A turkana goatherder

1800 words

May 2013

On the shores of Lake Turkana lies an abandoned frozen fish factory built by the Norwegian development agency in the 1980s. The enormous lake, in one of Kenya’s poorest regions, Turkana district, teems with fish, and the investors behind the factory reasonably believed they could teach locals to fish and help tackle the periodic food insecurity that affects the arid region in northern Kenya. However, they overlooked one crucial piece of information.


Most rural Turkana are proud nomadic pastoralists that rely on the milk, meat and blood of their hardy livestock – camels, donkeys, zebu and goats – to sustain them. Although the popular proverb ‘give a man a fish and feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and feed him for life’ might prove apt, given seasonal food shortages and a bountiful largely untapped resource, there may have been misplaced optimism. For a nomad, to eat and rely on fish was to admit to a poverty of livestock.

In such pastoralist societies animals act as a direct measure of wealth and poverty, social position and reputation. Children will be given a young livestock and learn animal husbandry, understanding that developing a healthy herd depends on successfully charting complex dynamics – predicting rainfall, good pastures, preventing disease, market proximity, knowing when to split herds, protecting them from raids – and moving accordingly. If one manages to avoid extreme weather, which is becoming increasingly difficult, and negotiate these factors successfully they could expect to cultivate a strong flock.

Many Turkana continue to take these risks rather than embrace a conceptually and functionally foreign idea of relying on fish despite the central presence of Lake Turkana, the dominant geographic feature of the region.

Yet, it is a reluctant traditional Turkana herder who sells livestock. It is a livelihood before a commodity. If compelled though, the most likely animals to be sacrificed to free trade are goats, sheep, or shoats (an indeterminate mix of sheep and goat), usually the smallest and most plentiful denomination of their livestock. Goats thrive in arid and semi-arid regions, and this makes them incredibly important to the Turkana, who along with others in similar areas, host the majority of goats in Kenya.

Enterprising itinerant traders will buy small numbers of goats from nomads for cash or the barter of desirable goods – maize, tobacco, school and medical fees. These savvy out of area business traders come prepared and in doing so can profit handsomely as they take the goats to local markets, or the biggest profiteers truck them to Nairobi. While the price will be hiked to add ballast to pockets in larger settlements, transporting animals from northern Kenya to urban centres, and especially Nairobi, is tricky and pricey business.


The roads south from the capital of Turkana county, Lodwar, the southernmost major town of the northwest, are terrible. They improve, as one passes through many of the diverse agro-ecological zones of Kenya, from the arid north to the increasingly green central Kenya, and ascend to Nairobi. Still, the strain on a vehicle is immense. A heavy truck with a full load, which will manage a maximum of 300 goats, can struggle with the deep pot-holes, temporary ponds, harsh terrain and extreme heat on offer from mother nature.


As the truck weathers traffic and enters Nairobi towards Mathare constituency, it will again be blighted by degraded and poor access roads. While the trip is arduous, an astute business person with the necessary capital can expect to make some significant financial gains on arrival. Their destination? Kiamaiko market, one of the largest meat markets in East Africa.

Kiamaiko market is a conglomeration of slaughterhouses – Sakuu, Musa, Shukuru .A., Burka, and dozens more. In the 1990s, Nairobi City Council cracked down on the slaughter of animals and enforced new measures improving hygiene and food safety – noticeably well aerated buildings and plastered floor. Trade to Kiamaiko increased. All animals and premises are routinely inspected and purportedly stamped, it is clean – it is not sterile. The market lives.


Business owners and individuals come from across Nairobi, from the smallest roadside shack owner to the president’s personal chefs, to vociferously negotiate prices with meat merchants. Goats, sheep and shoats are led through the streets, cars and matatus blast their horns to clear their paths as they leave and arrive, meat is grilled and chips are deep fried as food vendors and butchers alike loudly attempt to draw the attention of passing visitors to the market.


It is possible to pick up live or slaughtered goat in equal measure – or to identify a goat to slaughter, and have it butchered as desired. Trader or abattoir; the consumer chooses. Goats from across Kenya come to Kiamaiko market. Customers haggling over cost can endure, looking for the ‘tender meat’ from Turkana or the ‘bigger goats’ from Maasai land. Regardless, the price is unlikely to be beaten elsewhere in Nairobi.

Negotiations over, transport can again be problematic, poor roads blight not only Kiamaiko but neighbouring Nairobi areas, Eastleigh and Huruma, too. Nonetheless transport options are comprehensive and includes practically every land-based means: rickshaw, cart, car, matatu, bus, truck, motorbike, bicycle and feet. Whether travelling for minutes – to Huruma’s nyam chom joints – or hours – crossing town to Karen’s restuarants – this goat may undergo much the same journey's end, providing the ever-popular nyama choma.

Nyama choma is simply roasted meat prepared over a barbeque or grill where it is heated to a high temperature and then ideally cooked for a long while over at a low heat. There are few foods that are eaten throughout Kenya – on the coast, highlands, lowlands, north, south, east, west. Nyama choma is one. With goat it is a treat done well. If you don’t want to be chomping your way through something chewy, dry and stringy – although some do – before embarking on a lengthy journey with a toothpick, then there are some things to look out for in the dish’s preparation. Well-cooked goat might have both the attributes of slow roasting and have a barbequed flavour and look.


The first thing to note is that the butcher should not have their work cut out, the work lies with the cook. A whole leg, or an entire side of ribs or the shoulder are the preferred cuts for nyama choma. Goat meat is lean, it generally has less fat, calories, cholesterol and marbling than similar red meats like beef and lamb. The paucity of fat means that if cooked quickly it risks losing moisture and drying out. Reducing the surface area in direct heat preserves the juices. A quick rub with salt and herbs – say, rosemary – might be in order, although custom requires no pre-preparation.


Contrarily, the very first thing that will be done is that the meat is placed on a high-heat barbeque to sear the entire surface, browning the meat, and – although this could be subject to much gastronomic debate – sealing it. Disagreement ends there, it is unarguable that a shiny golden brown surface and the smoky flavours of a barbeque are enticing.

Those barbeques common to Nairobi have a chain-operated grill platform over a charcoal pit. To sear, the grill is kept low and the meat turned regularly until it has a golden brown look. Techniques vary at this point. Nevertheless the aim is to cook the meat slowly – some wind up the chain and flip the cuts repeatedly, some will wrap the meat in tin foil and raise the grill slightly while others will attempt to regulate the fire. A distinguished art. And like many arts it requires practice, refined technique, and above all, patience. Lots of it.

Lots of it. Particularly, as many would testify, if you are visiting a Nairobi eating establishment. The journey from choosing a cut, size and weight, often from a dedicated nyama choma hut, to the selected segment descending into the kitchen and emerging again is lengthy. So is it when home-cooked. This is not time to waste or sit around twiddling your thumbs, it is part of the ritual, and you should be fortunate enough to have this time with friends and family, as tradition dictates. At the same time, traditions evolve. It is no surprise to see it eaten with as much relish by an individual or between lonely few.


The large cooked piece lifted directly from the fire will glisten deliciously. It is put on a wooden board, and chopped roughly with a large sharp knife. The outside should be alluringly browned, and once first cut the clear juices will seep out over the wooden board. The meat should be tender with some bite. You cannot completely remove trace of the animal’s lean roaming lifestyle, nor would you want to.


The meat is carved to small, irregular pieces, with the bones and fat – small or large – included on the platter. It is habitually – at the very minimum – served with ugali and kachumbari. Also with salt, a little pile of it on the side of the serving tray that the meat comes on, to dip fingers into between mouthfuls of talk and morsels of meat.


In Kenya, goat nyama choma invariably features at public events and private functions, between friends and family, for meetings, at weddings, as a special treat. In the village, in the city. At night, during the day. It is as ubiquitous a meal as you get in Kenya.

The cooking of goat nyama choma in Nairobi shares much in common with barbeques in cities across the world. Yes, it is cooked over coal on an open fire. Yes, it is the men who traditionally undertake the activity in Kenya. Yes, it requires patience and practice and it is often undertaken at unnecessary regularity. But small touches – the large cuts, slow cooking on a barbeque, the goats raised in arid environments on a shrubby diet, the communal nature of the meal and the varied contexts and journeys – distinguish it. Agriculture and livestock are important to Kenya, culturally, socially and economically. Goat is many things to many people. A status symbol, a survival strategy, a gift, a commodity, a livelihood, and mbuzi nyama chom…