Managu and Omena

18 June 2014

Managu– a green Kenyan traditional vegetable with small leaves and a bit of a bitter taste
Omena– small, dried, sardine-like, freshwater fish

This is not really about managu and omena. Well, it partly is. But it’s mostly about the market day in Londiani. Today, Wednesday, is market day in Londiani. Since moving here in February this year, I have been going to the market on Wednesdays. Usually to do shopping at the general wholesale supermarket where we buy things in bulk at a slightly cheaper (wholesale) price, and then to the market to buy fruits and vegetables.

In the beginning it was very interesting because men and women greeted me like a long lost friend and I wondered how they knew me. Then I realized that the red pick-up car is known- it belongs to the Home so there was no guess work as to who I was. It was known that since my mum-in-law had passed on, her son and his wife were going to take over the running of the home and school. Also, many had seen us at the funeral in November. I was surprised that they remembered me because there were about 2000 people at that funeral, but I guess there was only one of me and only one of Poriot. I haven’t told you how many times I have met someone and they’ve told me that they were actually at our wedding in Nairobi in 2011. I am always surprised but have come to learn that there was a whole 23-seater mini-bus and a 14-seater mini-van of people who came just from Londiani for the wedding- not mentioning the group from Kericho. So it follows that yes, quite a number know us. Londiani is also a small town and so it’s not hard to be known- so no we’re not famous, in that faaamous kind of way, don’t get me wrong.

In those first few weeks, fresh food wasn’t so expensive so I could buy a few fruits for our kids, even if it meant them sharing a banana or an orange between two kids. As we moved about in town I could hear people talking, “That’s Lucille’s daughter. Ah, yes it’s her.” I was greeted with a lot of respect because of my mum-in-law who had been not only the Director of the Home and the primary school but also a former principal of Londiani Girls Secondary School, a community leader, a women’s leader in Maendeleo ya Wanawake (a national organization that works for the development of women), and a respected member of the society. She was a people’s person. She had lived in Londiani since 1988 until her demise in 2013. That’s 25 years, quarter of a decade. And here I was fresh from Nairobi, less than half her age, a fresh-faced young wife, formerly working in a bank/education foundation, not from this community so floating when the local language was spoken, and yet I was expected to sort of fit into her shoes. People greeted me with a reverence that I was not used to and it always left me a little flustered and scared (that I wouldn’t /couldn’t match their clearly very high expectations). Some, at the market, would conspiratorially tell me how my mum-in-law used to buy this or that from them- the underlying message being that I must also continue to ‘promote’ them i.e. buy from them because that’s what your mother used to do.

In Kalenjin culture, where I am married, there is no word for mother-in-law so your mother-in-law is your mother, and I am her child. Hence I called her Mummy. In Taita, where I am from she would have been Ambango– meaning mother-in-law. In Kale, there’s no in between word. It’s very sweet, but also when people say your mother was like this and like that- and she was this larger than life person- it’s very daunting. And since my husband works away in another town two hours drive away, I was hence the more visible child of my mum-in-law. Every time people said this or that about her, I wanted to say, I am just a girl who married her son, just a girl whom she loved like her own, just a girl who is here to try and fill the gap…

In any case, I learned quite fast how much food to buy to last a week- till the next market day. How much sukuma wiki (kales) are enough for each meal for our household of nearly 100- the kids at home plus the boarders of the primary school. I also learned how much tea leaves, bar soap, salt, petroleum jelly, cooking fat to buy from the wholesale supermarket if I wanted it to last a week or two weeks, depending on how much money we had at the moment. I learned how many bags of maize to take to the flour-mill for grinding into ugali (maizemeal) flour if I wanted flour for a week or for two weeks. It was interesting going from doing shopping for a household of four- hubby, baby, house-help and myself at Uchumi Supermarket at Capital Center on Mombasa Road- to doing shopping on a much larger scale, in Londiani town. But I had many people to teach me. The kids at the home who have finished high school and who have been here their whole lives, plus the workers both at home and school were all very helpful. For support, I always go to the market with Mary, she finished high school last year and is waiting to go to college, and has been a great help in helping me settle in and helping me understand some of the nuances of what this or that means, who this is and who that is.

Alfred who is also a beneficiary of the home but is now the farm manager was/is particularly helpful. I now know which spray to buy for cattle, which dairy meal, which salt, and milking salve (that’s jelly for applying on the teats of the cow when milking them so you don’t hurt them- in case you’re as green as I was at the beginning of this year). I know how many milliliters of Tixfix to buy if we want to spray the cattle once to get rid of ticks. I also now know that when the cows have been vaccinated by the Vet with a certain vaccine injection you cannot use their milk for three days. You milk them – so they don’t get sick- but you can’t use/consume the milk for a while because it’s contaminated.

Aside from that, well I never quite used to know the difference between kulima and kupalilia. But now I know that one is real digging- so that you can plant (kulima) and then the latter is to weed (kupalilia) which happens a few weeks after you have planted, of course, not before because then there’s nothing to palilia (weed). It’s not that I chose to be ignorant to farming, it’s just that I grew up in Nairobi all my life and honestly we never had to do any farming. The short visits to our rural home during school holidays don’t count. But now I can tell you that when it’s dry, it’s hard to get beans, sukuma, onions, tomatoes. When you’re in Nairobi, and you especially buy things on a small scale like I used to, you think, yes, well the market prices have gone up. But you still buy the stuff, you know?  I never said, No today I won’t buy dhania (parsley) or pilipili hoho (capsicum) because it’s too expensive. But now, when you are here it’s different because literally people who had tonnes of green onions in February and March tell you there are no onions in their farms anymore. And then when you are buying for a hundred people, it reaches a point when yes, you can’t buy those tomatoes. And sukuma becomes a treat. Because cabbage is cheaper. Because there’s simply no sukuma in the farms. It’s over. Do you know how intriguing it is, to know these dynamics?

Nowadays, among the many things I pray for, like peace and security and so on, I also pray for rain. I pray for rain so that our crops can do well. When I was in Nairobi, I would pray for rain so that it can be less dusty. But I’d pray that it rains in the middle of the day- not morning or evening- so that it’s not difficult to get from or to work because the traffic becomes insane when it rains in Nairobi. Plus it also gets muddy and messy. So I used to pray for convenient rain. Now I pray for it to rain, whatever time God wills. However much God wills. I just want enough of it for our crops, everyone’s crops, all crops, including grass for our cows, to do well. So that we will all have enough maize, beans, potatoes, sukuma, and have I mentioned, onions and tomatoes? Yes I believe I have.

As noted above, the title of this piece is omena and managu. So back to the story, today I went to the market as always. I withdrew money from the Equity Agent. Note that prior to moving, I had never used a bank agent before, but now I know the meaning of mashinani (grassroots/an interior place) and I appreciate the bank agents in a new way seeing as the nearest branch and ATM for my bank is in Molo town which is about an hour away. The man and wife who run the agent and MPESA shop once donated vegetables to the home a few months ago. I was surprised when I went to do an MPESA transaction and they told me that they’d be sending me vegetables for the kids later that day. At that time I was pretty new in town but I learned very fast that people often gave to the Home whenever they had anything extra and they take it as part of their communal responsibility.

After the agent’s, Mary and I went to the wholesale supermarket where we are also regular customers. At this supermarket, they know that they have to write out our receipts very clearly as we keep them for records. The receipt machine doesn’t write details, only amounts, so we usually request the handwritten one to accompany the one produced by the machine so that it reflects exactly what was bought and in what quantity. The shop attendants, the owner, and his wife are all now my friends. After that, Mary and I sat outside waiting for Manu (another of our kids who finished school last year and recently got his driver’s license) to come get us with the red pick-up and take us to the next stop which is the open air market. While we were seated outside, the lady who sells fruits and veggies in a kibanda (kiosk/stand) opposite the supermarket came over to greet me. She is a parent at our school, her son is in Class Eight and is a boarder like all Class Eight students. She asked about the Home and the school and I told her we are all well. She asked if she could give me some fruits to take to her son. I said Yes of course. So she brought an avocado and two oranges and told me to tell her son to work hard. I was so touched because it was such a motherly thing to do. Sending him fruits. Such a simple act that spoke volumes about her love and concern for her son.

I thought about my high school for some reason and how, I guess, you never think of someone’s parent as the lady selling fruits and veggies. But here is this parent, and she has gotten her kids through school- she has another one in class seven in our school- through her small scale business. I always try to buy fruits from her when I’m in town, because she’s giving us business (by having her kids in our school) so it’s only fair to reciprocate and show appreciation. As we were talking, there were these huge open-back lorries passing by, those ones that advertise things with loud speakers and dancers and comedians at the back. One was advertising Airtel mobile network, another was advertising Sossi – soya meat, and then another was advertising Isuzu buses. The Isuzu one struck me as I wished that we could buy a bus for the school. All of them, all three of the lorries had loud booming music and people speaking on loud speakers. It was like a shouting competition. This added to the hustle and bustle of parked and moving bodabodas (motorbike taxis) and Proboxes, people milling around, others standing around to hear what’s being said from the lorries, others in their own private conversations made quite a scenery. I looked around and felt, Yes this is a market day.

A lady with a big basket on her head came along. As she approached us, my parent-businesswoman friend told me that this lady sells amazing omena. Hers taste better and are fresher than the ones sold at the market, she told me. The lady stopped to greet her- as they know each other- and greeted me too. She asked her if she would be buying omena today. My friend said yes. Having convinced me about the amazing quality of these particular omena, I thought I’d also buy some to cook at my house, and then if they’re really as good as she says, I will buy more next week to cook for everyone, all the kids, at the home. It’s not expensive at all. It’s measured in a small tin which is sh10. For a family of five, you only need to buy omena for about sh40 and it’s enough. I asked the lady if they were fresh and she said yes, she had just gotten them from Kisumu that morning. I mean, that’s as good as it gets, hey? So my friend bought some and I bought some too.

I asked them if I should just wash with very hot water and then fry them? I seemed to remember that that’s how my aunt who we lived with used to prepare them. The last time I had eaten omena was many years ago, when I was in primary school or maybe high school. I have never prepared the dish myself since. Yes, they confirmed. But not very hot water. If it’s too hot the omena becomes unga unga (powdery). The water should be warm, perfectly warm, like that for washing a baby, they said. Then you just fry with onions and tomatoes. I smiled at this explanation, the water for washing a baby part was funny, and thanked them both as the omena lady put her big basket back on her head to continue her walking hawking journey.

I noted then that the pick-up had come and Mary had already put the shopping in the back. So I bid my friend farewell. Ah, wait, she said. She told me she wanted to give me some managu to go cook. Just boil it and you don’t have to pour out the water- this one is very good. Si ile kali (it’s not the bitter one). For those who know, normally the way you cook managu you boil it then pour the water and some people wash it with water again (to get rid of the bitter taste, though you lose all nutrients then) before frying it with oil, onions and tomatoes. Ready to ‘promote’ her as always I asked her how much it was. She said, no this one I am giving you as a gift. Go and just cook it in your house and see for yourself. Ni zawadi tu. It’s a gift. I was so touched. Often I meet people in the market who know that I have a baby or several and they send me with an extra banana or avocado for him/them. Once a lady was selling sukuma and I bought a gunia (sackful) worth from her. She knew (somehow, in that way that everyone seems to know) that I have a small son, so she said she’d send me sweet potatoes to cook for him. Sure enough the next day on her way to town from her house she came by our home with sweet potatoes, and said I wasn’t to pay, that those were just for Lukundo. These ‘small’ random acts of kindness make me realize that everywhere you go you can always find kind souls. Even when you think you’re too new in a place for people to care. You find that some do. And that’s very reassuring.

Moving on, Mary, Manu and I went on to the market and met several people who greeted us and asked us about the kids and asked if today I wasn’t buying beans or terere (another traditional vegetable). Among the many things I’ve learned by being here is the meaning of a gorogoro. I never before knew that there was a measurement called gorogoro. Or rather, I used to hear of it but didn’t know what it meant. Well a gorogoro is basically a 2kg tin used to measure maize, beans and other grains and legumes. I kept hearing a gorogoro is this much, a gorogoro is that much. Well, now I know . And right now a gorogoro of beans is sh200, up from sh130-sh150 which it was during the good months. And, when you’re buying beans, you want the ones that have been dried naturally in the sun, not with an electric machine (I didn’t know there was such a machine till about two weeks ago). Not only that but you must be able to tell by looking at the beans. (I still can’t tell the difference just by looking). What I do know is that the ones that have been dried with a machine take forever to cook- wasting fuel/firewood, and even after then they always taste a bit hard, like they can never cook. Basically, like the ones we bought a month ago which have been a nightmare but which finally got finished this past weekend, thankfully, and we now have bought better quality sun-dried ones.

Well, that was my day. I’d say from February till now, today was about my 9th or 10th time to go to the market on market day, Wednesdays, and it’s been quite a ride. Though I used to be sent to Githurai market as a girl by my mum when I was in primary and high school, I’d usually go together with her or with one of my aunts or cousins living with us. It’s a different experience when you are going to shop for your house, as the mother, not as the daughter with your mother’s instructions. It’s also different when you’re going to shop for tens of people, and when your presence in the town and market is known to all. It’s a bit overwhelming, to say the least, but it’s also a great learning experience and an opportunity to interact with people and things in a very intense way.

As I end, I am happy to report that I followed the ladies’ instructions on the omena, and they came out scrumptious. We had them with ugali and cabbage. I didn’t want to make the managu today- that would be too many treats in one evening. So I’ll likely make it tomorrow. I look forward to next Wednesday. So that I can buy enough omena for everyone, and hopefully get some more managu- not necessarily for free, don’t worry, I know how addictive freebies are. Overall, I look forward to learning more as I continue to interact with the town and its people and its market. As you finish reading, I hope your dinner today was as nutritious as ours was. If not, you can always try some omena or managu next time. Cheers.

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6 thoughts on “Managu and Omena

  1. Teko Poriot says:

    I feel like I was with you in the market. Well written very descriptive, Completely brings out yhe kenyan spirit of good neighbourliness, social responsibility and hardwork. Keep it up Shibs!

  2. Woow, that was quite some reading. I can piture you trying test the warmth of the water to wash the Omena so that it doesnt turn unga….you should start writing books now. Interesting piece of work.

  3. Lynette says:

    Shibs, this piece is the reason I have missed seeing the Ivory Coast goal; that’s how captivating your writing is. Keep writing and doing the great work of raising all those kids.
    May God keep blessing the work of your hands!

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