How to Wear a Kitchen

Yemisi Aribisala ponders the small-minded commentary on the room best kept by a woman, as espoused on an international stage recently by Nigeria’s head of state. She argues that more worthy of concern than the politics of gender specificity and cultural snobbery, is the contrarian notion that the kitchen is “a place where the scorned abide”.

Never dismiss a woman with the words “Get thee into the kitchen”.

Not because keenly-sharpened tools on the counter are so effective in gutting fish and a grown man. In the kitchen, women have unlimited access to both cutting tools and to dismissive men’s balls. I mean his plates. She who stirs the soup rules the house, no arguments. More than 70 percent of our immunity to disease is sitting inside our guts at the mercy of the food we eat. She has the power to spit in his meals or lace them with arsenic. She has him, innards and all.

Yet that isn’t the pressing point.

Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari is proud proprietor of the “get thees” and the spiteful rudimentary mind that recently sprouted these words in response to Phil Gayle of German broadcaster, Deutsche Welle: “I am sure you have a house. You know where your kitchen is. You know where your living room is. And I believe your wife looks after all that even if she’s working.”

That is your wife’s function?” Gayle asks.

“Yes, to look after me,” Buhari responds.

“And she should stay out of politics?” Phil Gayle clarifies.

“I think so,” Buhari says.

The woman behind the man: Aisha Buhari at her husband’s inauguration ceremony

The podium that preceded this one was on 14 October 2016 where the president stood next to Angela Merkel, incidentally one of those creatures with a vagina that shouldn’t be at an international press conference talking politics, but rather in Mr. Sauer’s kitchen and living room and other room. The president’s head was lowered to place it close to the microphone in front of him. He-he-he-ing past his neck wrapped in what looked like a Burberry scarf, the supposed uniform of English hooligans, aristocrats and other morons. His eyes as mirthless as palm kernels in their shells, he said in response to a query on his feelings about his wife, Aisha Buhari who had criticised his choice of cabinet members during a BBC Hausa radio interview: “I don’t know which party my wife belongs to,… but she belongs to my kitchen and my living room and the other room.”

Why bother to go to the trouble of stating the obvious; pointing out the wholesale, no-small-change stupidity of a man who imagines he is demeaning a woman, or putting her in her place by telling her she belongs in the kitchen, belongs in the living room, or in some other vaguely charted room? Why bother to address the president’s words if their utterance doesn’t increase the momentum of potent untruths? More worthy of attention is the idea that the kitchen is a place where the scorned abide.

There is a developing downtrend in the social lexicon, maligning snobbery, intellectual desertion and low PC value progressively ascribed to the kitchen. This much-needed, loved and utilised room is now outrageously persona non grata. Due to all kinds of cultural entanglements, misunderstandings, endless wars of attrition between men and women, our politics, our human rights and gender equalising army orders, the kitchen is being falsely implicated in the diminishment of a woman’s power.

The corollary to the snobbery is that kitchens are still full of people – full of men in fact, especially paid men. Whether in fancy five star hotels or when you lower the scale economically, the kitchen remains itself a room of imperative, sacred utility, but now worthy of a title and payment. It is the difference between a wife and a chef. Many starched-white employees cooking for the residents of high-powered Nigerian homes are men from Akwa Ibom or Togo and Benin Republic. Most women can’t afford to hire cooks to attend to the kitchen fires. They can’t afford the scrupulous tallying of household denizens versus tasks that nobody likes to do, divided by gender. Kitchen work is hard work, often unfairly allocated to female members of the house. Yes, culturally, women are still expected in the division of tasks between gender, to “man” the kitchen, but there is no diminishment whatsoever in the doing of the hard work. And my personal philosophy is that somebody has got to wash the dishes. The washing of dishes should not be a gender issue.

Many Nigerian women cook their own meals at weekends, freeze them, thaw them according to meticulous timetables after long work hours during the week. At night after transits in snaking traffic, they arrive home and wear the apron and the kitchen with pride. Yes, pride. They cordon off the interference of men. Cooking is a language and the kitchen is a faculty. With too little salt, too much water, and a flourish of pepper, discontent, sadness and disgust can be expressed in the end product and in the presentation. The eater without words can hear the voice of the one cooking; made to understand in his gut that there is a problem, and it isn’t with the skills of the cook. Vice versa, joy and other similar emotions can be expressed and felt in the virtuosity of the cook.

Sede Alonge, writing in The Guardian last year, warned that “behind such statements as the Nigerian president’s that demean and relegate women to positions of servitude there is a woman or girl belittled. The statements of the most powerful man in the country also have an impact on how millions of impressionable boys will tailor their expectations of women.”

Is there really relegation/belittlement in telling a woman to get into the kitchen or is it an exposé of the size of the person doing the telling? Let’s get the facts straight because a Nigerian woman’s kitchen is not familiar territory in global lexicography, it can therefore not be concluded on in general terms. The Nigerian woman’s kitchen isn’t a room in which she can be depreciated. It is a room of power and illumination. The simple act of striking a match bellows “let there be light”. Many of the instruments in this room cannot be operated by men. Mortars and pestles and grinding stones aren’t about strength in the arms and back as much as conscientiously learnt skill. Competence at using such equipment isn’t something that even women like myself can pretend to own.

A woman who enters into a room that houses her tools of alchemy, that lights a fire representing her hearth, is entering a place with many rich secrets. The mortar is the vagina, the pestle the penis… but the pounding of yam into a supple mound is at the woman’s pleasure. She decides pace, force, beginning, end, heat, coolness, yes or no. Being in that room where fires are lit is an apparel of power worn by a woman and that money cannot pay for. The room yields its secrets to its owner and not to the paid drudge.

Before the publishing of my book, Longthroat Memoirs: Soups, Sex and Nigerian Tastebuds, two dynamic, very well educated Yoruba women who are close relatives, loved to luxuriate in their snobbery of the kitchen by telling me whenever they visited that it was a shame that I spent so much time there rather than at my desk getting brain work done. Since my book – and the shock of the book’s existence has punched many holes in these women’s accusations against the kitchen – it is my turn to elucidate why there cannot be a loss of status in the wearing of my kitchen.

My paternal grandfather would use the word d’ana (light a fire) to explain all the tasks related to cooking, as opposed to the words we use now, se onje, which simply, flatly translates as “cook”. Instead of talking of a kitchen, he spoke of a place where many diverse fires were lit. I have even taken his old-world Yoruba usage to signify the menorah-like structure of the ovaries, the two moons that spark shrouded fires. The demonstration of those fires of sexual desire and emotions is the powerful legacy of all women in patriarchy. The loss and depreciation of language has perhaps closed access to deeper cultural meaning and power.

Look at Aisha Buhari – all she needed was one match, struck, and you understand how petty, how sore, how incompetent her husband, how naked the emperor. He says she should keep out of politics, but her political projections could not be answered by him in any professional or ethical language beyond that of small-mindedness and squeezed laughter. She exposed him and you have to feel sorry for him, because in the end you don’t mess with a woman who has your guts in her hands. If Aisha Buhari has lived with the president for 27 years, then she can predict accurately what the perfect purgative for his system is. She understood who was going to get out of the battle smelling like a rose.

In January 1998, when then president of the United States, Bill Clinton, was embattled and threatened with impeachment over his affair., he spouted words that attempted to diminish the relevance of Monica Lewinsky. She became “that woman” – “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” One could not help cringing while watching him on television. An elderly relative sat next to me. I was in my early 20s and he had to explain what was going on. He said, “watch Hillary, my guess is she won’t leave him over this affair with all the mess, and because she won’t, his presidency will be saved, but in the next couple of years, she’ll run for the presidency herself.”

 

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This piece appears in the Chronic (April 2017). An edition which aims to complicate the questions raised by food insecurity, to cook and serve them differently.

Food is largely presented as scarcity, lack, loss – Africa’s always desperate exceptionalism or exceptional desperation or whatever. In this issue, we put food back on the table: to restore the interdependence between the mouth that eats and the mouth that speaks, and to delve deeper into the subtle tactics of resistance and private practices that make food both a subversive art and a site of pleasure.

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