Sea Urchin Soup
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We pull up to Lake Victoria, hungry for fish. Dozens of stalls are set up, each one with tables in front displaying their tilapia. The fish’s eyes bulge like cartoons, caricatures of their own species, staring straight at me while flies feast on their dry skin. It is a four hours' drive from the orphanage where I volunteer to the lake, and we make the journey with Swahili beats blasting from our open windows. I am with four Kenyan men, towering above me in height, who work for the orphanage and want to show me their favorite place in Kenya.
We choose a stall to eat from and sit down. Two plates of tilapia, completely intact, are served, grilled to perfection and flavored with cooked tomatoes. They come with two bowls of kale and ugali, maize meal cooked into a thick paste. Finally, a cold Coke, the bottle sweating in the humidity, tops off the meal. The men show me how to roll the ugali into a ball in the palm of my hand and press my thumb in the middle, making a spoon with which to scoop up the kale. Though almost tasteless, the gritty ugali and chewy kale stumble on my tongue until my mouth settles into a smile. We rip the fish apart with our hands, carefully picking out tiny bones. We devour everything but the tail; the fish is tender and juicy, and I imagine the water from the lake flooding into my mouth.
A few feet away, men scrub their cars or motorcycles in the shallow of the lake. Women do laundry, wiping their brow with the cool water between shirts. Children swim completely naked, pushing each other’s heads under water. I am scared for them, having heard about man-eating hippos and crocodiles that roam the waters, and exotic diseases like bilharzia or dengue fever. The lake is abuzz with people who know that, in a country where running water is a rarity, Lake Victoria is a life force and a luxury. People come from far and wide to make use of the lake, a precious source of free and unending water. Or, like us, they come to eat fish.
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