Nyama choma is Swahili for “meat roast,” and can refer either to a dish (pretty obvious) or an event (like a Kenyan barbeque.) Last Sunday, when my supervisor kidnapped me for a sunset drinking-chilled-espresso-and-walking-along-the-beach adventure, she brought along her friend J. J invited me to a celebratory nyama choma – more specifically, a goat roast – this weekend to mark her completion of her first year in a university environmental studies programs. In three words: it was awesome.

It was a small gathering (only 15 people or so, plus the standard seventy thousand billion small Kenyan who may or may not actually belong to any of the people there) but there were entertaining discusses, lots of cold sodas, and a troupe of vervet monkeys to amuse us when the conversation fell into a lull.

Because meat in general is expensive and whole goats particularly so, it’s traditionally done only for special occasions. Having recently survived university myself, I say making it through the first year alive and sane is pretty special. First, the goat is cut up to be cooked according to the different uses for the different parts. (There’s a more specific culinary word for this, but I don’t remember what it is.)

The less roastable bits – joints, organs, neural tissues, stuff like that – are put into a pot and boiled in salt water, then passed around in bowls as a sort of appetizer. Lemon is squeezed on top of the fattiest bits to provide some contrast.

Mmmm … delicious. At least, delicious until you let yourself start thinking “Wait, is this just gristle or am I chewing on goat stomach?” So don’t do that and you’ll be fine.

Meanwhile, the choice cuts – ribs, back, etc – are pierced by sharp sticks and left dangling over a low wood fire to roast pole pole (slowly.)

When these are done, they’re served with ugali, which is a tasteless (yet surprisingly appealing) mixture of maize flour and water blended into a solid block, and kachumbari, or an assortment of fresh raw vegetables. Traditionally, kachumbari is made from salted tomatoes and red onions, although hot peppers, cabbage, or grated carrots are also common.

This is ugali.

Notice how I halfway demolished my plate before pausing to take a picture. When it comes to goat, I’m basically that T-Rex from Jurassic Park.

Since it’s all eaten without utensils, I asked to wash my hands before we ate. Another guest looked at me with amusement and asked, “Is that how you do it in America? Do you need soap, too?” I took this opportunity to don my Hat O’ Public Health Education and explain how washing your hands with soap under running water before eating is vital to maintaining good health and can prevent potentially fatal diseases like cholera. Everyone nodded politely and followed my lead, but I’m not sure how effective an intervention it is in the long run … behavior change is hard, and a lot of Peace Corps is just throwing spaghetti at the wall: do your best and hope some of it sticks.

Afterwards came the traditional Kenyan post-meal speeches. In the “Things I Should Have Seen Coming” file, we can add “Megan was asked to give one very close to the beginning.” (Gulp.) They suggested I might just share my favorite bible verse about togetherness. (Double gulp.) Instead, I thanked them for allowing me into the community and rambled on for a while about how I felt blessed every day to have the opportunity to be here. Everyone nodded along and said “amen” a lot -diplomatic crisis averted! I really need to work on my two-minute go-to emergency-speaking-engagement speech. Labda badaaye.

It was also what we call a “good goal two day” – the second goal of the Peace Corps being to help educate foreign cultures understand America (the third goal, of course, is to help America understand the rest of the world, so it’s reciprocal.) We talked about farming practices in America, how goats are used more for cheese and overpriced milk soaps than for roasting, and how most of the corn doesn’t go towards American equivalents of ugali or githeri, but to fatten animals and produce high-fructose syrups. These revelations never fail to surprise (and often amuse) Kenyans. Just wait until I start telling them about purse dogs.

I made it home just before dark after a very long, very tiring, and very fulfilling day. New connections, new friends, and a belly full of nyama choma – what more can you ask out of a lazy Saturday in October?

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