The Njahi Wars: Behind Kenya's Controversial Black Bean

Get to know Kenya's iconic love-it-or-hate-it ingredient.

Close-up of njahi (Kenyan Black Beans)

There's been a war simmering on Kenyan food Twitter for some time. It was all brought to the fore when Kaluhi Adagala, arguably the biggest food writer in Kenya, having been featured in best-of lists on HuffPost, Cosmo, CNN, etc., posted a recipe for njahi, and Kenyans on Twitter (KOT) reacted. One irate KOT wrote, “Njahi Defence Association have hired their strongest weapon, Kaluhi to unleash proper PR on that prison food.”

On one side of the njahi wars, led by Adagala, are its defenders, who extol its virtues. Njahi (scientific name Lablab purpureus, black beans/dolichos/hyacinth bean/etc. in English) is a black bean with a white stripe running down its middle. It tastes wonderful, is a good source of insoluble fiber; it's said to cleanse the gut, reduce blood pressure, play a key role in blood sugar regulation by slowing down the release of simple sugars, facilitate the body’s removal of excess fluids through the kidneys; and it contains compounds known as phenols, which supposedly help to reduce weight.

To its detractors, none of this matters. Njahi, according to them, is every negative adjective  in the book—disgusting, terrible, atrocious, etc.—and hardly deserves to be called food. Those who do acknowledge it as food often do so only to describe how bad it is: it tastes like 2020; it tastes like a sad only child; it tastes like grief and abandonment issues; it tastes like there's no internet connection; it tastes like "chalk dust mixed with matter which way you cook it"; it tastes like unreplied-to emails when you're unemployed; Leah Kanda, one of Kenya's leading food bloggers, says it tastes like rusty iron nails cooked in soup. Et cetera.

At the heart of the njahi wars is the question of who gets to determine which foods are tasty. But at the real heart of these wars, as with a lot of other wars, is the violence of British colonialism.

Before the British arrived, njahi (sometimes spelled njahe) was a staple food of the Gikuyu of Central Kenya—it was native to the region, and its drought tolerance greatly enhanced its appeal. Njahi figured largely in Gikuyu culture, occupying an important place in Gikuyu spirituality, and it was associated closely with fertility. Nursing mothers were told "ninguka kuria njahi" ("I will come eat njahi"), which meant that the person saying the phrase would come see the new baby soon. The Gikuyu anthropologist Jomo Kenyatta (in the time before he became a rogue of a president) wrote of how njahi was fed to girls before clitoridectomy was performed. The British colonial writer Elspeth Huxley wrote that njahi was used for divination. Kirima Kia Njahi, a mountain in Central Province (literally "the mountain of njahi"), was believed to be one of the main dwelling places of God. On the lower slopes of the mountain grew njahi cia Ngai (God’s njahi). The long rains season was known as Mibura ya njahi (directly translated as “the season of long rains and harvest of njahi”).

But then came the British. In her paper “Black, White, and Red All over: Beans, Women, and Agricultural Imperialism in Twentieth-Century Kenya,” Claire C. Robertson writes, “The colonial administration sought to impose on Kenya the British model of agriculture, including an approved list of crops to be grown at the exclusion of all others.” Njahi was one of the foods that was to be excluded. By 1939, as W. L. Watt, the Central Province senior agricultural officer, observed, “Njahe had lost its supreme position in the Gikuyu district, due to its being limited to local markets.” The colonial administrators had introduced foreign bean species in the region—in particular French beans, which were meant for export—and established a system of taxation. Since the colonial markets didn't accept indigenous bean varieties, and farmers needed to sell beans in order to pay the taxes that had been levied by the British, Gikuyu farmers shifted to producing beans for the export market, and no longer cultivated beans like nyagaitho, nyakamandu, ndulei, kamuiru, and wamwetha. Nowadays, Kenya is Africa’s largest producer of common beans, but the amount of njahi produced pales in comparison. Because of its relative scarcity, njahi is currently the most expensive bean type in Kenya; while it remains a part of the Gikuyu diet, it has been superseded by other beans, such as the borlotti, which is more commonly referred to in Kenya as the rosecoco.

So njahi is inherently political. But this idea of njahi as a kind of lesser bean, one that’s been usurped by colonial beans, was tapped into last year by the popular Kenyan comedian Njugush, as part of his critique of the Kenyan government, its policies for enforcing Covid-19 curfews, and the epidemic of police violence in the country. On June 2, 2020, at the height of protests over police killings in the US, Njugush posted a video titled "Njahi: Human Beans Matter." In the clip, Njugush metaphorizes the police killings in both Kenya and the US. “Why do you hate poor lives?” he asks. “Kwa nini mnachukia njahi?”—Why do you hate njahi?

Cooked njahi (Kenyan black beans)

Vicky Wasik

Njahi, as Njugush has it, is ordinary citizens. Njahi is poor people. Njahi is the people who have been shot dead by Kenyan cops in the wake of enforcing COVID-19 curfews, a tally that in the early period of the pandemic rivaled that of the virus itself, even as leading politicians politicked and held massive campaign rallies for an election two years in the future. At the end of the video, Njugush chants, “Black beans matter! Black beans matter!”

Given the Kenyan government's response to the nationwide protests, and everything that’s happened since with regards to police violence, its answer to Njugush seems to be, “No they don’t. Black beans don’t matter.” In other words, njahi's gonna be njahi'd.

And yet, setting aside Njugush’s metaphor, if the KOT are to be believed, the njahi wars do matter. Martha Karua, who ran for the presidency in Kenya in 2013, is a njahi defender. One of Kaluhi Adagala’s fans frames njahi’s importance succinctly, “My queen @KaluhisKitchen defending us Njahi eaters is the only thing that matters to me rn.” (“You are very good Kaluhi but njahi can't be saved,” a Twitter user says in retort, illustrating the stakes of it all.)

Immanuel Kant argues that despite the fact that we believe that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder (or, in this case, that flavor is in the tongue of the taster), we debate and argue about our aesthetic judgments in a bid to achieve a certain kind of universality. Perhaps this is what the njahi wars are really about; an attempt to decide, collectively, whether or not njahi is actually food. I don’t know, although I do know Kant never imagined that he’d be cited in the njahi wars of 2017-2021.

Invariably, the njahi wars pale in comparison to the fervor with which the biggest food war in Africa —the jollof war—is waged. The two jollof rice giants, Ghana and Nigeria, battle for supremacy, with each talking about its jollof variant like it’s holy ghost fire. This is a war that Kenya, for some inexplicable reason, has decided it wants to be a part of, with the declaration that its pilau is better than any form of jollof rice. The rules of war journalism state that a reporter should stay objective, and shouldn’t take part in any conflict they’re covering. But this reporter isn’t impartial. This reporter is Kenyan, after all, and thinks that pilau is better than anything jollof.

In that vein, therefore, this reporter decided to purchase his own bag of njahi. He sauntered into the supermarket, spotted the beans, black flat ovoids with a white cap on the side. “Nipee njahi,” he said, acting like this was something he was used to, nailing the pronunciation and everything.

It was raining the first time I cooked njahi. As I put the beans to boil, the rain abated, and then ceased. I went back to the living room. I read a book, watched some TV, listened to music, whatever. At some point, the air filled with that particular smell rain produces when it hits dust on the road after a particularly dry stretch, and I was momentarily confused. After a few moments, I realize that the smell was coming from my kitchen. It was the njahi, boiling on the stove.

Njahi (IKenyan black beans)

Vicky Wasik

Boiled njahi is dark brown, and its once white strips had turned into black strips. To cook the njahi, after it has boiled, I used a spare recipe: onions and tomatoes fried in vegetable oil, salt and pepper, a few chiles tossed in, dhania (cilantro) sprinkled on top at the end. I was determined to taste the njahi in-itself. When I told someone that I was making njahi, and she told me she was 99% certain that I would hate it the first time I ate it, I scoffed. Some things are acquired tastes, she said. I don’t believe in acquired tastes when it comes to food. I tell her this is an excuse to explain away bad food.

I served the njahi with steamed rice. The smell of the cilantro plus chiles plus pepper was enticing. I ate the njahi. It was...not bad. But it wasn’t good either. It was...nothing. Its blandness was overpowering. The njahi assaulted me with its blandness, and I immediately thought of the other beans I have stocked in my pantry, and wondered why I hadn’t just made them instead. Njahi’s taste is what I imagine British food tastes like, and I wonder what it means that the British themselves embarked on a deliberate campaign to excise it from the Gikuyu diet.

In the end, this reporter realized that what the njahi wars were really about is that some people don’t understand that food is supposed to be tasty. And that maybe the colonizers were right about this one thing.

Editor's note: Determined to provide a counterpoint—these are the njahi wars, after all!—we've asked Kiano Moju to create a rendition of njahi that we're confident at least some readers will enjoy. You can join the fray by making the dish linked below.