My homestay family was always trying to coerce me into the kitchen. “Ma will teach you how to prepare crabs this weekend!” or, “We’ll show you how to make the sauce with manioc leaves!” They seemed genuinely keen to impart their culinary knowledge on me. It’s equally typical that I’ll be sitting around a table with a variety of African colleagues, enjoying a good meal, when somebody drops the cooking bomb. “Oh, toi, tu peux preparer comme ça, non?” Oh you, you can cook like this, right? I can never tell if they’re just pulling my chain, egging me on, or if they’re truly curious. So I usually just smile and make a blanket statement of, “No, I don’t like to cook.” The Africans recoil in horror. “You don’t like to cook??” The kitchen is not only the woman’s domain, but her pride! I don’t know even one married African male who cooks—that is what wives here are for—it is part of how she contributes to the family.
I like to take the opportunity of these awkward dinner-time conversations to blow a few minds. So I launch into my spiel. It goes something along the lines of, “You know, I’m actually not a very good cook. I’m better at finance. That’s why I work in the bank. I have more to offer doing math stuff in the bank than I do in the kitchen. So I’ll keep putting my time and efforts into the bank job, and then use that salary to hire a cook. See? Bonus! Job created!” (Some Africans I’ve met actually reproach the relatively wealthy foreigners who do not hire household staff. If the wealthy have enough money to employ people, then, according to this line of thinking, they should be giving jobs to those who need them.)
These ideas surprise my African friends because it’s in our womanly genes to be in the kitchen, isn’t it? I think my reasoning is sometimes misunderstood here as scoffing at all the culinary efforts and talents of so many other woman, and I come off looking too big for my britches, too uppity to do the most basic and necessary of tasks—cook. But my point is simply to raise the question of where a woman has value. It could be in the kitchen, as is typically the case in Africa. But it could additionally be in a bank. Or a hospital. Or a courtroom, classroom, boardroom, etc. Dropping the “I don’t like to cook” bomb is one way of planting a little food for thought.
I just finished reading the book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan, which got me thinking. That is a man who likes to cook, likes to eat, and likes to think about where all of his food comes from! (I recommend it, but I think if I had actually read it while living in America and eating American-grown food I would have my undies in a bundle. There is enough in there to unsettle one’s stomach. Ignorance can be bliss. But, I recommend it anyway!)
In reading this book (in addition to getting alternatively disgusted and hungry) I’ve realized to what extent I distance myself from cooking in Africa so as to distance myself from my prescribed gender role here. In America, I’ve equally detached myself from a kitchen just to avoid any possible chance that some man would expect me to be stirring a pot every evening, or try to subjugate me, apron-clad, into a kitchen corner.
Earlier today, a fabulously interesting American lady co-worker invited me over for lunch. I happily stuffed myself with a variety of her delicious foods, and was feeling spoiled, satisfied, and appreciative. We were talking about the gender roles in the kitchen—in Africa, in America—and she exclaimed, “But I LIKE to cook! I’m happy to do it!” And it dawned on me that I kind of do, too. Chopping things is stress-relieving! And experimenting with weird ingredients is fun—wondering if my dishes will actually come out edible! I’ve just been too busy trying to prove a point to admit it. I’m not great at cooking, but I sure do like to eat, and it’s fun to make other people happy with the thought and effort that goes into making a tasty meal. In the same way women’s lib has become all about having the choice to stay at home with kids if that’s what a lady wants, I’m realizing that stretches into the kitchen as well. I don’t ever want a man who’s dependant on me for his next feeding, but I do want to know how to make a satisfying meal from time to time. Even better to make that sweet meal with a nice man. :) Plus, food fights are hot.
So, it’s not the deepest of revelations, but I appreciate what dawns on me with the clash of American literature and African culture. I think in my future African dinner conversations I’ll try to be a little more open to the possibility of sharing a cooking lesson. I’ll just have to work in my value-of-a-woman discussion somewhere between chopping and stirring.
PS—Election update. Things are smooth here! The Electoral Commission is announcing results gradually, as they come in, since last Sunday’s elections. Hopefully we’ll know the next Guinean president by this weekend! For the curious, a brief update here.
1 year ago