A Brief Extrapolation of Nairobi’s Recreational Meat Culture

A Brief Extrapolation of Nairobi’s Recreational Meat Culture

Illustration: Karl Gustafson
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Brayo is standing by the side of the turning off Manyanja Road into Tena Estate, a former teachers’ housing development fallen prey to the reverse gentrification that is endemic to formerly well-planned estates in Nairobi’s Eastlands area. In front of him is a trolley, inside which are arranged, in two separate compartments, rows of smokies and mayai boilo (boiled eggs, but to refer to them in this language is to strip them of their essence). Brayo brought the trolley second-hand for 3500 (roughly 35 dollars, and each figure of money henceforth is to be divided by a hundred to get a rough dollar equivalent), but if he’d wanted a brand-new one with all the extras included, he’d have gone to a Farmer’s Choice depot and gotten it for 10,000.

Brayo’s trolley is only one part of the recreational meat scene in Nairobi. There’s ordinary meat—beef, chicken, pork, mutton, lamb, etc.—which you eat as part of a carefully planned meal, whether breakfast or lunch or supper or dinner or whatever you call it. Then there’s recreational meat—mutura, mshikaki (meat skewers), smokie pasua, mayai boilo—whose consumption is rarely pre-planned; rather, a person coming home maybe from work, and this in the evening probably, in the haze of Nairobi traffic, will pass by his dealer, and get some mutura or mshikaki or smokie pasua or mayai boilo and get some for the road—a bit of fun before the main meal at home. Or at the club, dancing to Naija music, some Davido or Wizkid or Diamond or Jidenna or whoever’s hot at the moment, sweat dripping down their pits, drinking some Tusker or Guinness or cheap semi-contraband spirits, and then the person will step out, look out for the mutura seller or mshikaki seller or smokie pasua seller or mayai boilo dealer, have some, make the meat part of their recreational practice.

I have written about mutura culture before. Mutura is Dambudzo Marechera meets Ginsberg meets that summer when everyone was mohawkwing their hair: everything that’s unholy and unhealthy and putrid, but inescapable, giving you endless joy all the same. But then there are the other parts of the Nairobi recreational meat hierarchy: nyama choma, translated directly as burnt meat, which is middle-age businessmen in smoky roadside bars, dancing along to I’m not sober because I’m drinking Guinness, heck, drinking Guinness while at it, breaking deals, and calling forth burnt meat to hasten the deal-making; mshikaki is the girl with the impossible skirt and the crop top at the club, her hair braided red and green and blue and gold, dancing with a guy with an impossibly flimsy tank top and sweatpants, his hair probably done in an ubiquitous Nairobi side fade, the two of them beckoning you onto the dance floor, skewers of mshikaki in their mouth; and mayai boilo is the broke campus student hustling back to his folks’ house for the weekend, getting a boiled egg with the kachumbari in between.

Smokies didn’t use to be part of this scene. But then Farmer’s Choice happened, and became the biggest processor and marketer of fresh and processed meat products in Kenya. Founded in 1980, Farmers Choice languished in semi-obscurity until March 1989, when it was acquired by Lornho, the company associated with the prominent corporate raider Tiny Rowland. Rowland, who was CEO of the company from 1962 to 1994, was also, in addition to being an alleged MI6 operative, in with all the Big Men™ in Africa during these decades, popular for his dispensation of generous bribes to leaders of newly independent black countries. One of the African big men he found favour with was Daniel Moi, Kenya’s president from 1978 to 2002.

In this sense, the ubiquity of smokies in Kenya’s recreational meat culture starts with Rowland, and with Moi’s desire to construct an international airport in the town of Eldoret in the 1980s. Moi’s government identified Rowland’s land on the outskirts of the town and asked for 3000 acres, which were worth 310 million Kenya shillings (ten billion today). However, rather than pay the full amount, Moi made a deal with Rowland: His government would pay Rowland KSh200 million, and in lieu of the balance, give him land belonging to Uplands Bacon Factory, a meat processor that had gone under in 1986. This would include the pig processing factory on the land and all of its formulas, without due regard to intellectual property rights. It is unclear whether Farmer’s Choice had produced smokies before this Rowland-Moi deal, but, as part of a case currently at the High Court in Kenya, the group of farmers who used to run Uplands Bacon Factory want to know how exactly Farmer’s Choice came to own the formula for several meat products.

Therefore, like almost everything else in Kenya that was started during Moi’s presidency, smokies have some shady underpinnings. Despite this, Farmer’s Choice has a vice grip on Kenya’s smokie market. Rowland died in ’98, and Lonrho (formerly the London and Rhodesian Mining and Land Company) sold Farmer’s Choice two years later. Nevertheless, it roared on: it now exports its products to twelve countries, and overenthusiastic users declare Farmer’s Choice sausages and smokies the products the best in Africa and/or the world.

More than thirty years after the Moi-Rowland deal, Brayo stands by the side of this street in Nairobi’s Eastlands, the side of his trolley emblazoned with Farmer’s Choice stickers, which he got after months of continuous visits to the Farmer’s Choice depot in Eastlands to ask for them. Brayo is wearing a black FC Barcelona jersey, a pair of red sweatpants, and a blue face mask. On his left hand, a watch, and on two of his fingers, silver rings. This writer is next to him, and the two of us stand and wait for partakers of the recreational meats Brayo sells.


Recently, someone asked me, is cooking art?, and I said no, it can’t be art. There’s no art of cooking, I said. Art is meant primarily for beauty and taste and enjoyment. And cooking is meant for nutrition, however beautiful the meal, however wonderful it tastes, however enticing it smells. So, I added, anything whose primary aim is not beauty or enjoyment is not art.

Already, saying this, I could see how I was trapping myself. What about sports, a person could ask? What about sex? Is there an art of sex? To all of these questions, I’d say no, without being able to elucidate why my no is a no. In any case, I’m going trap myself further and say that food definitely is not art, and there is no art of cooking, but in saying this, add that there are specific kinds of Nairobi street food that exist purely for the purpose of giving joy (this is not the same as saying that these foods are art). Sure, often, a wonderful meal does make one feel good; however, Nairobi’s recreational street meats do little else.

This is a new theory I’m developing: that rather than think of these meats as street food (which nyama choma isn’t in any case), it is more instructive to think of them as recreational meats. The first person with whom I shared this theory laughed it off, told me there is no such thing, told me to stop being stupid. Naturally, I promised I’d write an essay about it. The next person I mentioned it to, Brayo, on this Saturday as we stood by Manyanja Road waiting for customers, looked at me confusedly. “Do you mean snacks?” he asked.

No, not snacks.

Consider nyama choma. Unlike other subsets of the recreational meat family—mutura and mshikaki and smokie pasua and mayai boilo—it can be, and often is, eaten as a main meal. The others cannot, which is why, when I tell Brayo that I have not eaten since the day prior, despite the fact that what he has there on his trolley is food, we both agree that I should go to a nearby chips joint for an actual meal. His smokies and mayai boilo, despite their tastiness, will not help, do not count. However, in the case of nyama choma, the recreation is the meal is the recreation is the meal. Still, nyama choma is not an everyday meal, and is often eaten on particular occasions. It is eaten on New Year’s/Christmas celebrations. It is eaten at parties. It is eaten (and this so frequently that it has become caricature in Nairobi) by a group of in-their-thirties, blue-Subaru-driving Nairobi men out on a Friday evening pre-pandemic with their friends, a process of bonding that is sometimes referred to as “nyam chom with the boys.” Thus, nyama choma becomes a recreational meat because its intake is tied to holidays, celebrations, and occasions where recreation rather than nutrition is the driver of its consumption.

Mayai boilo, on the other hand, is not meat at all. Sometimes called mayai pasua, mayai boilo’s inclusion in this (make-believe) category of recreational meats is by dint of the fact that it is commonly sold alongside smokie pasua. Ergo, the philosophy behind its consumption is the same as the philosophy behind the consumption of smokie pasua.

Anyway, Brayo. In the time I’m standing there, four different sets of people come by for their Saturday afternoon dose of recreation: a shy kid who comes for a smokie and requests that there should be no pilipili (chilli) in theirs; a guy in gumboots driving a probox that he parks by the road before asking for a quick serving of mayai boilo (“ile ya haraka”), and he too wants no pilipili; a kid who comes in with a note from someone (a parent? an older sibling?), an order for four smokies, and a request for Brayo to write his phone number on the piece of paper so that he can pay via mobile; and a homeless woman who rummages through the trash before Brayo asks her if she wants a smokie and does one up for her for free (no pilipili).

Each smokie is done up the same way: split in the middle, and then the kachumbari—a salad made from tomatoes, onions, pilipili, and dhania—is put into the gap, and some tomato sauce is layered on top. The formula for the mayai boilo is the same, apart from the obvious fact that they need to be de-shelled first. Not everyone can handle pilipili, of course, so there is a pilipili-less for such people. This writer is not such people. This writer does not understand such people. Brayo makes the kachumbari—both the pilipili-less kachumbari and the actual kachumbari—at home, before coming out with his trolley. He only comes out with the Farmer’s Choice trolley during the weekend, since Brayo has an eight-to-five job. Brayo works at an education consultancy firm in the city. The company advises prospective students on which universities they should join. The firm has two departments: one that markets foreign universities to Kenyan students, and one that markets Kenyan universities to foreign students. Brayo—at work he is called Brian—is the head of this second department.

Shortly after Brian got started at the firm, the first case of COVID-19 was announced in Kenya. The government’s closure of all Kenyan universities, as well the shutdown of universities all over the globe, meant that Brayo’s firm was rendered redundant, and employees were shifted from full-time to part-time wages, paid only a living stipend. Brian, together with a friend, decided to start a smokie-cum-mayai-boilo business, since, in his words, “You’re broke, you’re living with your mum, you’re 25 years old.”

Two weeks into the smokie business, his boss called him. “Let’s go back to work,” he said. “We can’t wait for COVID to get finished.” Which means that now, Brian is reduced to doing this business only over the weekend. And soon, he’s going to transition to being an employer and not selling his recreational meats at all, because he is training someone to take over from him. As we talk, this protege, a man dressed in a yellow T-shirt and jeans, is told to prepare a mayai boilo for sale. His hands are unsure as he de-shells, never having done this using a spoon before. Brayo guides him through it.

Later, I ask Brayo whether he’s ever considered branching out into other types of recreational meats. Mutura, for instance. He shakes his head. “I don’t have the experience or skill for mutura,” he says. This is one of the reasons smokies have become arguably the most popular form of recreational meats in Kenya’s big towns. They, unlike their better storied cousin, mutura, are industrially processed, therefore sellers like Brayo only have to grill them. Which is why, often, smokie and mayai boilo vendors will have opened early in the morning, and their clientele will include the early morning work crowd. Which is a crowd both mutura and nyama choma, by their very nature, can never tap into.

Writing this, I now realize I haven’t eaten mutura for four months. This is partly a consequence of the pandemic, and partly a consequence of my moving to a neighborhood where mutura isn’t sold. I haven’t eaten nyama choma since before the first reported COVID-19 case in Kenya, but that has nothing to do with the pandemic, and everything to do with the fact that I don’t even like nyama choma in the first place. This, coupled with my dislike of mayai boilo, means that I have, over the last few months, exclusively consumed globules of smokie pasua, at street corners and outside malls and in the central business district. I wonder, has smokie pasua become my go-to recreational meat? I know not. I shudder at the thought that I have become an ardent fan of Tiny Rowland’s smokies. Where’s my politics?

DISCUSSION

“Recreational meat” is a simply delightful phrase (and concept).

Closest American equivalent I can think of is, I dunno, walking past a fast food joint on the way home and grabbing something small and portable (value menu burger, chicken sandwich, that sort of thing) to eat on the walk home, then having actual dinner.