Kenya vs Uganda, and the politics of eating either white or brown ugali

Wednesday July 13 2011

Of late, I have been suffering what you might call “restless feet disease”, the need to get out of one’s comfort zone, and find new explanations for things.

So it was that a few days ago, I got on a midnight bus to Malaba.

It was my first in a bus for reasons other than tourist sight-seeing or office travel to training retreats, since 1979 when I was a little fellow and wet behind the ears.

As a sign of how out-of-touch I had become, I found the last sections of the road to Malaba to be extremely rough.

I was so shaken up inside that when I arrived in Malaba, I sought a cold cement verandah to sit for about 30 minutes to shake off the dizziness and fight off the nausea.

It’s a long story. One thing that was striking was the queue of lorries waiting to enter Uganda from Kenya. On the evening of our return, I estimated that the queue was at least five kilometres long.


On the Uganda side, after they have passed Customs, there is an additional stop for the Revenue Protection Service (a wing of the army) to also clear your truck to ensure you didn’t bribe the customs officers and get away with murder.

Strangely, their office is under a tree. The queue there was another kilometre long.

East African trade is booming. Inside Uganda, I checked out an old friend who has made a small fortune trading with Kenya. He was both happy and sad.

Happy because he was making money, sad because he thought Uganda was not getting the best value of the trade.

Turns out some of those lorries in the long queue at the border went to Uganda to collect, at very cheap prices, cotton-seed (for making animal feed) and maize skin (for cow- and chicken-feed).

We will leave the story of the cotton-seed for now, and dwell on the maize-skin. It was a strange story. Unlike Kenya, or even Tanzania, Uganda was never an ugali-eating country.

It is a country of kings, queens, and chieftains, so the food that the masses ate for ages was, well, the food of kings and queens. In the South-West of Uganda, it was matooke (banana) and a bit of “Irish” potato.

In the East and north, it was millet. The workers on the Kenya-Uganda Railway, truckers, and veterans brought ugali-eating to the country from the colonial Kings African Rifles army.

Later, it became the food of the working class. Because they worked hard, these groups of people ate the dark ugali, which is higher in nutrients.

No other self-respecting Ugandan ate ugali. If a young woman arrived unannounced at her boyfriend’s flat and found him eating ugali, she would flee in hysteria. It was considered the last step before cannibalism.

Over the last 30 years, with environmental devastation, the collapse of the banana economy, the disruption of the production of kings’ and queen’s foods by years of war and economic crisis, Ugandans have become ugali-eaters. It is the most affordable and practical food for many.

However, though Ugandans eat ugali, they like it sparkling white. I called up a professor at Makerere University who studies these cultural idiosyncrasies to explain to me why Ugandans are all about white ugali.

She told me that years back, marketers and social policy activists realised that the association of dark ugali with a lower social status was too strong; some people would rather starve than eat their ugali that way. So white was pushed to glamorise ugali, and it worked.

The milling of maize in Uganda, therefore, can often be an obsessive exercise in stripping away the skin. I am told that the big value elements in maize are in the skin. It has the most fats and antioxidants.

With time, maize skin created a waste disposal crisis for millers. With the (Kenya) depreciating shilling and rising global prices of animal feed, Ugandans’ refusal to look at maize skin creatively opened an opportunity for Kenyan farmers.

They have moved in in record numbers, and are currently buying some of the best animal feed, for the lowest prices, in the world, hence the increased Kenyan truck traffic into Uganda. Ugandans’ aversion to dark ugali is a boon for quite a few Kenyans.

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