Lessons from the kitchen
Most of my childhood memories in the village converge on “Letimoi” – traditional cooking fireplace – with friends and family. We played games, regaled in stories and riddles galore that spoke of our values and traditions. As a young girl, I was not always required to stay with the women in the kitchen. I enjoyed going off on discovery adventures with my brothers in the forest or for a refreshing dip in nearby streams. Once, though, I got into an argument with my age-mate cousin who threatened to beat me. I was quite certain that he would follow through since we were often at loggerheads. I ran as quickly as my little feet could carry me straight into the kitchen – my sanctuary. There, I knew he would not dare touch me. In the kitchen, I knew I was safe and would be protected by the strong women present. As I grew older, I spent many years in the kitchen with female relatives – mothers, grandmothers, aunties, and cousins. Each encounter, though different, communicated the collective feminine strength of sisterhood in the kitchen. To many women, the kitchen connotes culture, life, and strength.
As African women, we’ve so often been told that our natural and rightful place is in the kitchen. With us there, our families are well-fed, healthy and prosperous. Discord ebbs and harmony flourishes in the home. We are led to believe that our acquiescence keeps our family and community running. Although women draw strength from the sisterhood in the kitchen, these attitudes also hold us down. Africa’s women are often misperceived as weak minded and unable to survive the complex fast-paced working world. It is often presumed that staying in the kitchen is in a woman’s best interest, leaving men to handle the external affairs. Families therefore tend to invest more in the welfare of their sons. Meanwhile, a significant portion of Africa’s women and girls are severely neglected and remain invisible.
Men aren’t solely to blame for this situation. In their acceptance of stereotypical attributes - meek, agreeable, and sadly voiceless - women also transfer these attitudes to younger girls. There is a fine line between teaching wonderful cultural values and promoting ideals that stifle a young woman’s voice. Overall, intergenerational transmission of societal values, customs, and traditions has helped maintain the status quo in parts of Africa. We need to find a way to harness those values and ideals that empower and embolden women.
Indeed, the kitchen may just be the right place for developing creative strategies that promote the African woman’s emancipation. We can take from the African kitchen experience essential lessons that can spur innovation and globally sustainable programs. Women function as a very efficient collective in the kitchen. Countless women development programs have been implemented in Africa and we can build on them. For example, let’s expand school feeding programs that ensure undisrupted education and nutritional meals and are typically prepared by mothers. Most under-served African females reside in rural areas and often face many severe obstacles simply to obtain an education or start a business. But when children are in the classrooms after the meals have been distributed, this make-shift kitchen space can be used to educate and empower these women. While their kids are in class learning, mothers can continue cooking outside while partaking in a microfinance class or empowerment training. At the end of the day, a mother can go home with her child, dinner already prepared, ideas for new prosperity, and, most importantly, solidarity with her kitchen sisters. It has been found that women are more likely to spend on nutrition, education, and re-invest into the family through business ventures. The kitchen space thereby becomes a platform for idea exchange, personal support, and information transfer.
There have been laudable recent initiatives such as the UN Women and the launching of the African Woman’s Decade (2010-2020). Gathering the strength of the feminine in the kitchen can promote Africa’s women to leadership positions. Women empowerment is not a new concept. The feminist movement sparked great interest in unleashing the power of the feminine. What is needed is innovation to ensure complete equality for the common woman.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, which is providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training for 30 emerging women leaders. We are speaking out for social change from some of the most unheard regions of the world.