whose families had been originally connected (and who still see themselves as part of) the various “tribes” or “groups” or other indigenous people of Kenya. We had Kikuyu, Luhya, Luo, and several others, and everybody had fun trying to straighten me out about all the distinctions between the different groups. Not a success!

Our conversation was wide-ranging. We talked about the need in Kenya for a new constitution, which is currently being formalized, to replace the constitution adopted with independence 46 years ago. People are very open – and very dramatic – in describing the pros and cons of having a new constitution, and it was enlightening, to say the least, to hear all the different opinions (when they spoke in English – much of the conversation was in Swahili but translated for me when someone noticed that I was missing a point.

That conversation led to a discussion of why the Americans should move forward with the new health care legislation, even if it is not perfect (several had read Paul Krugman’s column in Friday’s New York Times, which I find many people here read online every day, or as often as they can squeeze it into their schedule). There was much talk about how difficult it is for Kenyans to understand the political system in the U.S.A., especially the role of the lobbyists, and I tried to explain that it is not the same as corruption (there is a massive anti-corruption campaign going on in Kenya, and has been – pretty successfully, I hear – for several years) but I'm not sure I was successful. A couple of people suggested an analogy with the Kenyan constitution passage and the passage of the American legislation (from Krugman, I think): even if the new Kenyan constitution – or the American legislation – is not perfect, at least get it started and make it better as time goes forward. Don’t look for perfection at the first pass.

OK. I get it.

Then we moved on to how Americans are going to recover from the current economic crisis (a couple of people in the group are economists) and how important it is for the rest of the global community for Americans to lead the recovery. And, surprisingly, Bernard Madoff’s name came up, but as that was at the other side of the table, I’m not sure just how much it had to do with the conversation about the current economic crisis and its impact in the global community.

Again, a really nice way to enjoy a lazy, social afternoon in anticipation of the big holiday.

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