There’s no sweetness in Kenya’s sugar

On June 13, Kenya’s Cabinet secretary for the interior and co-ordination of national government told the country that sugar imported from Brazil had been impounded because it contained, among other metals, traces of mercury and copper, which can harm the nervous, digestive and immune systems.

The secretary said this with conviction, informing the nation that this had been discovered when the government chemist tested samples of the sugar.

What was worrying was that the sugar bore the stickers of the Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS), indicating that the sugar had been tested by the statutory body and had been found to be fit for consumption.

I am not a big sugar consumer but I had some in my home. My 13-year-old returned from school that week and, because he thinks he is a character in one of my manuscripts, he dramatically took the sugar and discarded it. If we needed sweetener, the future dictator stated, we should stick to the honey in the cupboard.

But then, a few days later, the Cabinet secretary for the ministry of industry, trade and co-operatives, while answering questions from the trade and investment committee, refuted the claims of mercury and other metals in the sugar. He stated: “Tests carried out by KEBS did not find any form of toxic metal as claimed. I, however, call on anyone with contrary information to alert the authorities.”


Who were we to believe?

Then the Cabinet secretary for the ministry of agriculture publicly blamed the national treasury for opening a window to unregulated imports, resulting in unscrupulous business people bringing illicit goods into the country. The treasury hit back, reminding the country that the licensing agency falls under the agriculture ministry. But then the industry and interior ministries came out with a joint statement informing the nation that the sugar was contaminated because of where it had been stored — and that there was no mercury in it.

And then, as though this was not enough drama, the KEBS managing director and other high-ranking officials were arrested for the contaminated sugar and fake KEBS stamps.

For a moment I was amused about how a standard setting body could have been involved in fake stamps certifying products to be worthy of use in Kenya. It seemed like a drama worthy of a Connie and Shona Ferguson production.

Most of these secretaries had been lauded when they got their Cabinet positions. Sections of society celebrated their appointments because they were technocrats rather than politicians. And yet here they were playing politics with our kidneys (and our tea, Kenya’s favourite beverage) and we could do nothing about it.

Word would later seep out that one of the business people involved in the illicit sugar trade was President Uhuru Kenyatta’s brother, Muhoho. To put it in perspective, if one day Duduzane became president of South Africa (heaven help us), Edward would have been the one caught with the illegal sugar.

The president, in an interview with some organisation from the Trump nation, stated that if his brother was involved in illegal trade then he should face the full might of the law.

But then in an about-turn on the same day, the interior secretary, answering questions in Parliament, stated that the sugar in shops was safe for consumption. Only some of what was in warehouses was unsafe.

At a memorial service last weekend for a friend’s mother, the topic of sugar came up. Who were we to believe? I like baking but could I buy sugar? The friend and her colleagues, who work for an international environmental body, warned me to stay away from the sugar. But it seemed sugar was not the only food my household should watch out for. I was also to be wary of mealie meal. My friend has been importing mealie meal from Tanzania for the past three years.

Ten years ago I associated the word “trigger” with the catch of a gun or a mousetrap. Now I think of “trigger” as something that arouses an unpleasant memory. I write of this word because this past weekend I was triggered. I immediately thought of how I had stopped eating polony while in South Africa because of the listeriosis outbreak.

I also started questioning whether the average person in any country has any power. Do we remain at the mercy of governments and corporations? If some greedy industrialists, with the aid of some corrupt government officials, decide to give us food unworthy of consumption, who do we turn to? Will we remain unsafe and unsure about what we are consuming until we all get a portion of land on which to grow our own crops?

As it is, I am staying away from sugar no matter what the interior secretary says. And after a conversation with my friend this weekend, I am thinking twice about mealie meal too. But for others, gallows humour appears to be the answer for coping with this food drama. When R&B singer Keri Hilson tweeted that she would be visiting Kenya, a Kenyan on Twitter responded: “Please bring sugar.” We laugh, so as not to cry.

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Zukiswa Wanner
Zukiswa Wanner
Zukiswa Wanner (born 1976) is a South African journalist and novelist, born in Zambia and now based in Kenya. Since 2006, when she published her first book, her novels have been shortlisted for awards including the South African Literary Awards (SALA) and the Commonwealth Writers' Prize.

Related stories

Carlos on Oozymandias’ goodbye grift

"Look on my works ye Mighty, and gimme 50 bucks!"

Battery acid, cassava sticks and clothes hangers: We must end the global gag rule

COMMENT: The US’s global gag rule blocks funding to any foreign NGOS that perform abortions, except in very limited cases. The Biden-Harris administration must rescind it

Malawi elections provide a global lesson in democracy

COMMENT: Opposition candidates and party can increase their chances of success at the polls by putting aside minor differences and presenting a united front

Masterclasses in duck-and-dive

You didn’t need to be a genius or a prophet to predict that Bushiri would run or that Zuma would stall

Bye-bye, Don. But is this the end of Trumpism?

If it hadn’t been for Covid-19, Donald Trump might have won the presidential election. Almost 48% of voting Americans believe in his brand of democracy, equality and justice.

Khaya Sithole: The decline and fall of the South African auditing profession

Its reputation is not being helped at all by the crisis at its independent regulatory body
Advertising

Subscribers only

FNB dragged into bribery claims

Allegations of bribery against the bank’s chief executive, Jacques Celliers, thrown up in a separate court case

Dozens of birds and bats perish in extreme heat in...

In a single day, temperatures in northern KwaZulu-Natal climbed to a lethal 45°C, causing a mass die-off of birds and bats

More top stories

Blast rocks Durban’s Engen refinery

Residents are being evacuated as firefighters battle to control the blaze

ConCourt asked to rule that Zuma must testify for 10...

It is Zondo's legal end game and will leave the former president, his supporters and those implicated in state capture to increasingly play fast and loose at imputing political motive to the commission

Carlos on Oozymandias’ goodbye grift

"Look on my works ye Mighty, and gimme 50 bucks!"

This is how the SIU catches crooks

Athandiwe Saba talked to the Special Investigating Unit’s Andy Mothibi about its caseload, including 1 000 Covid contracts
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…