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 educated in Nairobi, and the idea of mutura as food for poor people persisted. To this day, mutura is only sold in certain areas in Nairobi, and these are rarely, if ever, upper-class residential areas.
Walking through parts of the city after dusk, especially streets in lower- and middle-income neighborhoods, one will often find groups of people eating mutura. The setup is normally the same: Mr. Mutura Server (almost always mister, for reasons I don't fully understand), clad in a white lab coat with flecks of blood on it (anything less cannot be trusted) and gumboots, works on a grill, atop which are placed rolls of mutura. Sometimes, there is soup nearby, the soup being a liquid made from crushed goat and cow hooves that are boiled—an acclaimed hangover cure, according to mutura enthusiasts. Coalesced around the mutura server is a crowd of people, maybe three people, maybe eight people for the very popular mutura sellers. Behind them, there is always a road, because mutura is always eaten amid a cacophony of vehicular sounds and dust.
Sometimes, one eats mutura along with kachumbari, a salad made from tomatoes, onions, chiles, and parsley, and sometimes not. But one will always ask for the mutura bit by bit. Like, twenty shillings, the first round; then, another twenty. And another. And another. This happens regardless of how much mutura one wanted to have beforehand. Clifton, a veteran mutura eater, tells me, "I always do ya twenty. Then add another. Sometimes mara. Nowadays they don’t do ten bob. But it also depends on the type of mutuch [mutura]. There’s the really thick ones that are filling and then the slim ones, the ones that crumble when you try to cut. I can do for sixty those."
Then, the other rules of eating mutura. Fatty mutura, you can’t eat it when it’s cold. All mutura, you eat with your hands, not with a fork. Custom allows the use of a toothpick sometimes, but only reluctantly. The little ones at the mutura place, you feed them first. You always call for another round ("niongeze nyingine") regardless of any prior predilections. And, finally, the best mutura is the one eaten in the cold, after a long hike on the foothills of one of the many mountains that skirt the Rift Valley, in a little hut where the kikuyu flies over your head, with a steaming cup of soup to which the chile you’ll add gives it that perfect monster kick.
Here’s a story: Last year, walking in town with N., we bumped into Eddie B. Listen, I told N., this guy, Eddie B., he’s the one who introduced me to mutura. This happened in Kisumu, in ‘07. That year there was post-election violence in Kisumu, sawa, people’s houses being burnt, businesses being looted, protestors being shot in the streets, but there was also mutura, and the illicit joys and pleasures it carried.
Of course, these illicit joys and pleasures are a risk. Apart from the choirs of bacteria allegedly present in mutura, the mutura vendors rarely have cashiers to handle money, and so the hands that serve you mutura are the same ones that handle currency all evening long. This leads to consumers opting for products that, while similar to mutura, don’t carry the same risks. Data scientist Chris Orwa argues that, "The product came into existence to serve a need—the need to provide a protein source for low-income earners—and it quickly became popular with dwellers of informal settlement due to the low price point (Kshs. 10) and the need to bridge a dietary deficiency. For a long time, this market segment existed without any competition and, in fact, became a de-facto standard for low-priced meat products. Then came in the big brand name, "Farmer’s Choice," with its "smokie" sausages that are not only tastier but also rival the price point of mutura (at Kshs. 15). Not only that, the new "smokie" vendors have more hygienic equipment and with that hygiene and the brand reputation of Farmer’s Choice comes a sense of trust that is lacking in the case of mutura."
Furthermore, making mutura is a specific skill, a skill that is slowly becoming harder to come by. Mutura has to be made by hand, unlike smokies, which can be industrially produced. Moreover, unlike the Farmer’s Choice smokies, mutura doesn’t have preservatives and so can’t be mass-produced. Even posh and/or colonial establishments that are gentrifying the product face this problem, and so, for them, mutura is mostly only served on special occasions, such as weddings.
Nevertheless, we go on. We mutura lovers persist.
I go to my mutura place.
"Niekee ya forty," I tell my mutura guy.
Cutting mutura is an art. Mr. Mutura Server selects a roll of mutuch, lifts it off the fire, and onto the board next to the stove. Next, he approximates forty shillings worth of the stuff, cuts it off and returns the rest to the flame. He then slices it, each piece roughly the size of a plastic bottle cap, each piece brown and sizzling. The surface of the mutura, nicely dried, is a darkly browned crust, slightly charred, contrasting with the crumbly meat underneath. In your mouth, it crumbles, the innards spicy with a slightly greasy flavor, the fat soft and succulent and rich, and the garlic and cilantro and scallions and chile giving you an ambrosial kick. Around you the smoke from the mutura on the grill rises, flooring you. I think of Edward Lee, who, in Smoke & Pickles, writes, "Some say umami is the fifth [taste], in addition to salty, sweet, sour and bitter. I say smoke is the sixth."
Some kachumbari sprinkled on top, for the culture. The tomatoes in the kachumbari are loud, as are the onions, and the coriander, and more chiles, but not overloud, and they and the mutura, instead of rushing into and attacking each other, overlap rather as the pages of an atlas expire into each other at their edges. I eat, we eat, all of us, our big happy mutura family.
That was then.
Now, things are different. Now, Nairobi is shut down because of COVID-19. Travel in and out of the city is banned, and there’s a countrywide curfew from dusk to dawn. Social distancing regulations announced by the government early during Kenya’s infection mean that restaurants and eateries remain closed, unless they meet stringent health requirements.
I walk around my neighborhood in the evenings. All the mutura joints are closed. I call Clifton, ask him if he’s been able to eat mutura ever since all of this began.
"No," he tells me. "All my usual guys are closed."
We talk some more. "Usually these guys open late in the afternoon, saa za ulevi," he says. "But now with the curfew, they have a very small window in which to sell the stock."
Mutura, mara, smokies, and other Kenyan street foods rely on very strict market bases: First, they rely on the evening crowd, people on their way home from work, who buy them before they get back to the house for their real food; then, they rely on the folks out drinking, saa za ulevi (when people are drinking), which is why a lot of mutura is usually sold near bars. The curfew in effect in Kenya means that mutura sellers have a window of an hour, maybe two, in which to sell off their stock. This, coupled with the fact that people are rushing to get home, means that for many mutura sellers, it isn’t worth the risk.
The first big sociological change in the consumption of mutura in Kenya was driven by the British colonial government’s employment and housing policies, which transformed mutura from being a mostly ceremonial and religious food for the Gikuyu into one of the country’s main street foods. Now, I wonder if mutura is one of the things to which COVID-19 will bring permanent change. Will more people start ordering mutura online, to be delivered into their houses? Will people start making and grilling mutura from the comfort of their homes? Will mutura places become hygienic places, with handwashing stations, and utensils being washed, and mutura served as if in a proper restaurant, even though clean mutura isn’t mutura? Me, I don’t know.
This is what I know: I miss mutura. I miss the easy banter at the mutura place, people talking about their lives, maybe football, maybe how they are going to go out that night. I miss the mutura sellers flirting with some of their customers, cutting them mutura in lieu of verbal flirting. I miss the babas who come in with their big cars and their big bellies, park by the side of the road, and order mutura for 200 bob because big man, big food. I miss the little kids who come in, feeding on a new taste, and the other customers shouting at the seller not to add chile, because these are kids, can you not see? I miss my friend, M., calling me, asking if I’m in the house, and driving over so that we can go to my mutura base, where he will say such things as, "Mutura is like sex."
Yesterday, I got out of the house, in search of mutura. All my places were closed. It was six, and people were rushing home to beat the curfew, which starts at seven, everyone with a face mask over their mouth. I walked. No mutura. Walked some more. Still no mutura. I walked some more. Near my neighborhood, there is a sea of open-air garages. There, in the middle of the garages, surrounded by cars on all sides, were two mutura sellers. Around both of them, a clergy of mutura seekers, each with their face masks slipped down to their chins, munching on mutura. I walked over.