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Who Doesn't Like Sweet Potatoes? This Kenyan Researcher, For One


Joy Ho/NPR

Growing up in the 1980s and early ‘90s on the Kenyan Coast, I did not have the privilege to choose the foods I could eat. Rather, my parents would serve my siblings and me the food that was in season or that had survived the scorching sun, insect pests and plant diseases — harvested from their farm or purchased at the market.

Most of the time, these food crops included cassava, pumpkin, the “boko boko” banana — and sweet potatoes. Plenty of sweet potatoes.

Sweet potatoes as well as pumpkins and cassava were the go-to breakfast, lunch and dinner food. They were the everyday food whether we liked it or not. Of course, there was only one way they were cooked — and that was by boiling.

Day in day out, we would consume these foods. Ultimately, it got to a point where we could not take sweet potatoes and cassava anymore. And yes, there were times we chose to go hungry rather than eat sweet potatoes. That’s right: We children would rather skip lunch and dinner and go hungry than eat the same old sweet potatoes and cassava.

These experiences with sweet potatoes and cassava while growing up made me hate these foods as an adult. And I am not alone. Many of my family members, including my brother and three sisters, do not love sweet potatoes and cassava at all. As a matter of fact, after we grew up, our parents stopped growing them. No one and I mean no one — had any more appetite for these root vegetables.

My hate for sweet potatoes is still active today. I know it is many people’s favorite food, especially during Thanksgiving, but as for me, I still say NO to sweet potatoes. They remind me of what it’s like to grow up without a balanced diet, without being able to choose what kind of food you’d like to eat each day.

But in a corner of my heart, I do appreciate the sweet potato. I’m grateful that my parents had sweet potatoes to serve us. And maybe one day – say in another ten years or so — I’ll overcome my negative feelings and see what it’s like to eat a luxurious sweet potato side dish – perhaps topped with marshmallows!

Esther Ngumbi is a researcher at the University of Illinois and a New Voices Fellow at the Aspen Institute.

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