Saturday, February 04, 2006

The Vomit Clinic: From the Frontlines

February 4, 2006, Saturday. 9:47pm.

Whew, I am still stuffed. I went to Julia’s house to see her vomit clinic, and of course she and her sister Emily made sure I ate so much I couldn’t walk straight. For some reason someone got the idea that I like liver, so they heaped like a whole sheep’s liver on my plate. The cat now loves to hang out under the chair I was sitting in.

I felt weird taking pictures of Julia’s clients as they were barfing into a basin, but apparently in a culture where no one thinks it’s strange to pick your boogers in public, to have a baby dangling from your lactating boob anywhere you go, or to stare, laugh and point at people who don’t look just like you and your neighbors, no one sees it as a violation of privacy to take pictures of sick people puking either.

Julia had nine clients today. She took me around to each patient as she analyzed their vomit by swirling it around with a tree branch. I saw brucellosis, which is indicated by greenish puke and a thick mucus; malaria, which is dark orange-yellow; a migraine with a cough, which is a clearish mucus that comes from the spinal cord and causes the headache; a lung problem with worms, which is chunky yellow mucus that stays in one corner of the basin; and pneumonia, which includes a small spot of blood.

It was all very fascinating, and completely disgusting. Julia said all of the clients she saw today would get well on their own, without any further medication. Just expelling the mucus usually gets rid of the bacteria or toxins causing the disease, she says. I’m not a doctor but I’m still a little skeptical. People in the village swear by her vomit clinic, though, so what can I say?

They sent me home with three pineapples fresh from their farm and a huge bag of boiled peanuts (peanut milk, anyone?) They also promised, after I foolishly asked whether they had ever heard of a drink made of milk and blood that is common among the Maasai tribe, that they would prepare some mala na damu (sour milk with blood) for me next time. The Nandis love their milk: fresh from a cow, soured in a gourd or, apparently, soured in a gourd then whisked with boiled gelatinous sheep’s blood. Yummers :/ .

I decided that while we were on the topic of traditional food that sounded gross, I would ask about termites.

“Oh, they’re so sweet when you fry them,” Hillary said. “They’re only fat.”

“So they taste like the big chunks of sheep fat we just ate?” I asked.

“No, even sweeter,” he said. “Don’t you remember that old man we saw in front of his house who was chasing his chickens away from a termite hole because he wanted all the termites to himself?”

Woo-hoo. Hook me up.


Julia, Emily and Hillary also briefed me on the favorite foods of various tribes:

Nandis (and Kalenjins in general) are fast runners because they love milk.
Luhyas are strong because they love chicken and bananas.
Luos are smart because they love fish.
Kikuyus are strong because they love githeri (a mixture of maize and beans).
Kambas are strong because they love bahazi (cowpeas), the bane of my existence during my homestay in Kitui.


A popular traditional drink in the Nandi tribe is maziwa lala (sour milk), or mala for short. You can buy it in all sorts of flavors at the supermarket – strawberry, pineapple, coconut, vanilla, black currant – but commercially-produced mala just tastes like drinkable yogurt. Mala made in the villages is much different. I was nervous about trying it because one PCV described it as having “a thick texture with little chunks and a grayish tint that makes it unappetizing.”

Since I’ve been visiting more community groups who invite me into their homes, I’ve also been drinking more mala. Personally I like it because it tastes like a cross between yogurt and sour cream and cheese. I’ve also decided that with the right marketing, mala-tasting could become a high-end consumer industry, much like wine snobbery in Napa Valley. Every batch of mala has its own unique qualities, depending on the souring process. The Nandis use a hollowed-out gourd that has been treated on the inside with a preservative made from the ash of a local tree. They fill the gourd with fresh milk and let it age for about four days.

The first batch of mala I tried had a mild flavor, like sour cream and cheese. It also tingled a lot in my mouth, like when you accidentally gulp milk that’s past its date. Yum. The second batch had a nutty, smoky flavor, but no noticeable tingle. I had two glasses from the third batch – the first glass was from the top of the gourd, and tasted like glue. Yuck. The second glass, from the bottom, tasted like smoked gouda. Delish!


Anonymous Jon said...

I can't believe I went all the way to Kenya and no one told me I could have eaten termites and blood milk while I was there! This is better than Fear Factor. I may need to come visit you again now.

12:13 AM  

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