Christmas in Mombasa

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The first obvious signs that Christmas Day had arrived in Makumba, on the outskirts of Mombasa, Kenya, came when the children put up the decorations.  Identical to those in a million British homes, the shiny plastic banners enjoin readers to have a ‘Merry Christmas’.  The glittering hangings were purchased from a local stall the day before and tied along the underside of the makuti (coconut matting) roof that shades the side of one of the house.

The important preparations – at least in minds’ of the men – came the previous day when one of them travelled to collect a goat from Makomboane Mwabayanbo – near Kaloleni (around 70 miles away), where many have family connections.  Five years ago it was possible to keep goats around Makumba itself, but as the ramshackle urban sprawl has enveloped the village, this is no longer practical.

The goat is tethered beside the road overnight and at eleven on the big day, is led to the dirt road that runs around the side of my host Steve Koi’s house.  Its end is not ceremonious. Daniel and Joseph hold it down, as Asaad slits its throat.  It takes only two strokes of the knife before the main artery bursts open, a gush of brilliant red blood squirts into the soil and the last twitches of life convulses the animal’s body.

“The Kenyan government does not really approve of us slaughtering and butchering animals in this way”, explains Joseph.  “But this is how we have always done things, and the nearest abattoir is a long way away, and is very expensive”.

After a splash of water on the knife, the chickens are dispatched with significantly less effort.  Holding a wing down with a foot, Asaad takes the head in his hand and removes it with little more effort than it would take to remove the top of a carrot.  Only the chicken’s beak, still opening and closing on the ground some feet from the body, makes the scene unusual.

Preparing the goat for cooking is rather more involved. Its body is carried round to a narrow passage on the other side of Steve’s house.  Like all the buildings facing the road at this modest, dusty intersection, it main room is sheeted with corrugated-iron roof.  The rope that was around the goat’s foot, is now around its part-severed neck, and this is used to hang the body from a rafter.

Working slowly from the incision around its neck, Daniel, Joseph and a couple of the younger men take it in turn to cut the skin from the body.  Little by little they work their knives through the layer of fat the separates hide from muscle.  The process, which all have been helping with since childhood, is occasionally interrupted when they take calls on their mobile phones.

After nearly an hour, the final sinews holding the skin to the body are severed.  A large metal bowl is added to the rough polythene that has hitherto protected the floor.  Daniel pulls the knife through the outer wall of the goat’s stomach, and its guts fall free.  Before they are removed for cooking, Joseph fishes around in the sticky mass of organs to cut out and remove the bile sack.

Them women, meantime, have been busy in the kitchen. Rice came from the supermarket, but most of the spices were harvested from nearby trees.  The preparation space itself bears little comparison to western kitchens.  Rehema, Daniel’s wife, works a charcoal fire in the corner, which serves as the cooker (she is pictured at the top of this story).  Relatively smokeless as it is, with no chimney other than the gaps around the edge of the corrugated roof, there is a tang to the air that stings the eyes.  The iron roof also radiates heat with a ferocity of cooker.

Jumwa mixes food in the adjacent room in reused plastic containers, and a complex swapping round of pots is necessary to ensure that everything is cooked to schedule.

The young men of the village provide the first course – nyama choma (meat, grilled) – smaller pieces of goat and chicken, barbecued in the open air.

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Steve and his parents came to this area in 1962, when he was about five years old.  A decade earlier, buffalo roamed on this hillside. Steve remembers Makumba being ‘in the countryside’.  He built his own home for him and his mother, when his father married another wife.  First he erected a simple wood shelter, with a coconut matting roof (it still serves as the barbecue shelter).  From this base, he built his own house, and then across the road, and perpendicular to his own, he constructed a house for his mother.

Both are single storey, rendered brick structures with corrugated-iron roofs. Most of the floors are concrete and the windows are small.  As the temperature rarely falls below 30 degrees centigrade, this scarcely matters. A neighbourhood septic tank, and rather basic solar electricity arrived slightly over a decade ago. The toilet still requires a bucket of water to flush – but its contents flow out through drains. A few, bare electric bulbs, with DIY wiring provide some light after sunset.

Even fifteen years ago, the two houses were surrounded by open land.  However, a new road, from Mombasa to Kaloleni, was laid, taking a route close by the houses. Development along the road quickly followed, so that today a continuous ribbon of houses and shops – most constructed from tree branches, corrugated iron and scrap materials – lines the route out of the port.  Alas, within a decade of the road being laid, its tarmac surface has completely disappeared.  One bumps, rather than drives here from the centre of Mombasa, and the impression is that you have not left a dense urban area.  Nonetheless, the land behind the shops is not quite so densely developed as first appearances suggest.

The party for today’s Christmas meal is made up friends and family, most of whom live in, or have lived in this area.  Many are related, although sufficiently distantly to suggest that friendship and proximity are at least as important as kinship.  Most are nominally Christian, and members of the Giriama tribe. However, the group includes quite a few Muslims and members of other tribal groups, both of which are the subject of occasional, seemingly fond teasing “ah, Mohamed, I see that you have given up drinking again”, for example, and a joshing argument about whether one member of the group was a Kikuyu or not.

Conversation is in English (which all Kenyans learn in school), for my benefit, and nearly all the party are sufficiently comfortable in this language to entertain long, complex discussions. Among the topics covered are the treatment of the Kenyan president by the International Criminal Court, the usefulness (or otherwise) of politicians, whether Britain should pay compensation to those allegedly tortured during the Mau Mau uprising and comparative education systems.

An article in the Daily Nation, the weekend before Christmas noted the evolving ways in which Kenyans celebrate the season: text messages supplanting cards; the increasing consumption of alcohol; and, chidrens’ rising gift expectations.  In Makumba, however, little has changed in form since the Christmas celebrations of his childhood, Steve tells me.

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Even in today’s diffuse sun, the high humidity ensures that even a few minutes moving around outside the shade are deeply uncomfortable, even for sun lovers. So, with the cooking in progress, the older men settle down under the shelter. Their chat is lubricated with Kenyan Tusker Beer, an occasional bottle of wine and a coconut drink, mnazi, that is drawn from the roots of the tree and, unlike other drinks, is kept on the floor in a old plastic juice bottle.  It is drunk through a shared wooden straw from a recycled jam jar.  The naturally fermenting juice has a fizzy, intoxicating quality.  Among the older men, at least, it appears to induce a relaxed conviviality.

The arrival of the starter is the moment to appreciate the freshness of the meat – unlike Europe where red meat is traditionally hung, extreme freshness is the most appreciated quality of cooked flesh in Africa.  Happily, the earlier efforts were worthwhile.  The goat combines the crispy, slightly burnt quality of the best grill-cooked meats, with a delicious, flavoursome juiciness.

After eating with our hands, Jumwa passed around the table with a jug and a bowl, pouring water over each of our fingers.

The main dishes, when they arrive, fill the table.  There is a goat stew – karanga – that is best enjoyed over rice to soak up its juices.  Palau – a flavoured goat rice, a little like a risotto, that can be enhanced with a little pili pili, a fiery chilli-based sauce.  There are chapattis, conventional boiled rice, kachumbari a vegetable dish (onion, tomato, chilli, green salad, lemon juice), and a panful of spicy, fried chicken pieces.

Eating takes place in informally segregated groups – older men and honoured guests (my family and I) sit under the shelter, the women eat in and around the kitchen, the young men remain under their shelter where they have been barbecuing, and the children mill around between the three, trying to persuade each that they have not yet eaten enough.

By the time everyone is replete, there is still food on the table. This is picked at as the afternoon turns into evening. Then, with all the dishes cleared away and the tables rearranged, the whole group comes together to carry on chatting, drinking and making merry.

Who knows what I might have missed – the most dysfunctional families can hide their simmering resentments from visitors.  My impression, however, was of a fabulously warm, inclusive community, in which everyone happily performed their allotted function and exhibited genuine joy both to be together and to welcome newcomers to their midst.  I felt myself truly blessed to have been asked along to one of the best Christmas days that I have enjoyed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photographs © Tim Dawson