“Do you cook?”
For an African woman, the above question, though innocent sounding is often loaded. The ability to cook and feed ones family is normally seen and admired as feminine trait and one that falls in the same camp of socially acceptable female behavior such ‘raising well behaved Christian or Muslim children’ and ‘sitting properly’. To be an African woman means having certain expectations placed on you, expectations such as knowing how to make chapati, or ugali or pap or jollof. Not knowing how to cook will get you labelled as lazy, possibly one of the worst things to be called as an African wife, right up there with ashowo or malaya. It is seen as such a shameful secret some wives to be in South Africa are paying for lessons before they get married (see lazy makoti.)
There’s no doubt that things are a lot more complicated in the post modern world we live in, gender roles have become more fluid and the idea of women working outside the home and contributing to the family’s finances is nothing new.
“Aww, you are going home to cook?”
My friend asked me this question in a patronising tone when I begged off an afternoon hangout plan. Patronising because it was 4 o clock and nobody rushes home on a Sunday to cook that early unless they are having guests and two, what are leftovers for? The implication was clear, as a now married woman, my work must begin and end at the kitchen, feeding and taking care of my husband… how dull your life has become, said her pitying eyes.
I am from the school of thought that as an adult human being, male or female, single or married you should be able to take care of yourself and knowing how to prepare a meal that will actually nourish your body is part of that. However, her words stood out because they also implied something, the societal expectation that if you both come home from work or wherever and are bone tired, it is the woman who must get off the couch and throwdown in the kitchen because if you don’t feed your husband… well, you know the trope.
“You and your children should always have enough to eat”
A professor at school told us how her grandmother instilled this in her mother, who in turn passed it on to her. This statement carries a lot. On the surface it looks like one must always ensure to cook and feed their family but on a deeper level, it shows that this forward looking women were telling their daughters to not always depend on men to fully provide for them, to make sure that they also were able to provide for their families in case anything happened. Men up and leave, die earlier than women or simply may not be financially stable. I also liked that the statement says “you’ even before mentioning children. Many women fall into the trap of putting others first instead of taking care of themselves, forgetting to love and nurture themselves the same way they do others. The result is resentment, anger and a sense of self matrydom that does little in helping them live their best life.
“I want to see you in that kitchen”
A male relative once said this to me while emphatically pointing to my mother-in-laws kitchen. As a new member of the family, it did not matter to him what I did or who I was on a personal level, my worth would be measured by how well I could cook and make a home. Yup, patriarchy is alive and well and living in a modern African city does not exempt you from it. It’s the same sentiment that saw Yale graduate and Oscar winner, Lupita Nyongo drag an entire Vogue crew (stylist, photographers, makeup) to Kenya to watch her cook Ugali and silence her critics for once and for all because what kind of Kenyan woman are you if you can’t cook Ugali?
The same sentiments that forgot that Tiwa Savage’s cheating husband was a physically abusive disturbed person and focussed on his accusation, “she refused to cook for me”, like not serving food was worse than all his transgressions combined. It was this same school of thought that saw executive director of Oxfam Winnie Byanyima, wife of the persecuted Ugandan presidential aspirant Kiza Besigye criticised for sending tea to him while he was in detention. Byanyima is also an aeronautical engineer, diplomat who, in the past, served in the National Resistance Army with her husband and current Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. She has stood by her husband through it all but guess what people focussed on?
Yes, the tea.
The message being conveyed? It does not matter who or what you have achieved as a woman, hell, you may even broker world peace but if you did not cook your husband a meal…what exactly is your role here on earth?
In her article for FeministCurrent.com, Natalie Jovanoski pointed out that:
“Ultimately, it is not feminism that divorces women from food and cooking — it is the patriarchal social structures that confine women to the kitchen. If it were not for the systematic devaluation of women’s labour both inside and outside the home, women would not need to feel burdened by the act of cooking (and housework in general).”
In other words, it becomes a yoke when it is the only area women are allowed to excel in or exist in.
You can read the full article here: ” I am not a feminist I love cooking – why food is a feminist issue”
Question time: Why are women cooks and men chefs? Do you cook for pleasure or because it’s expected of you? What does cooking mean to you as a man or woman? Share your views…