A few years ago, I attended a traditional African wedding in the ancestral village of my friend Abby. Just getting there proved to be an adventure.
Her fiancée Honk had already bought the village elders several goats and a cow as dowry. They had eaten at least one of the goats already and agreed to the match. The remaining animals were all slaughtered for the wedding day. Kenya, though not lauded as one of the great culinary nations, certainly is home to some incredibly good slowly charcoal grilled meats and the smell as we entered the village stirred that same primordial longing that engenders such wistful yearning outside a really good kebab shop.
Honk had asked me, given my culinary background, if I might be able to get some kangaroo into the country for him. Whilst tradition holds that live animals are to be given as dowry, that is obviously not possible where kangaroos are concerned. One can only imagine the difficulty vegetarians must face when looking to get hitched.
I visited an old chef friend in Singapore on the way to Kenya, who conveniently worked for a premium Australian meat supplier to the South-East Asian restaurant trade. He was able to supply me with several kilograms of frozen roo meat of the highest quality, and a freezer bag with an ice pack. I put it in the very centre of my bag, figuring that it would be cold up in the air and it would probably not defrost before we got to Nairobi.
I had a six hour stopover in Doha, one of the hottest places on earth, that I had conveniently forgotten about in the meantime. I hear that they have improved the airport to no end since then, but no amount of staring at duty free goods and playing card games on a phone can make those six hours go by any faster in an airport lounge where drinking is forbidden.
By the time I was walking towards customs in Nairobi, I had been awake for a long time and felt like I looked like the seedy mugshots of Barlow and Chambers. I had several kilos of raw meat in my bag and it might not be ok to just lob across an international border with it. The line wasn’t very long, the airport was pretty informal, but about half of the people in uniform had automatic weapons so I didn’t want to take any chances. The truth was probably a better story than anything I could concoct. Surely the curio of eating the most famous of all marsupials, and their sense of tradition and righteousness in it being part of a dowry would see me though. I resolved to declare it as soon as I could.
What I wasn’t prepared for was not being able to get a word in edgeways. Upon seeing my Australian passport the customs guy started to wax lyrical about life and good-naturedly asked me a series of rhetorical questions in his booming voice. I smiled and acquiesced to it all until suddenly he snapped my passport closed.
“KARIBU KENYA,” he boomed, “WELCOME TO KENYA.”
I thanked him. Some things are better left unsaid.
The hotel was extremely well appointed, to the extent that it had a functional bar fridge, which I duly emptied to make way for my bloody spoils of the bush. I trepidatiously unpacked my bag, which thankfully seemed not to be emitting any odour of decay. I squeezed the meat which was still very cold to the touch, though clearly not frozen solid any more. It would be two more days until the African wedding ceremony, but with the bar fridge on the coldest setting, I would make it by a mile. I closed the fridge and thought nothing more of it.
The day of the African wedding in the village arrived. We had an early start as the trip to the village was set to take a couple of hours. I washed and dressed up and generally endeavoured to hide a multitude of sins in half an hour that had taken a lifetime to wear in. Then, when I had spruced as much as I could and I knew the bus was about to leave for the village, I went to the bar fridge to get the kangaroo.
Within a second of opening the little fridge, the blood had flowed so quickly out of the door that it was almost to the edge of the cabinet and threatened to spill onto the carpet. Using the palms of my hands I started desperately pushing it back towards the fridge. I swept. It flowed. I strained at awkward angles to try to keep my suit from staining. After about 60 frantic seconds, I managed to get some toilet paper from the bathroom. Finally, I had stemmed the tide. I wiped the freezer bag down and soaked enough blood from the floor of the fridge that another flood wouldn’t happen. I cleaned off the cabinet and flushed the paper. The fridge looked like I had been organ mining in the bathtub. The bus was leaving in about 1 minute, no time. I grabbed the ‘roo and ran out the door. A few steps down the hall and I turned and ran back. I stopped at the door and flipped the room tag to “do not disturb”. I watched it swinging for a few seconds with a mixture of dumb trepidation and curiosity, before turning to run for the minibus.