The Backstory: Rafiki’s Grill – a “taste of Africa in Dixie”

It’s not every day that an African restaurant opens in Birmingham.  Given the excitement that Rafiki’s Grill has generated in the Birmingham foodie community, I wanted to find out the backstory.

The inspiration behind Rafiki’s

When Charles Gakumo opened Rafiki’s Grill, he was inspired by his wife Ann.  Gakumo is from Nairobi, Kenya, and came to Birmingham to study finance at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) at the age of 21.  Ann is from Florida but grew up mainly in Birmingham.  Gakumo explains, “Taking [Ann] to Africa, and seeing how thrilled she was enjoying the cultures and enjoying the food … I knew that if Ann can enjoy going to Africa and enjoying all that Africa had to offer, it was ok if I brought a little bit of Africa back with me to Dixie.”

The other inspiration for Rafiki’s is Birmingham itself.  “I’ve been [in Birmingham] for almost half of my life,” Gakumo says.  “That makes this my second home.”  He views Rafiki’s as a way to give back to the city.  “Birmingham has offered me so much in terms of education, opportunity-wise, and I felt the least I can do to give back to Birmingham was part of who I was and that was my culture, and the best way to do that was though food.”

An early interest in food

As a young child, Gakumo was drawn to the kitchen.  Little by little, he learned to cook traditional Kenyan food from his mother and sisters.  And cooking wasn’t just about the food itself – it was about the mealtime experience.  Gakumo explains that in Kenya, taking a break from a busy day to come together over a good meal is a respected daily cultural experience.   Meals are eaten in a communal way, even in restaurants, with one’s hands.  “We massage the food so it can be good to us inside the stomach.”

Getting in touch with his roots

As a student far from home, Charles found himself missing Kenyan culture, food, and the food experience.  As a child, he had envisioned coming to America for a “white collar job” – and as a day job, he owned a convenience store.  But he wanted to have a way to stay in touch with his roots.  In Kenya, it is common for people to have their weekday jobs in the city, and their goat farm in the country to visit on the weekends.  So, he got a few goats.  A few goats soon became 100 goats, who he raises both as pets and for food.  This is Gakumo’s weekend getaway spot – a place where he can relax and interact with the animals he loves.

Gakumo also started experimenting with his childhood recipes.  But he still didn’t have that place to enjoy a communal African-style eating experience.  That’s where Rafiki’s comes in.

The vision for Rafiki’s

Rafiki’s has been in the works for many months, but has only been open for 3 weeks.  Gakumo envisioned his restaurant as place to eat, but also as a place where “good food and good people meet.”   And it has been just that.   “Before they eat the food … they’re not talking, everybody’s quiet, they’re looking around …but when they get to eat the food, the conversation starts.  And they start talking about the food…. it warms up the place…..the food is doing it’s magic.”  This is a source of great pride for Gakumo.

Rafiki’s also serves as a sort of multicultural meeting place.  Gakumo has served people from Zambia, Nigeria, South Africa, and Tanzania, in addition to Kenya, and of course, Birmingham.

The Kenyan Community in Birmingham

Gakumo estimates that there are 5,000 Kenyans in Birmingham – the largest population of Africans in the city.  Immigration from Kenya to Birmingham began in the mid-1990s.  It started with a small group of a few hundred Kenyans, and grew as word spread back home of opportunities for education and work.  Much of the immigrant community in Birmingham – including Africans, but also others – are concentrated in the Greensprings/Valley Avenue corridor.  I had always wondered why that was, and Gakumo offered an explanation.  As many Kenyans in Birmingham are students at UAB, living in this area allows them easy access to the University.  Many of them attend the Laborers Church on Valley Avenue, just down the street from Rafiki’s.   This makes Rafiki’s a convenient destination.

The Menu

Gakumo created the menu with his chefs – one of whom is from Kenya, and the other who is from Zambia.

Currently, the menu includes some of Gakumo’s favorite Kenyan foods.   Everything – from the samosas to the stews to the mandazis – is homemade, except for the sausage, which is specially imported from a Kenyan sausage factory in Delaware.  They get some of their ingredients from Wanainchi, an African grocery store just down the hill from Vulcan (1900 21st avenue S).  All of the spices are ordered directly from Kenya, which GAkumo believes contributes to the food’s authentic tastes.

The most popular dish is the mbuzi karanga (goat stew) and the (mbuzi choma) (grilled goat).  Gakumo says that people often start with the kuku karanaga (chicken stew), and work their way up to the goat.  For those who are less adventurous, the menu also includes a few America items like burgers and French fries.  But, as Gakumo acknowledges with a laugh, they aren’t ordered very often.

I had to ask about the dessert, Mt. Kilimanjaro.  Gakumo explains that Kenyans aren’t traditionally big dessert eaters – but this dessert is something that is often served to tourists who visit Kenya.  Instead of naming this creation Mt. Kenya, he calls it Mt. Kilimanjaro – as a way to make all Africans feel welcome.

Next steps

“I’m trying to get more out of this restaurant: not just food, culture.”  Already, he has heard stories of people who are African and whose children were born in the US brining their children to Rafiki’s to introduce them to the food and the people.  A Safari leader who brings groups from Birmingham to Kenya has already initiated pre-travel meals at Rafiki’s.   Long-term, Gakumo’s plans include a store, an outdoor fire pit for cooking meat, and an expanded outdoor patio for food and entertainment.

Gakumo also plans to expand his menu to foods from the coastal regions of Kenya (more seafood), and to other African countries.  Included on this list is Ethiopia.  He notes that Ethiopian food is the most common type of African food eaten in the US, and he is exploring opportunities to include it on his menu.

Final thoughts

I asked whether he thought he would be herding goats and running a Kenyan restaurant when he was a kid.  He said no, and with a broad smile, added – “funny enough, you can’t run away from who you really are.”

For more information, read our original Rafiki’s post here.