There is no good translation for ‘ugali’. Explorers in East Africa called in a ‘stiff porridge’ – while in West Africa it was often called a ‘paste.’ The following description of making ugali is unique in 19th Century documents, in that the process now has been greatly refined and the ancient technique (below) is no longer used – at least as far as I am aware.
The grain used – ‘holcus’ – is a species of grass that is quite hardy, but now has been replaced in the making of ugali by white maize meal or another meal.
Burton, Richard – The Lake Regions of Central Africa, Vol. 2 1860
Upon journeys the African boils his holcus unhusked in an earthen basin, drinks the water, and devours the grain, which in this state is called _masango_; at home he is more particular:
The holeus is either rubbed upon a stone – the mill being wholly unknown – or pounded with a little water in a huge wooden mortar; when reduced to a coarse powder, it is thrown into an earthen pot containing boiling water sufficient to be absorbed by the flour; a little salt, when procurable, is added; and after a few stirrings with a ladle, or rather with a broad and flat-ended stick, till thoroughly saturated, the thick mass is transferred into a porous basket, which allows the extra moisture to leak out. Such is the ugali, or porridge, the staff of life in East Africa.
Nowadays water is boiled and maize flour (either purchased or made from one’s own maize crop) is mixed with some cold water and this mixture is slowly added to the boiling water while stirring until a very thick substance is produced. This forms the base of a meal, with which a variety of vegetable and meat sauces are eaten:
This method of eating grain is ‘universal’ in East and much of West Africa, where couscous in the north and rice in the south either replace ugali or supplement it. In Sudan and parts of Ethiopia ugali is called ‘aseeda’, and is generally made of sorghum meal.