The significance of Akamba Food Festival
When I was in Class 6 in the mid 90’s, malnutrition was a major problem in Mbooni Division. Many children were suffering from Kwashiorkor and Marasmus. On my way to school, I would see children with big heads and small bodies and other disproportionate organs being ferried towards Kwakatungulu, a rehabilitation center that was started by nuns attached to Ithemboni Catholic Church.
Kwakatungulu was a center where malnourished children would be taken for rehabilitation, and their parents would be educated on proper nutrition. Through the then Kenya Government’s Ministry of Culture and Social Services (MCSS), a project called Family Life Training program (FLTP) was started.
“This program was to address malnutrition that had greatly affected low- and middle-income earners who suffered from famine resulting from drought, and could not afford the escalating cost of protein and vitamin rich foods. Their diet comprised mostly of carbohydrates. They tended to sell many of the foods they grew that were rich in protein and vitamins foods and, with the money to buy carbohydrates that were cheaper” reads this article
One of its interventions was a peer education program for school going children, through the establishment of the Child to Child Club. Through this club, we started teaching our community the importance of a balanced diet – eating carbohydrates, proteins and vitamins. We also taught hygiene – washing hands after going to the toilet, and brushing teeth regularly.
The project was very successful, and after three or so years it came to a logical conclusion. We significantly reduced the level of malnutrition and preventable illnesses through improved diet, hygiene and sanitation. By the time I joined high school, Kwakatungulu , then known as Mbooni Family Life Training Center, was being repurposed to a conferencing facility because it was no longer necessary to admit malnourished children for rehabilitation.
20+ years later, the coincidence is that we are here again, dealing with a social problem connected to diets….
As I grew up, I found that a lot of the arable land was put under cash crops – coffee was a major crop. Many of the households that grew maize and beans to subsidise their diet ended up selling it because earnings from coffee farming significantly dropped over time.
The result is that today, we are dealing with the economic and social burden of managing diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer and weakened immune systems; partly occasioned by eating processed foods, and largely because of the inability to resit the industrial complex of more dominant cultures that have seen us turn to tea, bread and margarine.
Over the past 30 years, more dominant cultures took over our plates, and the global rush for capitalism saw us take on fast food as a culture. So, when I got the invitation to be part of producing Akamba Food Festival, it was an eerie dejavu moment to reverse the tide. It occurred to me that this was not just a moment to promote healthy eating like we did with carbohydrates, proteins and vitamins, but a moment to reinstall our cultural identity and power.
Ngugi Wa Thiongo has been a big proponent of decolonizing the mind, and his politics center on the use of language. Indeed, the best way to colonize people is by changing their language, food, religion, education and the way they name their people. This fact is true and constant across many African communities, and the struggle today is how to revert back and innovate around the very foundation of our culture – to a place that yields optimal outcomes in health and wellness.
A moment like now calls for us to borrow a leaf from some of the cultures that have continued to add value over time to their gastronomic heritage – Indian food, Swahili dishes, Chinese, Italian cuisine – and many more examples of foods, fashion and music that we love to treat ourselves to. One thing is common across the board – resistance and continuous innovation.
The journey has just begun, and the first ever Akamba Food Festival is a step in the right direction. Being part of this festival is akin to standing on the right side of history. As Ngugi wa Thiong’o argues, ‘Resistance is the best way of keeping alive’ and so this is a journey of continuous resistance and innovation.
It is my dream, and hope, and prayers that, through this initiative, we will turn around the burden of diabetes and cancer, and close down dialysis and cancer care centers the same way we closed down Kwakatungulu in the late 90’s. It is my dream that we can introduce cultural education and festivals in our schools and colleges, in the same way we did with food and sanitation through the Child to Child clubs.
It is my expectation that this festival will reawaken our desire to invest in a powerful future. It is not only an opportunity to reimagine our future, but also a moment to recreate a strong gastronomic heritage, and to grow our cultural identity without apology. It is a moment to decolonize our mind and plates, and above all, to strengthen our weakened immune systems!
I cant wait to see where the journey leaves us at the end of this decade!
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