After surviving Idi Amin, the Ugandan bush and starvation Norwich man tackles his next challenge – launching his own food business
- Credit: Copyright: Archant 2017
It has been a long road to Norfolk for Rai Bukulu, including starvation, guerilla warfare and the Ugandan bush. After being given a fresh start he has used his hunger for life to launch his own food business. Doug Faulkner spoke to him about his journey.
It is a long way from a food camp in Kenya and the Ugandan bush to a farm shop in Taverham but that is the journey Rai Bukulu has taken.
Surviving being orphaned, malnourished and even fighting as a child soldier he has made his way to Norfolk where he is channelling his nomadic life to create East African-inspired spice blends.
Mr Bukulu grew up in Uganda before escaping to a food camp in Machakos, Kenya, in the 1980s where, as a child, he fled the civil unrest after the downfall of Idi Amin with the help of the UN's refugee agency the UNHCR.
He never knew his family, his date of birth and much of his early life remains a mystery to him but this background has driven him on to form an identity through his business A De Piff.
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'My earliest memories are of the food aid camp which afforded me to be rescued,' he said. 'I remember starvation and being sick, I was malnourished.'
Despite having no one to turn to Mr Bukulu showed signs of enterprise as a child – offering to clean other children's bowls for them if they left him a bit to eat.
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He said: 'I still have a scar on my forearm from when I was queuing for food and I had just got it when a bigger boy decided he was hungry and pushed me out of the way. It fell on me scalding my arm.
'I am not the biggest so I had to use what I had which was my brain... and I would eat better than everyone.'
Without a family, Mr Bukulu said he was wild and used to run away from the camp and live in the bush scavenging what he could.
It was there that he came into contact with bush tribes and also where he was caught up in warfare after a group he had been living with were attacked.
While living in the bush, Mr Bukulu said he cooked by digging a hole, filling it with hot charcoal then slow-cooking meats wrapped in leaves.
'When I was growing up I had to learn to cook because otherwise I wouldn't be able to eat,' Mr Bukulu said. 'If you are eating bush meat it is not bred to eat and it is tough so you have to use the spices to help make it taste good.'
After returning to the food aid camp, Mr Bukulu was chosen by aid workers to be one of a few refugee children to be sent to the UK, somewhere he described as a different world.
Starting off in London, he lived in various children's homes before moving to Norfolk in 2005.
Now he lives in Old Catton where he has founded spice blend firm A De Piff – which he says means 'add a pinch' – taking some of the flavours from his home nation and delivering them to farm shops, butchers and restaurants in Norfolk.
Although still in its early stages, the business has helped Mr Bukulu to come off Jobseeker's Allowance and he said the drive to do something on his own spurred him on.
Among his spice blends are Sweet Tang pork, Karamojerk, Mombasa chicken and Booming Beef burger.
Despite his products being primarily designed as meat rubs Mr Bukulu does not eat much of it himself these days.
He said: 'I grew up around the Karamojong tribe, which are a bit like the Massai, they always said that you had to kill and cook something yourself if you want to eat it.'
To get A De Piff off the ground, Mr Bukulu has had support from Broadland District Council's business development team.
His blends have now been used in city restaurants such as Bedford's, thanks to chef Charlie Hodson, and Zaks diners.
Mr Bukulu said: 'I am so grateful to these people who have helped me and believed in me. I want to be the best I can to thank them.
'My background has given me a great hunger for life.'
A De Piff
Rai Bukulu grows many of the herbs and chillies which go into his spice mixes at his Old Catton home.
As well as using herbs familiar to most, he blends in less common varieties such as pineapple sage, Vietnamese coriander and lemon verbena.
He founded A De Piff in 2015 with the aim of bringing the flavours he ate at home to a wider market.
'I take an idea for a flavour and then try to see how I can recreate it,' he said. 'I take influence from the food from where I am from but then I try to tailor it to European tastes.
'My blends are spicy but it is about flavour not heat.'
There are currently around 13 different blends with more in development.
Mr Bukulu can often be found visiting farm shops which stock his spices cooking up samples for people to try.
He also attends farmers' markets and world food events with the aim of getting as many potential customers to taste his wares as possible.
Brief history of Uganda
Military dictator Idi Amin came to power in 1971 after leading a coup which ousted then prime minister Milton Obote.
Amin ruled with an iron fist and it is estimated around 300,000 Ugandans lost their lives as he used mass killings and genocide to strengthen his position.
He also expelled the country's Indian population causing the economy to decline.
Amin was himself deposed in 1979 and the country went through a series of leaders, including the return of Obote, before current president Yoweri Museveni, who led the National Resistance Army (NRA) in the so-called Bush War, took control in 1986.
This war saw various rebel groups, including the NRA, wage guerilla warfare and it is estimated to have cost up to 500,000 lives, displacing hundreds of thousands more.
President Museveni has since been elected five times and continues to rule the country today.