Culture | Of sugar and spice

A look into life in Kianyaga, Kenya

I awoke, climbed out from beneath the mosquito net that shielded my bed, and went for breakfast – two eggs, two sausages, served with tea, or chai, which comes with most meals here in Kenya. I then picked up the Daily Nation, a national newspaper, because the front page story caught my attention. The title read ‘Popular Kenyan crop found to have negative long term health effects.” The crop that the article was referring to was sugar. Yes, sugar.

After I spent a few moments hoping that most people already knew about sugar’s adverse health effects before the revelations of the Daily Nation, the article reminded me that my chai needed a little sweetening itself. Accordingly, I put a spoonful in my cup and stirred – much better.

The fact is that the taste of most foods here, and everywhere, are made more palatable by the addition of some sugar or spice. I am partial to having githeri, a local dish, with pilipili (a certain spice whose English name eludes me). I enjoy chapatti with salt – and, of course, chai needs sugar. But following such an addition, I can’t help but wonder whether my tongue is being betrayed – am I enjoying the food, or am I, in fact, simply enjoying its saccharine enhancer?

I set the newspaper down, picked up my travel guidebook to Kenya, and began perusing. The guidebook detailed idyllic rural villages and verdant scenes – pristine natural beauty undisturbed by man-made things. Having studied international development, these viscerally attractive descriptions seemed all too reminiscent of quixotic textbooks I’d read. These texts never fail to exclaim the many virtues of a particular developing country first, before turning, rather apologetically, to enumerate its problems. Or they write dramatically of a country’s founders and past, glamorizing what, in most cases, was a long and thoroughly unglamorous march for independence, growth, stability, et cetera. Revolutionaries like Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Kwame Nkrumah, and Mao Zedong are written of reverently, and admired for their egalitarian convictions and indomitable determination. With such unjustifiably rosy language, development literature in general, and my Kenyan guidebook in particular, ends up romanticizing its subjects. The bitter reality of these countries is, in effect, sweetened – much like my chai.

Don’t get me wrong, there is something admirable about the way the local people here, mostly ethnic Kikuyu, live their lives. But still, life here in Kianyaga is anything but romantic. Many live in unsanitary conditions, open to different diseases and afflictions. There is struggle and hardship.

While some back home would protest to this statement by saying that everyone, no matter where they live, endures hardship, I would respond to them with the following facts from Matt Ridley’s book The Rational Optimist: “Today, of Americans officially designated as ‘poor’, 99 per cent have electricity, running water, flush toilets, and a refrigerator; 95 per cent have a television, 88 per cent a telephone, 71 per cent a car and 70 per cent air conditioning.” Needless to say, the poor in rural Kenya are not so lucky. I believe these facts give me the latitude to say that the majority of hardships encountered in the West are #whitepeopleproblems. By “struggle and hardship,” I mean a struggle to survive.

That said, I am of the opinion that the aforementioned romantic and rosy misrepresentations that pervade many writings on development are harmful distortions – distortions that take away from the urgency of current demands. These misrepresentations are – like sugar – packaged, processed, and artificial. However, without the sugar, without the idealized romanticism, our world just doesn’t taste right. The romanticism creates a sweetened veil, shrouding the true flavor of Kenyan reality, and, indeed, that of the developing world in general, in an appetizing carapace. This veil allows us to live without shame or guilt over the current circumstance. Namely, the opulence of the few juxtaposed with the straitened plight of the many.

To change, we must take reality as it is – bitter and raw; untenable, unsustainable, and unsweetened. It is true that adding sugar makes the world’s current inequity easier to swallow. But I believe that the front page of the Daily Nation was correct – sugar is indeed unhealthy in the long run.


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