By: Marie Ainomugisha & Natasha Muhoza
“What is chips?!” 77 year old Lawrence Muchene Njoroge exclaims and adds matter-of-factly, “Chips is a waste of time! We serve dishes like: beef fry, fish, plain rice, pilau, sukuma wiki, githeri—a la carte.” Mzee eloquently defends the age old dignity of Muchene’s Food Shack, the charming little restaurant that has existed in his family for 60 years. What was first established by his father, Njoroge Muchene (Sr.) in 1957 as a Njoroge Muchene’s Tea Kiosk, a one-cubicle structure with 3-windows (specializing in tea, but also served: coffee, condensed milk and ‘maziwa lala’- pasteurized milk), had its name changed in 1997 when it became a food shack. It is right next to one of Nairobi’s oldest monuments-‘city-market’, a building erected in 1930 in the heart of Nairobi’s Central Business District (CBD), between Muindi Mbingu and Koinange streets—an undeniable gem.
The buzz of activity from the moment you enter Muchene’s Food Shack is electric. Its character and expertise in delicious local food and tea that make you want to travel back in time and still it are striking. Let alone its name, which means gossip in Kikuyu. Mzee Muchene has worked here since he was 17 years old. “I used to come to the kiosk at 4:00 am and go to school at 7:00am. “That was my life,” he recalls, pauses and turns his wise eyes nostalgically upward, emphasizing that he worked at the kiosk even during his leaves from work during his former employment at the courier company, Express Kenya Limited and later at a brewery. When his old man died in 1977, his children did not abandon the kiosk. More than to merely keep alive the affairs of supporting the 3 wives and offspring that survived him, they desired to preserve his legacy. Mzee Muchene quit his job to run the kiosk full-time. He, along with about 5 family members have done this with spectacular devotion since.
Above: Loyal customers eat, drink and watch TV
Below: Nyama (meat) is served with sukuma wiki
“Oh, that is growth…a lot has changed since then,” Mzee answers our question about how he has witnessed Nairobi evolve over the years. “I was here before all these buildings were.” His eyes briefly trailing off, he points to the skyscraper towering majestically over the right-hand side of the market—Post Bank. He gently says, “That used to be a shop.” The big white clock in the middle of an adjacent street comes to his mind and Mzee drifts into its story. Only one Asian man—the assistant market manager— knew how to repair it. When that man left, nobody else could. Mzee then paints a picture of what identity meant under colonial rule. “I did not get my ID willingly, you see, I was forced to get an ID, passbook and movement permit.” As a native Kenyan in pre-independence days, you got an ID so you could be controlled effectively, not claim the benefits of citizenship. Mzee Muchene remembers when members of the Kikuyu, Meru and Embu communities were required by law to have a ‘passbook’ and ‘movement permit’ as tracking tools for individual movements in within areas considered to have been hotbeds for Mau Mau activity during the liberation struggle.
Mzee attributes his family’s good fortune in running a successful kiosk to his father, Muchene Njoroge, Sr. whose service as a policeman enabled him to set up the tea kiosk from his retirement benefits. This great little tea place would educate his children and grandchildren, and serve over three generations of customers. The old man had unknowingly created a home for many. He also fought for and succeeded in a movement that enabled African vendors to sell produce from inside the market, which until then had been dominated by Asians, rather than outside.
Listening to Mzee speak of his father can’t but leave you in awe. Witty and charismatic, he radiates a refreshing aura.
Mzee has six grown children, of whom he proudly says have ‘been through’ the food shack. Two are now citizens of the USA and whenever they too come back, they call it home. “In fact, one is coming this December,” he adds longingly. When our curiosity wanes, Mzee asks why we haven’t asked him why he looks much younger than 77. We laugh, and ask what his secret is. He says it is thanks to two things: one, sports. Mzee played football, boxing and volleyball in his youth. He shows us the scar on his left leg from a football injury, his favorite sport. He used to play in GEMA United, before tribal teams were banned by president Moi. One of his sons later co-founded and played for one of Kenya's first youth teams, Mathare United. The second key to looking young is healthy food, what Mzee Muchene and his family have only ever served and the reason eating chips has never made sense to him.
The Tea Place