Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Mursik: Indigenous Milk Preservation Technology among the Kalenjins of Kenya.

By Bett Kipsang
Kenya is famous for its world conquering athletes who transverse the globe raking in medals and cash prizes. After various competitions the athletes are usually welcomed back home with jubilant singing, dancing and hoisting of the national flag. The Kalenjin community from the Rift Valley is famous for giving returning champions a drink of traditionally fermented milk known as mursik from a colourful gourd or sotet. As the following story demonstrates, mursik is a popular traditional beverage that has attained modern commercial value and its preparation is a science and skilful art. 

Origin of Mursik
The agro-pastoral communities of the Rift Valley, traditionally keep livestock for meat, milk and as a sign of wealth and prestige. Mursik technology originates from the Kalenjin community for whom milk is a staple diet. The community developed the unique milk preservation technology using indigenous tree species about 300 years ago. The technology evolved as a result of the need to avoid wastage by preserving and storing excess milk for use during the dry season.  For example, the Pokot developed chekha mwaka, a technique used to treat milk that can be stored for over one year without going bad. Other reasons for treatment included the need to improve the quality, flavour, smell, colour and palatability of stored milk. Mursik technology has withstood the test of time to be adopted by non-pastoralist communities in modern times. 

Mursik consists of fermented whole milk that has been stored in a special gourd that is treated or seasoned with glowing coal from selected tree species. As a result of treatment the strong smell and bitter taste of the gourd is neutralized while the milk is infused with tiny bits of charcoal dust, which helps to preserve the milk and gives it a unique aromatic flavour. 

Mursik Preparation 
Milk treatment is traditionally the preserve of women; however men do sometimes practice the art of making mursik. Preparation of mursik is a serious undertaking that requires knowledge and expertise. Extreme care must be taken during the gourd preparation and milk fermentation process and high hygiene standards must be observed to avoid potential food poisoning that could result from exposing the milk to harmful bacteria.

Depending on the availability of milk, a large quantity of mursik can be prepared at once or alternatively small quantities of milk can be poured into a prepared gourd on a daily basis until it is full. The fermented milk provides the culture for the new milk and accelerates the process of ripening. The flavour of mursik is determined by various factors including the quality of milk used, technique of cleaning the gourd, time taken before the milk is served, and to some extent the tree species used to treat the gourd. 

Some factors determines the quality of a cows’ milk and includes:
Stage of lactation: The colostrums of a cow that has recently calved are usually thick and highly nutritious. In comparison to milk from a cow in normal lactation, mursik prepared from the colostrums normally has a naturally different consistency, texture and flavour. 
Type of breed: different cattle breeds provide different qualities of milk, the distinguishing factor being its butterfat content. Ayrshires, are for example reputed to produce milk with high butterfat content, while Holsteins are reputed to provide larger quantities of milk with low butterfat content, depending on how much water the animal has taken.
Cows’ diet: The cows’ diet sometimes imparts flavour into the milk. For example, if a cow consumes the Mexican Marigold weed, which has a pungent taste and smell, milk will acquire a taste of Marigold. Similarly, the taste of mursik will give a hint whether the cow has been consuming molasses, Lucerne, oat based bran or other feeds. Knowledgeable old men and women can easily tell the types of weeds or shrubs on which a cow has been browsing from the taste of mursik. 

Materials and Tools for Making Mursik 
Gourd (preferably dry), fresh one can also do so long as it is fully ripe.
Sharp machete, arc saw or large knife
Palm tree branches 
Cow urine
Clean water 
Dry ash
A piece of cow hide 
Several dry sticks from a milk preserving tree species (preferably Cassia 
A bow shaped palm stick (sosiot) without bristles
Milk in a clean container with a lid
Steps in Making Mursik
1) Cutting the gourd:
Cut the top of the gourd systemically using the machete, arc saw or knife. Remove the seeds and pour a mixture of water and ash into the gourd. Cork the gourd and put it aside for a few days. Pour out the water in readiness for cleaning and treating the gourd.

2) Cleaning the gourd: Take some branches of the palm tree and hammer them until the edges form brush like bristles. Using the stiff bristles, remove the inner lining of the new gourd in order to ensure that the milk does not acquire the bitter taste of the gourd. Pour some cow urine into the gourd and put it aside for a few days for curing and seasoning. Pour out the cow urine and use the bow shaped palm stick with bristles (sosiot) and clean water to clean the gourd again. 
Put the gourd outside to dry preferably in the sun.

3) Treating the gourd: Take a few sticks from the selected milk preserving tree species and burn them into charcoal. Put the burning embers inside a clean dry gourd, shaking it to avoid burning. Use a bow shaped palm stick without bristles to grind the embers by pressing them against the walls of the gourd in a methodical, circular in and out movement of the hand.  Repeat the grinding movement until the inside of the gourd is evenly covered with fine dust. Pour out any large particles and excess coal dust and allow the gourd to cool down. 

4) Preparing and treating the gourd lid: Prepare a well designed, tightly fitting lid for the gourd, indigenous communities use animal hide/skin. Test the lid to make sure it fits tightly into the mouth of the gourd. Treat the inner side of the lid with charcoal dust using the method for cleaning and treating the gourd. 
5) Milking, boiling and cooling the milk: Milk the cow and boil the fresh milk immediately. Cover the boiled milk to avoid contamination and allow it to cool down.  Traditionally a cow was milked directly into a treated gourd and the milk would be mixed with some blood and stored in a cool place to ripen. However, this practice has since ceased due to a change in lifestyles and widespread awareness of the need to improve hygienic standards.

6) Fermentation: Pour the cold boiled milk into a treated gourd or sotet. Cork the gourd tightly with the treated lid. Store the mursik in a cool dry place for about one week to allow it to ripen until it achieves the consistency of sour milk.

7) Shaking and serving the mursik: Shake the mursik well to ensure it has a smooth, uniform consistency. After thorough shaking, good quality mursik is a clear liquid with a sharp taste that is almost bitter. In some cases white globules of butter float at the top of the gourd when milk is ripe. Systematic tapping on the skin lid produces a popping sound, allowing excess air to escape. Mursik is best taken during the dry season or on a sunny day and served cold with hot ugali, a Kenyan staple food made of maize/corn flour, millet, sorghum, or a mixture of different types of flour.

Milk treatment and Environmental Conservation
 The use of some tree species for milk preservation and flavouring is part of indigenous knowledge that also helps in conservation of biodiversity. Cassia didymobotrya is native to Eastern Central Africa and the most preferred tree species for milk treatment. Among the pastoral communities the species is revered and has been used for milk preservation for a very long time. It is primarily planted, managed and protected by women. Several other tree species have been found suitable for preserving and giving the milk an aromatic taste.  

 Cassia didymobotrya is locally known by different names, for example: Senetwet (Kipsigis); Inyumganai (Kamba); Mwino (Kikuyu); Lubino (Luhya); Obino (Luo); Osenetoi (Maasai) and ndimu or limau (Swahili). The shrub grows well near cattle bomas (sheds) especially near decomposed cow dung. It prefers well-drained soils, can withstand occasional drought and is propagated through seeds, which readily germinate. 

Cassia's leaves are evergreen with elliptic to oval leaflets and yellow ornamental flowers, which appear for prolonged periods in warm climates (Mureithi 1997). Animals rarely feed on cassia leaves; therefore it has a survival rate of almost 100 percent.

Other tree species used for milk preservation. 
Apart from cassia dydimobotrya, other tree species have been adjudged and found suitable for milk treatment and preservation. The process of identification was through trial and error, whereby communities were forced by the scarcity of the common species. Alternative trees are; Lantana Kitu (Muokiot) nandi, Olea Afrikana (Emitiot) Kipsigis, Rhus natalensis (Natal Rhus), Olea Capensis, Acacia meansii, Prunus africana (omoiri) ''kisii'' among others.
Milk is a locally available and easily accessible commodity and value addition through indigenous  technology has proved highly successful.

Adoption of mursik technology by non-pastoralist communities has introduced the element of  commercialization as a viable source of income for livestock keepers. 

As a valuable tree species cassia didymobotrya deserves the attention of researchers to ensure its conservation and to explore its anti-bacterial effects, among other useful characteristics. 

There is need to preserve the gourds, cutting and cleaning technology since gourds are cheap and easily accessible, making them an ideal storage facility for farmers.

1. Farmer initiated research and extension ''1997'' by william Mureithi.
2. Internet:
3. Personal observation and background knowledge. 


  1. Dear Bett, this is a great article. It is good that you have used it here. keep up the good work!

  2. Arap Bett, am trying to contact you... my email is kipruttobett[at]gmail[dot]com.

    Fire me up an email.

    This is the best article on the preparatio of mursik that I have come acrross, consider editting it further and uploading it to wkipedia's article on mursik