There are certain culturally inalienable things about a Nigerian girl – she will marry, she will have children and she will know how to cook.
Depending on the household, a girl starts learning to prepare meals from as young as nine years old. We don’t learn how to put together recipes to take care of our own bellies. We learn it because we will be taking care of a husband and our own households one day. All roads lead to this. Our little fingers will hold knives, knead dough and get singed with hot oil while our male counterparts swing from trees and chase each other around in pure, childish delight.
I did not understand why I had to be in the kitchen. It was explained to me but I still didn’t understand why I had to sit in the kitchen for hours on end. How will you take care of your house, my mother would snap at me in anger when she caught me in the bedroom while the family meal was being cooked. I wanted to be left alone to read my Stephen King and Susan Isaac novels. I wanted to watch TV whenever I wanted. I did not want to sit on a low wooden stool in the kitchen, watching the house help combine things, bored out of my skull. I was doing very little. I passed the salt, washed the rice, sieved the flour for semo. But I was restricted to the kitchen. It was how you raised a girl to have good home training.
But I did not see myself as a typical girl. I read and watched Sci-fi and fantasy books and films. Stephen Donaldson’s The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, JRR Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings all fascinated me. The idea that you could be transported to a strange land, where you discover your true destiny and then went on adventures held my 18 year old mind.
In Nigeria, it was rare to get a fantasy series on TV but one month, our local cable channel was going to show one – Gormenghast. The trailers ran for weeks and it had everything my mind craved. Adventures. A world different from mine. My anticipation built until I was having dreams about it. In the early 2000s, we did not have the ability to record tv programmes and watch them later. You could not download TV shows on demand. If I wanted to watch Gormenghast I had to catch it on the day it aired. And also hope that the electricity would be on. The day finally arrived and as the clock ticked down to 7pm, my excitement grew. I had warned everyone beforehand that the remote was mine at 7. The electricity gods were with me as well. The food gods were not with me however. My mother declared that I had to make spaghetti for dinner. I could not leave the kitchen to get even a glimpse of the series. I sharply broke the sticks of spaghetti into the pot of boiling water, boiling inside myself. I dared not leave the kitchen. I missed that first episode of Gormenghast and dinner was horrible. It was salty, reflecting my bitterness. It felt deeply unfair.
The following day, after my disastrous turn in the kitchen, my mother called me into her room. She wanted to talk. She went through her beauty ministrations, soaking the cotton wool pad with cleanser and vigorously rubbing it into her face. She carefully applied her makeup whilst words I consider ugly came from her lips. I was the first daughter but I was disappointing her. She expected so much from me and I was just not delivering. Not even close.
I did not protest because I was not surprised. After she had returned from a visit to a family friend’s home in Abuja, I was continually compared to the family friend’s daughter. Agnes can cook this dish, Agnes can pound yam to perfection. My mother had never uttered these words but I heard them nonetheless – What is wrong with you? Why are you different?
As long as I remember my mother has always worked. And she rose in the ranks at her office quite quickly. Every morning, she got dressed in her power suit with the 90s shoulder pads, and her official driver took her to work in her official car. Yet she was more concerned about whether I could cook rather than who I wanted to be in life. She never sat me down to ask what I wanted for myself. Who I aspired to be. What my dreams were. I was a girl and girls grow up to marry, give birth and cook.
Cooking is of such importance that divorces or separations happen over it. According to family gossip, a cousin separated from his wife partly because her okra soup was terrible. It was a story we all accepted and didn’t look at as strange. What was the use of a woman if she couldn’t make okra, the simplest of soups? Another cousin, a woman, was raised sheltered. All her needs catered for. She had not learnt to cook because she had no need to learn. But the time came for her to get married. She had a four week crash course before her wedding day. She hunkered down in the kitchen with the cook and learned to make all the varieties of rice, soup and flour based dishes. If she couldn’t cook would her husband have divorced her or stopped the wedding? Would her lack of cooking skills take away all the use she has in the world?
I largely resisted learning how to cook. I defiantly told people that I could not cook. I was teased about it. I was reprimanded and reminded by female friends. How will you take care of your husband? At that age, a part of me pushed back against the idea of my use and purpose in life being watered down to providing food. It did not feel right. I wanted to be equal to my husband. The lack of a basic life skill should not render me of no use to the world. Women are not just tools that take care of the home.
Looking at women as just tools to take care of the home and the men has repercussions that go far beyond the kitchen. In Nigeria the UN estimates that over 5 million girls are out of school. 48% of men consider domestic violence a valid way to discipline their wives.
These days I enjoy cooking. I think of new recipes to try. I play around with ingredients. I have learnt most of what my mother was trying to squeeze into me. I learnt it when I was good and ready. When I cook, I put my laptop on the counter and listen to TV shows as I chop, knead and fry. I have not missed another TV show. Those inalienable truths about Nigerian women are lies and should be replaced – a Nigerian woman will have autonomy, she will choose her path and she will learn to cook when she is good and ready.