The apartment block on State House Road in Milimani doesn’t just appear. It unfolds, slowly, revealing the prototypical colonial architecture; walls made of hand-carved stone, clay roofing tiles and large windows with wooden frames. Past the wicket gate, tiny blocks line the pathway to a parking lot on one side, and on the other, lush green grass dot with ornamental trees. My eyes wander in all directions; classic cars parked to the left, full bloom bougainvillaea shade next to a swimming pool to the right. A lone palm tree with a fat bottom stands right at the centre of the compound. I walk up the staircase, running my palms over the wooden rail to the third floor. A ray of light strikes through the high-arched glass wall with pivoting windows that cover the flight of stairs. I press the doorbell.

A teenage boy with short dreadlocks opens the door. Acting on his mother’s loud-enough instructions, the boy ushers me into his mother’s kitchen. I get greedy when I get a whiff of the cooking omena’s (sardines) prominent and unmistakable aroma. I wonder aloud if the widely travelling unapologetic smell is ‘acceptable’ in this particular neighbourhood. 

“It is a tough choice between a rumbling stomach or nose-arched neighbours,” my host tells me. “Who would you rather make happy? Neighbours or your stomach?” The question was rhetorical. She turns back to her crockery on the kitchen countertop. I watch her tactically pluck the lightly-sooted sufuria from the gas stove and flip it over a plate with a single hand. A perfectly round milk-white ugali drops on the plate, letting out a burst of steam. She then uncovers the pan holding the omena and empties it into a bowl. 

“The neighbours hate the smell. In our last court meeting, someone ‘politely’ asked that we be considerate of everyone’s olfactory health,’’ Susan* says with animated gestures, raising and lowering her intonation to mimic the apparent speaker here, pouting her lips in mockery there. ‘‘That if you can afford rent here, then you can afford ‘real’ fish.”

Susan explains how she single-handedly tore apart the complaining neighbour and their omena-hating surrogates, but only after consulting Google on what olfactory means. 

We all laugh so hard.

“Grab a seat, T. Grab yourself some omena,” Susan tells her son.

It is 3:14 p.m. when we settle at the pricey-looking dining table for the family’s first meal of the day. Susan says she had shared a mango and thorn melon about four hours earlier with T.

“It is embarrassing to have such a tiny ugali when you have a guest around,” she says. 

“Not in, njaanuary,’’ I interject. ‘‘Besides, I ate just before coming over.” 

Njaanuary – a corrupted version of January, signalling hunger (njaa) in Kiswahili – has come to represent the financial constraints many Kenyans face as the year sets forth. 

“Had I not overindulged during the holidays, I wouldn’t be surviving on one meal a day,’’ Susan goes on. ‘‘Omena and sukuma wiki (kales)  like today reign on my dinner plate,” 

Though she says she suffered the same fate at the beginning of last year when huge bills all hit at once, leaving her with barely enough to afford three meals daily, Susan took no lessons and holds no regrets about that. She can ‘‘never postpone an opportunity to live.’’

“I know I am punishing my body, and my son’s too, but we have to make do,’’  she says.   

T pinches the ugali apathetically and dips it into his plate, barely scooping out any omena, as one should. Though he commends his mother’s culinary skills, T’s face tells it all – remains expressionless, as if wanting to wear an expression but not ready to – his jaws barely moving as he slow-chews. He’d rather not be having ugali and omena. I can tell.

“If grandpa’s package was here we could have added some bay leaves or oregano to the omena to kill the smell, if not improve the flavour,” T tells his mother.

Susan explains that her father, a cardiothoracic surgeon, dropped his career to farm herbs in the village for export. She often receives the package in Nairobi before sending them out.

“He left us this house when he moved to the village,’’’ she explains. ‘‘If the package was here, our Njaanuary would have been easier because I sell locally what’s not exported.”

Throughout January, Susan and T made do with a meal a day. Other times, they survived on fruits and porridge, a lifestyle Susan believes could potentially send them to early graves if prolonged. Concerned, I later phone Lucy Nguma, a nutritionist, keen on finding out how skipping meals affects one’s health. Surprisingly, Nguma believes that  Njaanuary can be a blessing in disguise. She lauds Susan’s Njaanuary feeding pattern of going without some meals as the healthier way of eating. 

“Unless she (Susan) has an underlying health condition like diabetes or hadn’t been eating healthy before, then a meal a day should suffice for an adult,” says Nguma, emphasising that the meal should contain all four necessary food groups; carbohydrates, proteins, vegetables and fruits.

“When we talk about protein, it does not have to be expensive,’ Nguma says. ‘‘There are affordable options like omena, beans or eggs. For carbohydrates, one can have sweet potatoes, boiled corn or ugali.” 

Eating one meal a day (OMAD) is a practice that many people swear by to lose weight and improve overall health. The potential health benefits of OMAD are primarily related to fasting — restricting calorie intake during a set period — and calorie restriction in general. 

Studies show that other health benefits related to fasting include the potential to reduce heart disease risk factors, decrease blood sugar, and reduce inflammation. I strike out my January resolution of drinking expensive, yuck-tasting raw spinach and greek yoghurt smoothies when Nguma says you only need to fast with water for the body to cleanse, regenerate, replenish and re-energize. 

Research suggests that fasting improves the health of many organs in your body, including your brain. Therefore, shorter eating durations and longer regular fasts may improve health. Nguma also notes that some people eat too fast for the stomach to trigger the ‘full’ signal to the brain. 

“Our stomach is the size of your two fists put together,’’’ Nguma says, ‘‘The same portion of food is, therefore, sufficient if taken after at least five hours, with no snacks in between”.

Many studies, however, indicate that the stomach is the size of just one fist. Whichever the case, this shows that the body needs tiny portions of food to function well. Nguma adds that when one eats too fast, their stomach keeps stretching to accommodate the food since the satiety signal takes time to kick in. Over time, that natural neural reflex gets weakened.

“We eat too often.  Even before the last meal completely exits the stomach, we are on to another,’’ Nguma says. ‘‘Most foods, especially proteins, will be in your body for at least four hours. And you need to allow your organs to rejuvenate.” 

Njaanuary, therefore, possibly helps people who are overweight or have an issue with overeating, since it forces their bodies to learn how to wait. The prevailing health conditions and how well an adult has been feeding in the past determines how often they should eat. However, Nguma warns that if Susan’s son is 15 years old or younger, a meal a day may not be sufficient.

“Children’s bodies are different,’’ she says. ‘‘Their metabolic rate is very high because they are active and they are still growing. Teenagers should eat at least once every four hours, while younger children should eat even more often.”

I call Susan to share Nguma’s viewpoints.

“I have recorded this conversation to air it during our next apartment meeting,’’ Susan says, laughing, ‘‘specifically the bit where the nutritionist mentions omena.” 

Even Njaanuary has a silver lining, it appears. 

*Names have been changed to protect the individual’s privacy.

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