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U is for Ugali, urchin, ukelele, Ulysses butterfly, ultramarine flycatcher, urutu, umbrella palm, undulation, umbrella, and Uranus.

U is for Ugali!

It's a lot like the Italian Polenta, only it's made with the white corn - or maize - that grows in East Africa. Less sweet and more mealy, it's one of many versions of corn varieties worldwide. Farinaceous, might be a truer description, though that's a fantabulous sounding word, which also feels, I dunno – a bit farinaceous? It's probably just me.

Maize has a long, long history and some peculiar origin mythologies. All maize came from a single source in southern Mexico about 9,000 years ago. It is now the most widely produced grain in the world. (Wikipedia)

Gary Francisco Keller, between 1540 and 1585. The Digital Edition of the Florentine Codex. Wikipedia.

Ugali and The Chivuti

As a young kid, growing up in Kenya, when I was home from boarding school for the holidays, and when my parents were out and I was left to my own devices, I often spent the evenings with our housekeeper, as mentioned in an earlier post - My Two Dads. I remember those evenings in the open courtyard as lovely, enchanted affairs.

Dim light from a kerosene lantern, the charcoal brazier going, fanning the embers, cooking ugali and spinach curry under the stars and moon. In the palms of our hands, we would make little flat patties of ugali, add some spinach curry and roll them up into small bite-sized balls. Ugali is an earthy no-frills taste experience and it's a staple African dish.

After eating we would make things - kites to fly, mole traps, a working hand-wired electric bell, a large light bulb made with nichrome wire and a jar for a science fair. We made small African flutes called Chivuti (or Chivoti). These were made of bamboo, using a hot iron poker to hollow out the chamber and make the finger holes and of course the very cool decorations. I was lousy at playing the flute, the enchantment of those evenings still lingers.

Chivuti Flutes. Source: Jobkhiko Ngugi

The Kilimanjaro Jog

There's a curious jog on the border between Kenya and Tanzania. This is a legacy of The Berlin Conference of 1884. The jog is an artifact of The Scramble for Africa - the division of the African Continent's people, land and resources among 14 European Nations. Over 14 months (with a break for Christmas - so one nation per month?)

Africa was unceremoniously divvied up exclusively between the participating European Nations. The border between Kenya and Tanganyika was drawn to accommodate the assignment of Mt. Kenya and Mt. Kilimanjaro between two relatives.

The Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 | Africa’s Great Civilizations | PBS LearningMedia
In 1884 the leaders of fourteen European countries and the United States came together to discuss control of Africa’s resources. Known as The Berlin Conference, they sought to discuss the partitioning of Africa, establishing rules to amicably divide resources among the Western countries at the expense of the African people. Of these fourteen nations at the Berlin Conference, France, Germany, Great Britain, and Portugal were the major players. Notably missing were any representatives from Africa. One of the tasks of this conference was for each European country that claimed possession over a part of Africa to bring “civilization,” in the form of Christianity, as well as trade. King Leopold II of Belgium promised just that and the Congo was formally recognized as Leopold’s personal possession. Extraordinarily rich in natural resources - including ivory, palm oil, timber and rubber - Leopold would seek to increase his personal wealth at the expense of the environment and the people of the Congo. While the mindless plundering of land for natural resources caused vast environmental damage, there is a larger story of corruption and inhumanity. Leopold sought personal gain at the expense of the Congolese people, using them as slave labor to extract natural resources. If production waned or targets were not met, they risked severe punishments ranging from the severing of a hand to death. Eventually, light was shed on these atrocities with photographic evidence gathered by English Missionary Alice Seeley Harris. Harris distributed the photos widely through anti-slavery publications, eventually shaming the Belgian Government and forcing Leopold to relinquish personal control of the colony. But by the time this happened in 1908, it was estimated that 10 million people - half of Congo’s population - perished during Leopold’s inhumane rule. Lesson from hour six of Africa’s Great Civilizations.

A brief intro to the Berlin Conference and some cruel outcomes.

As always, thanks for reading and indulging!
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corn poster
Poster of maize-based foods,
US Food Administration, 1918. Wikipedia