It has recently come to my attention that I am not as good as I thought I was. In a project I am involved in, I work a logistician and my supervisor told me that my work had become subpar. So dismal was my performance that the overseer pulled me from other side projects we were working on to focus on improving my operations. Like it’s some kind of school arithmetic assignment where I could get better with practice. But after scoffing to cover my wounded pride, I began to wonder, what’s wrong with practice?
Malcolm Gladwell wrote in his book, “The Outliers” that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert. He uses Bill Gates and The Beatles as some of his examples of the application of this rule. I thought to myself, if this rule is good enough for Mr Microsoft, why can’t I apply it? And I had already kinda-sorta applied it in a very important area of my life. I had already used it to perfect the making of ugali.
Ugali is one of the many important staples especially in the homes of Kikuyus, Luos and Luhyias. (My father is Kyuk, my bff Luo and Mr Pedestrian, Luhyia- so you can see the vitality of this skill.) Made from mixing maize flour and scalding water, it seems like the easiest thing to prepare since diced onions. However, the making of ugali needs to be treated with the solemnity of a ritual. I learnt this after nearly burning down my house and risking disownment from Baba Pedestrian.
When I was in high school, I went through this pseudo-feminist phase where I had vowed before my fellow women and God Himself that I wouldn’t be caught dead doing any household chores. To be fair, this was a reaction to all the unpleasant duties we used to be assigned back at school. In any case, I had vowed and Dad was my witness, that I would not be doing any dishes, mopping any floors or any damned cooking.
I got away with this for a while. After high school, my father was a tad forgiving for my slovenly display but when I was about to enrol for college- I had to pull my weight. And hefty as it was, I had quite a lot of work to do, especially because my father categorically refused to hire a housemaid when he was living with an able bodied grown woman.
Doing dishes was easy enough. Laundry was a breeze. When it got to the cooking, things got a little hectic. On my first try, I was to cook rice, peas and beef stew. I boiled the rice without soaking it first. I stewed the peas without boiling them first and, for reasons even James Joule would have a hard time explaining, the meat was black on the outside but raw on the inside.
I had so many scrapes in my kitchen that would be worthy of a World’s Dumbest episode but the ones that stood out were the ugali escapades. The first time my father demanded asked for ugali, I was in a bit of a panic. Since my mouth sometimes says things it can’t cash, my ego was on the line at admitting that I hadn’t the first clue on how to make it.
Luckily, the flour packet had basic instructions on how to go about it:
- Boil two cups of water
- Add a cup of unga
- Stir until thick
- Mould to desired shape
Easy enough, right?
I added the water liberally and patiently waited for it to boil. When the bubbles were as frequent as the pimples of a teenager’s face, I poured a liberal amount of flour, put the packet down and armed myself with a mwiko. I stirred while waiting for the concoction to thicken but it wouldn’t. In fact, it alarmingly started to bubble like porridge. And I though, Aha! I shall add more flour. Unfortunately, I added too much flour and ended up with a mixture harder than baked clay. I burnt my wrists trying to wrestle the uncooperative mould but eventually, I got it to resemble something close to what is in the Royco adverts.
There’s this rule to know when your ugali is ready. It will have a certain scent and will not be sticky. I tore out a chunk and tossed it at the ceiling. It defied gravity. I decided to stir my mixture again and was perplexed at the flour sipping out of the unveiled core. I pounded and mounded like an overweight porn star, covered the sufuria and put the heat on high. That would make my ugali ready, right? Wrong.
So woefully confident was I that I left the ugali to bake and went to buy the accompanying vegetables. I had only been out for about five minutes but when I returned to the house, it appeared an eternity had passed because smoke was billowing out of my windows like a post-apocalyptic planet. When I opened the door, a wall of smoke sucked me in. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t see. Was I about to die? And most importantly, what would my father do to me?
I hobbled to the kitchen battling a fit of coughs and turned down the burner immediately. I went ahead to open all doors and windows. I decided to carry my smoke bearing pot outside to the balcony to inspect what could have gone wrong. When I opened the lid, I stared at it. It was black and pulsating. It looked like an alien yolk from a hell dimension. It looked like something the Devil would pull out of his nose. And I had just cooked it. I tossed it all in a nearby bush to hide my ineptitude. And to avoid my father’s wrath. I cleaned the house, changed the curtains and sprayed every nook and cranny with air freshener. I then decided to buy food from a hotel and vowed never to try making ugali again.
Sadly, my vow was broken soon after as my father wanted ugali again but this time I had the mindfulness to ask him for assistance. He gave me perfect instructions but while I still burn my wrists when making ugali I believe I still have a couple of more hours of practice until I get to the standards of 10,000 hour perfection. And because I could swallow my pride at something as mundane as making ugali then practising at work shouldn’t be a problem, right? Right?
We shouldn’t be afraid of practice. We should welcome it. If it was good enough for The Beatles it should be good for us nillionaires. I am now trying to put in 10,000 hours of practice for this godforsaken project. If my results come out like the ugali from hell again, I shall just have to put in another 10,000 hours. Now if Malcolm Gladwell would be kind enough to write a book on how to get paid for practising for 10,000 hours I can move from nillionaire to millionaire soon, no?