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LIFE BY LOUIS: Memories of my spectacular ‘jiko’ invention

Monday November 4 2019

Wa Hellen detested my kifoo because in its wake, potatoes and green maize kept disappearing mysteriously from her farm. ILLUSTRATION| IGAH

Wa Hellen detested my kifoo because in its wake, potatoes and green maize kept disappearing mysteriously from her farm. ILLUSTRATION| IGAH 

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I'm an ardent follower of the Facebook group Let’s Cook Kenyan Meals.

It’s the advanced school of top chefs and culinary arts that we could not afford to attend, but whose local version is doing better than the best global institutes of culinary education.

The rules are simple.

Cook your meal, take a photo and post it in the groups page that has nearly two million members.

There is no adverse judgement, only words of encouragement that you should reduce the water that you added into the meat stew from five litres to just a cupful for better results.

It is a vibrant community and even the worst made meal that your pets would have a small problem consuming is applauded as a good attempt.


The members refer to each other as cousins, and even the meanest criticisms are taken with good cheer.


All culinary travesties are accommodated, including the watery stews that are served in village dowry ceremonies.

The plain mukimo that has been branded as the most unimaginative meal in the world is applauded as a healthy and well balanced diet.

The bachelors’ specialty of ugali and eggs gets multiple likes. A girl who posts rectangular shaped chapatis is lauded as wife material.

The group is not without its own share of drama and sideshows. Members have been caught with their pants down plagiarising other peoples photos and soliciting for credits.

Others go as far as snatching photos of gourmet meals from the internet and claiming them to be the work of their hands.

But such misdemeanours are taken with a light touch and the culprits are warned to improve their behaviour index.

I rarely prepare meals that I am proud of. I’m under no illusion that other people will be proud of my meals, therefore I have just remained a silent listener to the online cooking conversations. But I have not been like that all my life.

Unlike cows of nowadays that live in apartments with electricity and flushing toilets in a rearing system called zero grazing, cows of our times used to be taken to the bushes to hustle for their food and water.

That was the sole responsibility of young boys who had not tasted the knife and whose futures were yet to take definite shape.

In order to keep warm during the cold season, the boys invented a mobile warmer called kifoo in my local dialect.

It was made from the 2kg cooking fat tins and modified to resemble a charcoal jiko. It was fitted with a long steel handle to carry it around.

You could only get those 2kg tins from the dustbins of the super-rich village oligarchs who had access to the big supermarkets in Nairobi. 

The improvised jiko used firewood as its chief source of fuel. There was a specialised way of swinging it above your head that made the fire more fierce than an incinerator as the fuel mixed with the oxygen rich air of the village. I suppose that was the birth of modern day turbo engines.

Because I had access to the rare 2kg tins, my kifoo was an engineering masterpiece. It had separate fuel and air intake systems, a preheater, superheater, flue gas collector and exhaust gas precipitator. I don’t have documented facts to these claims of engineering excellence, but then again I am the inventor and I am not entertaining any questions.

As opposed to the modern lazy machines that rotate naked chicken on the windows of popular chicken eateries in town for a whole day, a kifoo could cook a mature cockerel in a record ten minutes. It could also multi-task, meaning you could boil the meat at the top, roast maize by the side door, bury potatoes in the hot ash for slow roasting inside and still warm yourself.

A moment of silence to all the locusts, birds, ants and all other living creatures that perished under the hot fires of the kifoo. I particularly remember the day we attempted to boil the meat of a raven. After a full day of intense fire, the meat remained as hard as standard gauge railway. But I blamed the age of the raven for this failure, not on the specifications of the kifoo.

Wa Hellen detested my kifoo because in its wake, potatoes and green maize kept disappearing mysteriously from her farm.

After a long day of service, I would hide the gadget outside the homestead because she was likely to damage it or use the tin for other purposes like storing grains and eggs.

To all those engineers in NASA burning the midnight oil trying to make energy efficient burners and heaters, the expertise is domiciled in the deep and cold valleys of Matimbei village and it is absolutely free.