My usual days at home in Kenya consist of me lying on the couch by the television set with a packet of salted crisps (a.k.a. potato chips for those in North America), watching action films while my sister parades up and down, greasing her hair for selfies, and my brother spends hours a day watching comedy on his laptop. My mother, who has been singing traditional songs from our tribe, emerges from the kitchen, hands on her waist, wondering about our noises. “Ei…hiyo ni nini? [what is that?]" she asks. Then the house fills with laughter.
I come from a small town called Nakuru, a rural area surrounded by trees and hills, with a view of Lake Nakuru. I am from the luo tribe, known for our command of English (some say we invented the English language) and our sense of pride.
Laughter has been the essence, the pride and joy, the crème de la crème of my family since the day I could comprehend, often paired with food. My mother is a hardworking woman. Every morning she wakes up before the sun rises and prepares breakfast for the family before she drives to work as a nurse. (She recently was elected as the National Treasure for nurses in Kenya, and we are all so proud.) When she’s absent, the house is quieter than usual, and I take the opportunity to turn up the volume on the television to liven the mood until she returns after the sun sets.
“Mum, ujachoka? [aren’t you tired?]” I ask.
“Yes, but I have to make supper,” she replies. So I sneak back into the living room and finish watching Scarface for the 37th time before returning to the kitchen.
“A woman belongs in the kitchen,” my mother says. “This has always been the tradition in our culture.” Although I understand, I refuse to cook unless my brother washes the dishes and my father helps with mopping the house. I continue arguing with her in the most millennial way possible, making sure she does not get a word in. I see in her eyes that she loses hope about convincing me. I see the fatigue under her eyes after a long day’s work, her burnt nails and rough hands from 50 years of cooking, washing, and carrying this family.
So I put my political pride aside and send her to the living room to relax while I prepare the fish. It is sent to us from a village 115 miles away, home of the best fish, caught from Lake Victoria. We hook a piece of rope through it onto the wash line until it's fully dry before frying it. I pull the tilapia from its hook and very carefully rub it with salt as my mom yells from the living room, “Fish doesn’t need seasoning. Fish just needs salt.” (My mother has a habit of telling me to do something I am already doing, which only make me more frustrated.) I ignore her and place a pan of oil on the stove until it becomes boiling hot. I gently place the tilapia in the oil and let it fry for a few minutes, then turn it to the other side. When my mother walks into the kitchen, I see a glimmer in her eyes as she starts dancing and singing, grabbing me by my wrists. I resist but eventually I give in, the two of us gyrating our behinds.
“Oooohhh, I don’t think I’ve been this happy in forty years,” she says. “I didn’t know you knew how to make fish, my daughter. You are truly Nyakabonyo [daughter of your village],” she shouts as she squeezes me into her arms.
Tilapia is the staple food of my tribespeople, and each woman is expected to know how to make it to perfection. Soon after, the kitchen is filled with my siblings, everybody picking at the fish with their unwashed hands, as my mother and I continue our dancing.
I have learned a great deal from my mother by observing her in the kitchen over the past 20 years. She has been my inspiration for everything I do, and I have never tasted food better than hers (okay, maybe I'm a little bit biased).
Dona Adwera is an actress, model, and writer in Kenya, currently writing a book and a collaborative screenplay. She can be found at https://www.donaadwera.co.uk, @donacheng and Twitter.
Fried Fish Stew with Mboga (Kale) and Ugali (Cornmeal Mush)
2 whole tilapia
olive or vegetable oil
2 red onions, chopped fine
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 green pepper, chopped in cubes
2 hot peppers, finely chopped
2 tomatoes, grated
1 T. butter
1 white onion, chopped fine
dark soy sauce (optional)
6 – 8 oz. kale
4 c. water
2 c. cornmeal
Wash the tilapia and let it dry for approximately 3 hours. You can do this by hooking a small piece of rope through the arch of the gills to the mouth and suspending it to let the water drip down. This avoids the skin sticking to the pan and tearing the fish.
Fill a pan halfway with oil, and heat until it's boiling hot.
Rub the fish with salt until it soaks into the flesh, and gently place them in the hot oil.
Cook 5 – 7 minutes, then turn and cook and another 5 minutes.
Wrap tilapia in aluminum foil.
Put 2 T. oil in a large pot over high heat.
Add red onions, garlic, green peppers, and hot peppers, and stir until they start to brown.
Add tomatoes and 1/2 c. water, and stir until it begins to boil.
Place tilapia in the pot and cover.
Reduce heat to low and simmer 5 minutes.
In another pot, 1 T. butter or oil.
Add white onion, and cook over medium heat until browned.
Add a smidge of soy sauce and kale, and cook, covered, for 3 minutes.
Cook for 3 minutes more, tossing.
In another pot, bring 4 c. water to boil.
Add the maize/corn flour until the water covers half of the flour.
Stir with a wooden spoon, smashing any lumps, until it thickens, about 5 - 10 minutes.
Remove from heat and allow to rest a few minutes.