Food and the World – Grandmother’s Kitchen – Jikoni and the Fire That Never Burns Out – by Jane Kariuki. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at NorthStarReports.org and facebook.com/NorthStarReports
Jikoni loosely translates to ‘kitchen’ but to my family is more than a place of cooking and eating. My grandmother’s Jikoni has come to be defined by the food, the people, the stories, traditions, and the ongoing fire. My grandmother’s household is situated in a rural area of Cherang’anyi hills. Surrounded by trees, her compound consists of two buildings; the main house, and a small Jikoni to the side. Historically kitchens in Africa, have always been a separate building on the outside. Although, migration to bigger cities has resulted in the kitchen being reconstructed in the same space as the main house. My grandmother’s Jikoni contains two rooms; the main kitchen and a storage area for firewood and dry foods. On the corner of the main kitchen sits the meko, a clay made stove/oven. Above the meko, rests a firewood shelf, which holds firewood, and other materials used for cooking. Since my childhood, sources of the fire has never ran out, even in drought seasons, my grandma has always found a way to make sure the fire burns each day. My grandmother’s Jikoni has acted as a foundation element of my family, specifically space where women and children were free to be themselves.
Jikono means various things to various people in my family, but for me, it has been a space I grew up in. If I did something my family was proud of, I would get called into to jikoni and asked what special meal I would like to be prepared. If I was in trouble, the lecturing and punishment took place in jikoni. Multiple lessons taught to my siblings by our mothers took place in jikoni. Family talks or small gossips happened in jikoni. While I listened and learned from my elders, they made sure I was contributing to prepare a meal, either by cutting onions, carrots or kneading the dough. So life lessons came with non-verbal cooking instruction.
My recent visit to Kenya was welcomed by neighbors, various food, songs, and dance. We were then directed from the gate to the main room, and since this was my third visit to the country since we migrated, I was familiar with the welcoming process. After a few moments in the main room, I snuck out and went to jikoni, where I knew was the stage of everything. The small Jikoni was flooded by women and small children. It is common for neighboring women to help with food preparation whenever there is a local event/celebration. I looked around and saw familiar faces, but also new ones which I knew I would soon found out. I asked to sit close to the meko, not only to feel its warmth but to smell whatever was still cooking. A few seconds after I sat down, my mother and my siblings made their way to Jikoni where they welcomed with ululating and offered a seat across for me. I looked around me and was surprised to see the number of people squeezed into such a small space. I was also happy because that moment defined my childhood, being in one space that felt like home with my siblings , neighbors, and the most important people that defined the space; my mothers  and grandmother. I stretched out my hands towards the meko, reaching for its warmth.
The meko in my grandmother’s jikoni is always burning, during the recent visit I never saw the fire started, for there’s always something cooking. After our large celebratory supper, tea and coffee were prepared, these drinks act like snacks before bedtime. My siblings took a thermos of tea and coffee to the main house for the older males . While in the kitchen, I was offered a drink, and I knew not to refuse for I have been down that road multiple times. At the time, Jikoni was left with only family members, the females and children of the household. This was my favorite time, for it meant storytime featuring my grandmother. Her stories varied each time, she would tell stories about her childhood, my mother’s childhood, myths or simply keep my side of the family updated on the happenings in Kenya. After the stories, we would then escort ourselves to sleep. The last person to leave would scatter the charcoal in the meko making sure there would be enough fire to prepare breakfast the next day.
Janes serves as an editor for The NSR. From Professor Liang’s Fall 2019 Politics of Globalization class, Jane is a Peace and Justice, GCL, and Women and Gender Studies student.
1. Siblings include immediate siblings and cousins since that is typically how I would refer to them.
2. Mothers, covers my mother, her sisters, and sisters-in-law, it is respectable that you call an elder woman ‘Ma’/‘Mama’.
3. Males mentions my father, grandfather and older uncles, and they would typically be the ones in the main room.
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