Listen. In the beginning, there was mutura.
Mutura—viz., a fire-grilled delicacy made from goat and/or cow and/or lamb intestines sewn together and stuffed with a mixture bound by fresh blood (and, among the Maasai, laced with fat that melts when you grill it)—is part of the global tradition of blood sausages. Ireland has black pudding, France has boudin noir, South Korea has soondae, and Spain has morcilla. Kenya has mutura.
Sometimes translated into English as “African blood sausage” in that mannerless way we have of translating non-English things into English, mutura is richer than its European relatives, as it’s packed with a powerful blend of spices. Mutura will have ginger; it will have garlic; it will have scallions, cilantro, and chile so fine and wonderful a person weeps for joy while eating it. Nothing else matters. Expositions about Kenyan food will talk about nyama choma, ugali, chapati, etc. But mutura, that’s where it’s at.
Listen, eating mutura is death: When you eat it, you sense all the cholesterol, all the high blood pressure, all the heart disease, reaching out and yanking you into your grave. In fact, a report by researchers at the University of Nairobi was blunt in cautioning about the dangers of mutura, saying, among other things, “Our study shows roasted and non-roasted African sausages sold in meat outlets in Nairobi County are contaminated with staphylococcus, bacillus, streptococcus, proteus, and E. coli organisms.” Partaking in the glories of mutura means potentially acquiring a who’s who of bacterial killers.
But the illicitness of mutura is the point, and it adds glory to the entire experience: eating it under cover of darkness; eating it by the side of the road; eating it with your hands, which are, more likely than not, unwashed; and not thinking about where the meat is gotten from, especially since meat in Nairobi is under a lot of scrutiny for having failed numerous health checks; it’s all part of the deal. The first time I discovered mutura as an 11-year-old in Kisumu, I knew instinctively that my parents wouldn’t approve, and so I ate it with delight.
However, its illicit appeal can work against it. To some, it is non grata for a number of reasons: because of poor hygiene practices among mutura sellers; because “do you even know what’s in it?”; because of the myriad risks one takes with every bite of mutura; because of the idea that mutura is “poor-people food”; because of every manner of logical and pseudo-logical argument against its intake. Indeed, as my friend W. tells me, “I think the idea of it ruined the taste before I could even give it a chance.”
It wasn’t always so. In its autochthonic form among the Agikuyu community, mutura occupied a place of honor, as Jmburus describes on his blog, in talking about goat-eating traditions among the Agikuyu. Mutura was prepared only during special occasions, such as ruracios (dowry-payment ceremonies) and weddings. It was prepared by men, but only women were supposed to eat it; the men would eat the other parts of the slaughtered animal.
This is what used to happen: After a goat was slaughtered, its throat was sliced open and the blood collected in a bucket or container with salt. The salt ensured the blood remained in its jelly-like form, rather than clotting up in globs. The neck and back of the slaughtered animal were cut up into small pieces and cooked together with vegetables, such as eggplants, carrots, onions, coriander, carrots, bell peppers, chiles, and bitter herbs. Next, the excess fat from under the animal’s skin and tail, together with the previously collected salted blood, would be added to this mixture, and then the whole thing would be fried under low heat. Once cooked, this mixture is what would be stuffed into the intestines.
The intestines themselves had to have been cleaned before anything could be put into them. This was done using a process called kúmiria mara, where the unprocessed food in the intestines would be squeezed out downward from the stomach end to the rectum end and then the tubes were washed out. This process ensured that the intestines were cleaned up without being pierced. Nowadays, what happens is that a hose is attached to one end and then water pumps out whatever’s inside the intestines—the joys of modern technology. After the intestines were stuffed, the mutura was then either roasted directly or, before the roasting, boiled together with the head and lower legs (mathagiro) of the goat. The sausage was then roasted until its exterior achieved a golden brown.
Among the Gikuyu, mutura was not the only type of ndundiro, or sausage. The community also had ngerima, whose only dissimilarity with mutura was that one was made from the intestines while the other was made from the omasum. Ngerima, shaped like an oval ball, was also known as “thenga twarie,” which in the Kikuyu language means “Go away we want to talk privately.” It was called this because the old men of the village, in a bid to make sure that the glories of eating it remained theirs, would tell their wives and children to go away because they wanted to talk privately. Then, the rest of the intestines, the ones that hadn’t been used up when making the mutura, were roasted plain without anything stuffed inside them; this was known as mara.
Although Nairobi had been occupied by the Maasai before the coming of the white man, during the colonial period, the African settlements in the city were largely dominated by members of the Agikuyu community. In fact, during the Mau Mau rebellion of the 1950s, these Agikuyu were the target of Operation Anvil, an anti-Gikuyu crusade by the colonial administration. The influx of the Agikuyu into the city from Central Kenya and the colonial government’s apartheid housing policies, meant that the Agikuyu as well as other African communities were corralled into cramped housing units in estates such as Bahati, Kaloleni, and Pumwani. Because of the close proximity these communities shared, their respective cultures mixed with one another, and they acquired each other’s cultural habits. Thus, mutura slowly stopped being only Kikuyu fare and was picked up by the other communities.
One consequence of the colonial government’s anti-African housing and employment policies was that the areas of the city in which the Africans lived acquired the reputation of being “slums,” or enclaves of poor people, and carried with that reputation its attendant myths. As outlined by the non-profit Share the World’s Resources, the first myth is that there are too many people in slums, the second that the poor are to blame, and the third that slums are places of crime, violence, and social degradation. After independence, the African government in power in Kenya made few attempts to end the discriminatory housing policies, and so mutura, as well as all the other practices of the African quarters, remained as something to be sneered at by the urbane and…
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