Aug 222018

Today is the birthday (1847) of John Forrest, 1st Baron Forrest of Bunbury GCMG, an Australian explorer, the first Premier of Western Australia, and a cabinet minister in Australia’s first federal parliament. John Forrest is the name I use in English-speaking countries and was my father’s and grandfather’s name as well. Hence, I had a small fascination with this Western Australian John Forrest when I lived in Australia as a boy. I have encountered multiple John Forrests in my lifetime – unsurprisingly, since Forrest is one of the most common family names in Scotland, and John for decades was the most popular given name. There are a few things that are slightly surprising, however. John Forrest had a brother called Alexander and so did my father, hence my full English name is John Alexander Forrest – also the full name of a current Australian politician. Needless to say, we are unrelated.

John Forrest was one of 10 children of William and Margaret Forrest, who emigrated to Australia as servants under Dr John Ferguson in 1842. He was born at Preston point near Bunbury in what was then the British colony of Western Australia. He was known as Jack to his family (as was my father). Among his seven brothers were Alexander Forrest (explorer, surveyor, and politician), and David Forrest (drover and politician). He attended the government school in Bunbury under John Hislop until the age of 12, when he was sent north to Perth to attend the Bishop’s Collegiate School, now Hale School, starting there in January 1860.

In November 1863, he was apprenticed to a government land surveyor named Thomas Carey. When his term of apprenticeship ended in November 1865, he became the first man born and educated in the colony to qualify as a land surveyor. He then commenced work as a surveyor with the government’s Lands and Surveys Department.

Between 1869 and 1874, Forrest led three expeditions into the uncharted land surrounding the colony of Western Australia. In 1869, he led a fruitless search for the explorer Ludwig Leichhardt who had gone missing in the desert west of the site of the present town of Leonora. They found no sign of Leichhardt, and the country over which they travelled was useless for farming. However, Forrest did report that his compass had been affected by the presence of minerals in the ground, and he suggested that the government send geologists to examine the area. Ultimately, the expedition achieved very little, but it was of great personal advantage to Forrest whose reputation with his superiors and in the community at large was greatly enhanced.

The following year, he surveyed Edward John Eyre’s land route, from Perth to Adelaide. Eyre had crossed the Great Australian Bight 30 years earlier, but his expedition had been poorly planned and equipped, and Eyre had nearly perished from lack of water. Forrest’s expedition was to follow Eyre’s route, but it would be thoroughly planned and properly resourced. Also, the recent discovery of safe anchorages at Israelite Bay and Eucla would permit Forrest’s team to be reprovisioned along the way by a chartered schooner Adur. Forrest’s brief was to provide a proper survey of the route, which might be used in future to establish a telegraph link between the colonies and also to assess the suitability of the land for pasture. Forrest’s team consisted of six men: his brother Alexander was second in charge, police constable Hector Neil McLarty, farrier William Osborn, trackers Windich and Billy Noongale, 16 horses and a number of dogs. The party left Perth on 30th March 1870, and arrived at Esperance on 24th April.

After resting and reprovisioning, the party left Esperance on 9th May and arrived at Israelite Bay nine days later. They had encountered very little feed for their horses and no permanent water, but they managed to obtain sufficient rain water from rock water-holes. After reprovisioning, the team left for Eucla on 30 May. Again, they encountered very little feed and no permanent water, and this time the water they obtained from rock water-holes was not sufficient. They were compelled to dash more than 240 kilometers (150 mi) to a spot where Eyre had found water in 1841. Having secured a water source, they rested and explored the area before moving on, eventually reaching Eucla on 2nd July. At Eucla, they rested and reprovisioned and explored inland, where they found good pasture land. On 14 July, the team started the final leg of their expedition through unsettled country: from Eucla to the nearest South Australian station. During the last leg, almost no water could be found, and the team was compelled to travel day and night for nearly five days. They saw their first signs of civilization on 18th July and eventually reached Adelaide on 27th August. A week later, they boarded ship for Western Australia, arriving in Perth on 27th September. They were honored at two receptions: one by the Perth City Council and a citizens’ banquet at the Horse and Groom Tavern. Speaking at the receptions, Forrest was modest about his own contributions but praised the efforts of the members of the expedition and divided a government gratuity between them.

Forrest’s bight crossing was one of the most organized and best managed expeditions of his time. As a result, his party successfully completed in five months a journey that had taken Eyre twelve and arrived in good health and without the loss of a single horse. However, the tangible results were not great. They had not travelled far from Eyre’s track, and although a large area was surveyed, only one small area of land suitable for pasture was found. A second expedition by the same team returned to the area between August and November 1871 and found further good pastures, north-north-east of Esperance.

In August 1872, Forrest was invited to lead a third expedition, from Geraldton to the source of the Murchison River and then east through the uncharted centre of Western Australia to the overland telegraph line from Darwin to Adelaide. The purpose was to discover the nature of the unknown centre of Western Australia, and to find new pastoral land. Forrest’s team again consisted of six men, including his brother Alexander and Windich. They also had 20 horses and food for eight months. The team left Geraldton on 1st April 1874, and a fortnight later, it passed through the colony’s outermost station. On 3rd May the team passed into unknown land. It found plenty of good pastoral land around the headwaters of the Murchison River, but by late May, it was travelling over arid land. On 2nd June, while dangerously short of water, it discovered Weld Springs, “one of the best springs in the colony” according to Forrest. At Weld Springs on 13th June, the party was attacked by a large group of Aborigines, and Forrest shot a number of them.

Beyond Weld Springs, water was extremely hard to obtain, and by 4th July the team relied on occasional thunderstorms for water. By 2nd August, the team was critically short of water; a number of horses had been abandoned, and Forrest’s journal indicates that the team had little confidence of survival. A few days later, it was rescued by a shower of rain. On 23rd August, it was again critically short of water and half of their horses were near death, when they were saved by the discovery of Elder Springs.

Then, the land became somewhat less arid, and the risk of dying from thirst started to abate. Other difficulties continued, however: the team had to abandon more of their horses, and one member of the team suffered from scurvy and could barely walk. The team finally sighted the telegraph line near Mount Alexander on 27th September and reached Peake Telegraph Station three days later. The remainder of the journey was a succession of triumphant public receptions by passing through each country town en route to Adelaide. The team reached Adelaide on 3rd November 1874, more than six months after they started from Geraldton.

From an exploration point of view, Forrest’s third expedition was of great importance. A large area of previously unknown land was explored, and the popular notion of an inland sea was shown to be unlikely. However, the practical results were not great. Plenty of good pastoral land was found up to the head of the Murchison, but beyond that, the land was useless for pastorage, and Forrest was convinced that it would never be settled. Forrest also made botanical collections during the expedition that were given to Ferdinand von Mueller, who, in turn, named Eremophila forrestii in his honor. Forrest published an account of his expeditions, Explorations in Australia, in 1875. In 1882, he was made a Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG) by Queen Victoria for his services in exploring the interior.

Forrest was an outstanding surveyor, and his successful expeditions had made him a popular public figure as well. Consequently, he was promoted rapidly through the ranks of the Lands and Surveys Department, and in January 1883 he succeeded Malcolm Fraser in the positions of surveyor-general and commissioner of crown lands. This was one of the most powerful and responsible positions in the colony, and it accorded him a seat on the colony’s Executive Council. At the same time, Forrest was nominated to the colony’s Legislative Council. After Britain ceded to Western Australia the right to self-rule in 1890, Forrest was elected unopposed to the seat of Bunbury in the Legislative Assembly. On 22nd December 1890, Governor William Robinson appointed Forrest the first Premier of Western Australia. In May of the following year, he was knighted KCMG for his services to the colony.

The Forrest Ministry immediately embarked on a programme of large-scale public works funded by loans raised in London. Public works were greatly in demand at the time, because of the British government’s reluctance to approve public spending in the colony. Under the direction of the brilliant engineer C. Y. O’Connor, many thousands of miles of railway were laid, and many bridges, jetties, lighthouses and town halls were constructed. The two most ambitious projects were the Fremantle Harbour Works, one of the few public works of the 1890s which is still in use today; and the Goldfields Water Supply Scheme, one of the greatest engineering feats of its time, in which the Helena River was dammed and the water piped over 550 kilometres (340 mi) to Kalgoorlie. Forrest’s public works programme was generally well received, although on the Eastern Goldfields where the rate of population growth and geographical expansion far outstripped the government’s ability to provide works, Forrest was criticised for not doing enough. He invited further criticism in 1893 with his infamous “spoils to the victors” speech, in which he appeared to assert that members who opposed the government were putting at risk their constituents’ access to their fair share of public works.

Forrest’s government also implemented a number of social reforms, including measures to improve the status of women, young girls and wage-earners. However, although Forrest did not always oppose proposals for social reform, he never instigated or championed them. Critics have therefore argued that Forrest deserves little credit for the social reforms achieved under his premiership. On political reform, however, Forrest’s influence was unquestionable. In 1893, Forrest guided through parliament a number of significant amendments to the Constitution of Western Australia, including an extension of the franchise to all men regardless of property ownership. He also had a significant role in repealing section 70 of that constitution, which had provided that 1% of public revenue should be paid to a Board (not under local political control) for the welfare of Indigenous people, and was “widely hated” by the colonists.

The major political question of the time, though, was federation. Forrest was in favor of federation, and felt that it was inevitable, but he also felt that Western Australia should not join until it obtained fair terms. He was heavily involved in the framing of the Australian Constitution, representing Western Australia at a number of meetings on federation, including the National Australasian Conventions in Sydney in 1891 and in Adelaide in 1897, and the Australasian Federal Conventions in Sydney in 1897 and in Melbourne in 1898. He fought hard to protect the rights of the less populous states, arguing for a strong upper house organized along state lines. He also argued for a number of concessions to Western Australia, and for the building of a trans-Australian railway. Although he was largely unsuccessful in his endeavors, by 1900 he was convinced that better terms were not to be obtained, so called the referendum in which Western Australians voted to join the federation, and Western Australia became a part of the nation of Australia in 1901.

On 30th December 1900, Forrest accepted the position of Postmaster-General in Edmund Barton’s federal caretaker government. Two days later, he received news that he had been made a GCMG “in recognition of services in connection with the Federation of Australian Colonies and the establishment of the Commonwealth of Australia”. Forrest was postmaster-general for only 17 days: he resigned to take up the defense portfolio, which had been made vacant by the death of Sir James Robert Dickson. On 13th February 1901, he resigned as premier of Western Australia and as member for Bunbury. In the March 1901 federal election, the first one ever, Forrest was elected, unopposed, on a moderate Protectionist platform to the federal House of Representatives seat of Swan. He held the defense portfolio for over two years. After a cabinet reshuffle on 7th August 1903, he became Minister for Home Affairs. The December 1903 federal election greatly weakened the governing party. Shortly afterwards, it was defeated and replaced by a Labour government under Chris Watson. Forrest moved to the crossbenches, where he was a scathing critic of the Labour government’s policies and legislation. After George Reid’s Free Trade Party took office in August 1904, he remained on the crossbenches but largely supported the government.

I won’t go into the ins and outs of Forrest’s time in the federal government. The early days of Australian federation were fraught with complexities that I would rather not get into. It’s all part of the historical record. On 6th February 1918, Forrest was informed that he was to be raised to the British peerage as “Baron Forrest of Bunbury in the Commonwealth of Australia and of Forrest in Fife in the United Kingdom.” Despite the announcement, however, no letters patent were issued before his death, so there in uncertainty whether or not his peerage was officially created. Forrest had been suffering from a cancer on his temple since early in 1917, and by 1918, he was very ill. He resigned as treasurer on 21st March 1918, and shortly afterwards boarded ship for London, where he hoped to obtain specialist medical attention. He also hoped to be able to take his seat in the House of Lords. However, on 2 September 1918, with his ship off the coast of Sierra Leone, he died. He was buried there, but his remains were later brought back to Western Australia and interred in Karrakatta Cemetery.

Lord John Forrest was a big man. He was 260 lbs when he died. This tells me that he did not spend his evenings dining on short commons and bush tucker, although he would have been no stranger to the latter on his explorations. My posts have given plenty of Australian recipes, bush tucker recipes, and Scottish recipes as well (the land of his roots). His family came from Fife, which is reflected in the full title of his peerage. Fife is a region in Scotland that at one time was a kingdom with a venerable history, and birthplace of numerous luminaries in science, exploration, engineering, politics, and history. Fife is also well known for its beef, lamb, and fish, along with oats, peas, raspberries, and other mainstays of Scottish cuisine. As Scots immigrants to Australia I expect Forrest’s childhood, much like mine, was dominated by traditional British cooking. My father, John Forrest, loved his breakfast porridge and his Sunday roast lamb every bit as much as any Scots immigrant to Australia. In that sense, you can take any Scots recipe as a celebratory dish for the day. Because Forrest was also a notable Victorian, I am going to take a slight left turn and give you this recipe from Mrs Beeton for snow cake. She claims it is a “genuine Scotch recipe” but it definitely has a colonial feel because one of the chief ingredients is Bermuda arrowroot, rather than regular flour.

Arrowroot (Maranta arundinacea) is one of the oldest cultigens from the New World. There is evidence that it was cultivated as early as 8200 BCE (around the same time that plants were first being domesticated in Mesopotamia). The root is dried and pounded into a flour, which these days is more often used a thickener than as a chief ingredient. I used to use it all the time for sauces because I find it superior to both regular flour and cornstarch. I have not tried this recipe, which seems to be rather like angel cake – light and airy. In Beeton’s time this was an expensive endeavor.


(A genuine Scotch Recipe.)

  1. INGREDIENTS.—1 lb. of arrowroot, 1/2 lb. of pounded white sugar, 1/2 lb. of butter, the whites of 6 eggs; flavouring to taste, of essence of almonds, or vanilla, or lemon.

Mode.—Beat the butter to a cream; stir in the sugar and arrowroot gradually, at the same time beating the mixture. Whisk the whites of the eggs to a stiff froth, add them to the other ingredients, and beat well for 20 minutes. Put in whichever of the above flavourings may be preferred; pour the cake into a buttered mould or tin and bake it in a moderate oven from 1 to 1-1/2 hour.

Time.—1 to 1-1/2 hour.

Average cost, with the best Bermuda arrowroot, 4s. 6d.; with St. Vincent ditto, 2s. 9d.

Sufficient to make a moderate-sized cake. Seasonable at any time.

Mar 192016




I love coincidences. Today is the birthday of TWO eminent African explorers: David Livingstone (1813) and Richard Burton (1821). Both deserve a post in their own right. However, juxtaposing them allows for some comparisons. I’m not going to dribble on about either at great length. If I pique your interest you can explore more on your own. There’s plenty of material online.

This is a good (brief) site on Livingstone that cuts to the heart of the matter:

This is a strange, but compelling, view of Burton from a blog on “manliness”:


David Livingstone (19 March 1813 – 1 May 1873) was a British Congregationalist pioneer medical missionary with the London Missionary Society and an explorer in Africa. His meeting with H. M. Stanley on 10 November 1871 gave rise to the popular quotation “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” (which some say he rehearsed for months beforehand, whilst others believe is apocryphal). Livingstone was one of the most popular national heroes of the late 19th century in Victorian Britain, and he had a mythical status which operated on a number of interconnected levels: Protestant missionary martyr, working-class “rags to riches” inspirational story, scientific investigator and explorer, imperial reformer, anti-slavery crusader, and advocate of commercial empire. His fame as an explorer helped drive forward the obsession with discovering the sources of the River Nile that formed the culmination of the classic period of European geographical discovery and colonial penetration of the African continent.

At the same time, his missionary travels, “disappearance” and death in Africa, and subsequent glorification as posthumous national hero in 1874 led to the founding of several major central African Christian missionary initiatives carried forward in the era of the European “Scramble for Africa”.


Sir Richard Francis Burton KCMG FRGS (19 March 1821 – 20 October 1890) was a British explorer, geographer, translator, writer, soldier, orientalist, cartographer, ethnologist, spy, linguist, poet, fencer, and diplomat. He was known for his travels and explorations in Asia, Africa and the Americas, as well as his extraordinary knowledge of languages and cultures. According to one count, he spoke 29 European, Asian and African languages.

Burton’s best-known achievements include a well-documented journey to Mecca, in disguise at a time when Europeans were forbidden access on pain of death; an unexpurgated translation of One Thousand and One Nights (commonly called The Arabian Nights in English after early translations of Antoine Galland’s French version); the publication of the Kama Sutra in English; and a journey with John Hanning Speke as the first Europeans to visit the Great Lakes of Africa in search of the source of the Nile.

Burton defied many aspects of the pervasive British ethnocentrism of his day, relishing personal contact with exotic human cultures in all their variety. His works and letters extensively criticized colonial policies of the British Empire, even to the detriment of his career. Although his university education was aborted, he became a prolific and erudite author and wrote numerous books and scholarly articles about subjects including human behavior, travel, falconry, fencing, sexual practices, and ethnography. A characteristic feature of his books is the copious footnotes and appendices containing remarkable observations and information.

Burton was a captain in the army of the East India Company, serving in India (and later, briefly, in the Crimean War). Following this, he was engaged by the Royal Geographical Society to explore the east coast of Africa and led an expedition guided by the locals and was the first European to see Lake Tanganyika. In later life, he served as British consul in Fernando Pó, Santos, Damascus and, finally, Trieste. He was a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and was awarded a knighthood (KCMG) in 1886.

Both men believed in British colonialism, but neither subscribed to the bigoted racism of the day. Livingstone was a staunch abolitionist, considering slavery to be an unchristian evil perpetrated on Africa by greedy opportunists. He railed against the practice in Britain and Africa. Both men respected local customs, being more interested in documenting them than changing them. Livingstone owed his ability to survive in previously unexplored parts of Africa by taking a soft approach with the locals. Others before him and gone off into the bush with large groups of men armed with guns and rifles, hoping to hack and bully their way through. Most of them died for their troubles. Burton and Livingstone both traveled light, and took the trouble to befriend local leaders. In several instances, they owed their survival to this tactic.


Here’s a great example from Burton. Burton’s camp was attacked by a Somali raiding party. He writes his recollection of a time when his encampment was attacked by Somalis in First Footsteps in East Africa:

The enemy swarmed like hornets with shouts and screams intending to terrify, and proving that overwhelming odds were against us: it was by no means easy to avoid in the shades of the night the jabbing of javelins, the long heavy daggers thrown at our legs from under and through the opening of the tent…The revolvers were used by my companion with deadly effect: unfortunately there was but one pair.

In the confusion of the battle, Burton turned to strike a man approaching him, but he was a colleague. Just before striking down his friend he recognized him, and in the moment of hesitation that followed, he was speared through the face by one of the Somali raiders:

I turned to cut him (his colleague) down: he cried out in alarm; the well known voice caused an instant’s hesitation: at that moment a spearman stepped forward, left his javelin in my mouth, and retired before he could be punished.

The spear went through one cheek and out the other, knocking out four teeth and damaging the roof of his mouth. With the spear lodged in his mouth Burton managed to fight his way out and then wandered up the beach through the night and into morning before coming across help. The boat which Burton stumbled upon just happened to be crewed by local men to whom Burton had previously shown great hospitality, and they received him and tended his wounds. The spear left him with a scar which you can see in portraits.


Both men are noted for having better relations with locals in Africa than with fellow Europeans. Livingstone was well known for his inability to get along with other Westerners. He fought with missionaries, fellow explorers, assistants, and (later) his brother Charles. He had little patience with the attitudes of missionaries with “miserably contracted minds” who had absorbed “the colonial mentality” regarding the natives; Burton likewise.

A story that haunted Burton up to his death (recounted in some of his obituaries) was that he came close to being discovered one night when he lifted his robe to urinate rather than squatting as an Arab would. It was said that he was seen by an Arab boy and, in order to avoid exposure, killed him. Burton denied this, pointing out that killing the boy would almost certainly have led to his being discovered as an impostor. Burton became so tired of denying this accusation that he took to baiting his accusers, although he was said to enjoy the notoriety and even once laughingly claimed to have done it. A doctor once asked him: “How do you feel when you have killed a man?”, Burton retorted: “Quite jolly, what about you?”. When asked by a priest about the same incident Burton is said to have replied: “Sir, I’m proud to say I have committed every sin in the Decalogue.”

These allegations coupled with Burton’s often-irascible nature were said to have harmed his career and may explain why he was not promoted further, either in army life or in the diplomatic service. As an obituary described: “…he was ill fitted to run in official harness, and he had a Byronic love of shocking people, of telling tales against himself that had no foundation in fact. Men at the FO [Foreign Office] … used to hint dark horrors about Burton, and certainly justly or unjustly he was disliked, feared and suspected … not for what he had done, but for what he was believed capable of doing.” Whatever the truth of the many allegations made against him, Burton’s interests and outspoken nature ensured that he was always a controversial character in his lifetime.

David Livingstone died in 1873 at the age of 60 in Chief Chitambo’s village at Ilala, southeast of Lake Bangweulu, in present-day Zambia, from malaria and internal bleeding due to dysentery. His loyal attendants Chuma and Susi removed his heart and buried it under a Mvula tree near the spot where he died. That site, now known as the Livingstone Memorial, lists his date of death as 4 May, the date reported (and carved into the tree’s trunk) by Chuma and Susi; but most sources consider 1 May—the date of Livingstone’s final journal entry—as the correct one.


The rest of his remains were carried, together with his journal, over 1,000 miles (1,600 km) by Chuma and Susi to the coastal town of Bagamoyo, where they were returned by ship to Britain for burial. In London, his body lay in repose at No.1 Savile Row, then the headquarters of the Royal Geographical Society, prior to interment at Westminster Abbey.

Burton died in Trieste early on the morning of 20 October 1890 of a heart attack. His wife Isabel persuaded a priest to perform the last rites, although Burton was not a Catholic and this action later caused a rift between Isabel and some of Burton’s friends. It has been suggested that the death occurred very late on 19 October and that Burton was already dead by the time the last rites were administered. On his religious views, Burton called himself an atheist, stating he was raised in the Church of England which he said was “officially (his) church”.

Isabel never recovered from the loss. After his death she burned many of her husband’s papers, including journals and a planned new translation of The Perfumed Garden to be called The Scented Garden, for which she had been offered six thousand guineas and which she regarded as his “magnum opus”. She believed she was acting to protect her husband’s reputation, and that she had been instructed to burn the manuscript of The Scented Garden by his spirit.


The couple are buried in a remarkable tomb in the shape of a Bedouin tent, designed by Isabel, in the cemetery of St Mary Magdalen Roman Catholic Church Mortlake in southwest London. The coffins of Sir Richard and Lady Burton can be seen through a window at the rear of the tent, which can be accessed via a short fixed ladder.

Mrs Beeton can be counted on for a colorful story:

THE PRICE OF A SOW IN AFRICA.—In one of the native states of Africa, a pig one day stole a piece of food from a child as it was in the act of conveying the morsel to its mouth; upon which the robbed child cried so loud that the mother rushed out of her hovel to ascertain the cause; and seeing the purloining pig make off munching his booty, the woman in her heat struck the grunter so smart a blow, that the surly rascal took it into his head to go home very much indisposed, and after a certain time resolved to die,—a resolution that he accordingly put into practice; upon which the owner instituted judicial proceedings before the Star Chamber court of his tribe, against the husband and family of the woman whose rash act had led to such results; and as the pig happened to be a sow, in the very flower of her age, the prospective loss to the owner in unnumbered teems of pigs, with the expenses attending so high a tribunal, swelled the damages and costs to such a sum, that it was found impossible to pay them. And as, in the barbarous justice existing among these rude people, every member of a family is equally liable as the individual who committed the wrong, the father, mother, children, relatives,—an entire community, to the number of thirty-two souls, were sold as slaves, and a fearful sum of human misery perpetrated, to pay the value of a thieving old sow.

I won’t vouch for the specific veracity of the story but some elements ring true. Among African herders traditionally, animals were wealth. They were not bred simply for food and other products. They were used for payment of a variety of social obligations, and the ability to breed large herds led to great power and prestige. In consequence an animal was not slaughtered idly. Rather, animals were killed ritually, usually as part of community-wide celebrations. So, a traditional recipe for you would be something like – “choose a well-fattened ox, kill it with a single spear thrust to the heart, let it bleed, then cut the meat into large chunks and boil it in large pots.”

Here’s a wonderfully entertaining and famous description of a Christmas feast in the Kalahari by Richard Lee:


Otherwise you can make ugali. Ugali (also sometimes called Sima, Sembe or Posho) is a dish of maize flour (cornmeal), millet flour, or Sorghum flour (or a blend) cooked with water to a porridge- or dough-like consistency. It is the most common staple starch featured in the local cuisines of the African Great Lakes region and Southern Africa.

The traditional method of eating ugali is to roll a lump into a ball with the right hand, and then dip it into a sauce or stew of vegetables and/or meat. Making a depression with the thumb allows the ugali to be used to scoop, and to wrap around pieces of meat to pick them up in the same way that flat bread is used in other cultures.  If you are new to this way of eating, it will take practice.