There is a local culinary delicacy here in Kenya called “ugali”. It is pronounced “u” (like the “oo” in moon), “gha”, “lee”; with the emphasis on “gha”. What pasta is to the Italians, what tamales are to the Latinos, what hamburgers are to Americans—ugali is to the Kenyans. Even the mention of its name brings a broad smile to their faces, a warm sensation to their hearts and excited anticipation to their stomach juices. I think it is very similar to the same effect the mention of Blue Bell Rocky Road ice cream has on me.Most of the Kenyans I meet insist that I must try ugali before I leave. Several of my friends have offered to have me over for lunch and make ugali for me. Each time I have carefully but graciously declined. That is, until this past Sunday, when over lunch, the host brought in rice and beans in separate big pots that had been warmed over the fire. And then greens in a simple open pan. And then she retrieved out of the depths of her kitchen a small covered dish with her prized offering to us—ugali. What could I do? I had to be a gracious guest. She dished out a small portion of what looked a little like overly thick grits on to my plate. And she mentioned that if I mixed the ugali with the greens it would be the height of my culinary experience while here in Kenya. My thought was to cover the ugali with salsa and cheese, and perhaps, it would taste like an enchilada. I felt like I had to oblige her. The first bite was quite unremarkable—very little taste except for the greens. I became more daring with the next few bites—ugali alone. I must admit, it tastes like a combination of mashed potatoes and grits. My confidence was surging—so I finished my portion, complimented my host and had a sense of connection with the deep roots of the Kenyan culture.
What happened about 30 minutes later is difficult to explain. In medical terms, I would probably describe it as acute gastric distension with a component of severe, unrelenting gastrointestinal spasms. In Texas slang, I was just sick as a dog. I felt like a nuclear explosion started in my lower esophagus and reverberated all the way down to my toes.
We kindly thanked our host and commenced with our 45-minute walk home—yes, I said 45 minutes! The spasms worsened, I began to perspire, and each step of the way, it seemed like the intestinal nuclear melt-down was worsening. By the grace of God, we made it to our cottage. My family quickly offered prayers for my survival, and I created a concoction of Pepto-Bismol, Tums, Alka-Seltzer and Phenergan (don’t try this without medical supervision) and proceeded to bed, where I lay perfectly still so I could keep my ugali inside rather than outside.
I’m now 24 hours past my first ugali experience and am a little more positive about it than I was lying in the bed yesterday. The only residual symptom I have is some heartburn after meals—compared to the intestinal nuclear disaster yesterday, I am not complaining. I have given ugali a new name—I now call it “Oh Golly!!” And needless to say, I will never let this local Kenyan delicacy ever touch my lips again.
From Africa with love,
P.S. Perhaps this distress had nothing to do with ugali, maybe it was the enchiladas and pizza I had the night before!!