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.

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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.

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