An Igby Prize essay on Food; First published in the Kalahari Review
When mum was alive,
She would wake us promptly at seven AM on Sundays. She believed that God and his angels woke up early. There was no acceptable reason why mama and her angels should wake up late. At ten thirty AM sharp we would be seated on a cold hard bench celebrating mass. I hated it. Particularly, the ritualistic aspect of it and the constant standing and seating. I never understood this God who needed to be summoned by incense and Latin verses. I however, quite wisely I should add, never voiced my discontent. It was Sunday, the official day when mum made chapatis. Somehow, she was always nicer after Mass.
Chapati, is a type of flatbread that was originally enjoyed in India. Until they shared it with the world, and Kenyans ran away with it, pun heavily intended! It tastes like morning kisses, tight hugs and midnight snuggles all wrapped in dough. I think, it is one of India’s greatest exports followed closely by Priyanka Chopra.
At two thirty PM on Sundays, mama would place a sufuria (cooking pot) on the stove and pour in water to boil. Being the oldest, I was allocated the duty of checking the water. It had to be properly boiled, but not too much because mama hated wasting fuel unnecessarily. My sister, a bit younger than I was would handle the errands. My other sisters, being too young to do anything would sit and watch. They enjoyed that.
“Wahito, bring me something to wipe the table with.” Mum would instruct.
Momentarily, my sister would zoom into the kitchen a little too fast for my liking. I was always afraid she would hit the stove and topple it. I would be blamed for this, resulting in nasty beating. She never did. Wahito would grab the rug and run back to mum with it. Mama would clean the table carefully with the dry cloth. Then ask her to bring her some water in a basin. Wahito would zoom into the kitchen again and back. They would repeat this ritual for some time, Mum instructing and Wahito zooming. All this as I stood in the kitchen, standing guard over that sufuria of water. When it started boiling, (I knew this when it started bubbling) I shouted;
“Muuuum, maji imechemka!” (Mama, the water is boiling)
Mum would rush over to shut down the stove and carry the water to the sitting room.
I should tell you that through all this. Mum was listening to the radio. She absolutely loved music, and could name the greats of African music with ease. The sounds of Les Wanyika, Emachichi and Angela Chibalonza… gently guiding her hands as she began that gentle dance of mixing the wheat flour and hot water.
Wahito, the younger girls and I would seat there, transfixed. Silent. Nary a word from all of us. It was I think, the only time mama would get any peace from us.
As soon as she was done mixing the flour, hot water, some oil and 3 pinches of salt. She would begin to knead it. After kneading it for about 3 minutes she would cut the dough into 3 pieces. She would remain with the biggest piece. Wahito would take the smallest and I would get the other piece. We would knead our dough for the better part of the next 15 minutes. However tired you got you did not complain. Mama hated lazy people, and in her house you were never too good for any type of errand.
I should mention that mum would periodically reach over and pinch your dough. If it did not meet her standard of softness, she glared at you for a looooong 3 seconds. You got the message. And your hands would become instantly reenergized kneading faster, and faster. When she was satisfied that the dough was beautifully kneaded, she combined the 3 pieces, kneaded it for a bit and then sent Wahito for a knife and a rolling pin. She brought both. Mama flattened the dough, applied a generous dressing of oil. Rolled it all up again, cut it into smaller pieces which would then be rolled into a circular piece. These would then be shallow fried over a thick steel pan. I should mention we were tasked with quality control for the chapatis. Thus, we usually got the first piece hot off the pan. They always met our expectations. All this while the siblings who did nothing salivated and waited for the second chapati.
The chapatis were quite flexible I confess. They were willing to make love to any type of stew in my mouth. The chapatis however, had a romantic attachment to beef stew. Thus, if mum made beef stew. It was not uncommon for suspicious sounds bordering on the sexual to emanate from my being. I literally had no control over myself when eating mama’s chapatis.
Even now, as a grown man I confess, I still have a certain fondness towards chapatis. My people cannot really understand why. Perhaps in some time, a decade or so, I will find the words to explain it.
That every time I bite into one of those soft, supple, fleshy chapatis I am reminded of easy Sunday afternoons with mum. The way her love flowed from her heart, through her arms, her food and finally into us.
Somehow in these memories, she is alive and with me. And all is good with the world.
- Chapati – A type of flatbread, originating in India.
- Sufuria – Cooking pot
- “Muuuum, maji imechemka!” – Mama, the water is boiling