Lately, the Nigerian first lady, Dame Patience Jonathan, while campaigning for the re-election of President Goodluck Jonathan, urged women to vote massively for her husband since he has done the most good for them. I would have had no problem with her solicitation of the women voting bloc but she did not stop there. To boost the president’s feminist inclined credentials, Dame Jonathan added that her husband’s continuity in office was important because, “Nigerian women should no longer go back to the kitchen. It is not our portion to go back to the kitchen.” Having been a personal witness to the labor and enterprise of women, I have to ask, “But where are those women who are in the kitchen”?
From rural areas where women work side by side with men on the farms, to urban centers where women are co-breadwinners with men, I wonder why anyone still talks about women going back to the kitchen when it is obvious we have never been stuck in that space.
The imagery of women and “kitchen” has roots in Victorian ideals and the manner it represses women. When we talk of women and kitchen, we conjure a mental image of a repressed woman whose fate is to cook for the men in her life. We picture a virtuous woman who is wedded to the kitchen space so much that she gets an orgasm merely by stirring the shiny cooking pots. The kitchen, as it is used to describe a female space, connotes marriage-enabled domesticity. Mind you, divorcees and single women hardly fit into this frame.
There is also a class factor undergirding the “kitchen” imagery. We think of middle-class women who are at home virtually all day, studying recipes and mixing ingredients like an alchemist. When they open their boiling pots, they sniff the aroma and glower with accomplishment. With the whole house sizzling with the wonderful aroma of their cooking, their dreams are realized. These “kitchen” women can afford not to work because their husbands do. Their cooking prowess notwithstanding, they are fragile and need the marriage to protect them from the indignities of the labor market. The kitchen, therefore, becomes a safe space for them, with their dignity and existence tied to their husbands. Their kitchen occupation is also a way they earn their keep.
Altogether, the kitchen evokes the image of women who have submitted to their fate, to patriarchy and to the natural order dictated by insecure men. People use the expression of women in the kitchen frequently but do they ever stop to consider if it is true or not?
Whilst working on my Master’s degree in the University of Ibadan, I used to have a 9am class on Tuesdays. I was living in Surulere, Lagos then and also working a full time job so I had to juggle both. I would leave home by 5am so that I could make it to school before the Lagos-Ibadan expressway truncated my plans for the day. It was still usually dark and for most part of walking from the house to the bus stop where I would take a bus to Ojuelegba, I would be praying against marauders who needed the blanket of the night to cover their misdeeds.
One persistent observation, in my regular ride from Masha-Kilo to Ojuelegba, was that most of my co-passengers were women. The women, mostly petty traders, usually had some wares on their knees, tightly wrapped in multiple layers of Ankara wrappers and kept close to their chest. Some of the women had babies strapped on their backs. They way they artfully balanced their enterprise with motherhood tempted me to romanticize the poverty that placed them in those conditions but I know better. While I believe in the virtues of hard work, I also see the women straining to make a livelihood.
When I see some of the women disembark at Ojuelegba motor-park and begin to set their wares in spaces considered as culturally “male”, spaces that can be hostile to women, I mentally salute their efforts. I sometimes wondered what their private lives might be like: should they not be beside their husbands at that time of the day when sex between couples, animated by the cold chill of a day yet unbroken, was supposedly the sweetest? Do they permit themselves some fanciful feminine fantasies or they are too busy earning a living to be bothered by such encumbrances? From the distance of my own life – a professional pursuing an academic degree- I try to look beyond seeing them as women whose feminity have been bleached by the roughness of their existence. I see hard work, I see dignity and I also see women who cannot afford to be in the kitchen.
While I am in agreement with Mrs. Jonathan that Nigerian women deserve better, I must say that the flippant association of women with “kitchen” is patently false and capable of eroding the many ways women enterprise contribute to the task of nation building. Nigerian women do not have to worry about returning to the kitchen because they are not stuck there in the first place. Women transcend kitchen and its patronizing connotations. If we don’t see enough women in key leadership positions and in high political offices like their male counterparts, it is not because they are hiding in the kitchen.
We know so little about how our ancestors viewed sex and sexuality, it is high time we delved into this much overlooked part of our history. However before we do we may have to dump some of our biases.
It never fails to shock me just how much we modern-day Africans deny the most basic things to those that came before us. Perhaps it is a legacy of (mental) colonialism that a lot of us view our ancestors as backwards, uncivilised, naïve, even depraved. There are those among us who believe that our foremothers never knew emotions such as love or lust, and to take it further that they would never have considered any form of sexuality that was not of the vanilla, hetero variety. Several years ago I came across a comment someone left on a blog I frequent, while I do not recall the exact words used in the comment I remember it went along the lines of “no one in pre-colonial Africa fell in love, all women were forced to marry old men who already had many wives”. Looking back, that may have been a troll comment but it spurred me to write this post on African initiation rites.
Initiation rites are very fascinating to me, their existence illustrates how societies that do not discuss sex in the open find avenues to impart sexual knowledge to young adolescents. They also show that for a good number of our foremothers, not only in Nigeria but across Africa sex was something enjoyable. Young girls would learn many things during initiation rites, how to take care of themselves for example, as well as what was expected of them when they became wives. This education covered anything from using aphrodisiacs, knowing erogenous zones and rhythmic pelvic moments. Through songs and dances this form of sexual knowledge was transmitted to young girls who would grow up to become women that were sexually confident. Nkiru Nzegwu is much cited in her creation of the term Osunality, she uses the multi-faceted Orisha Osun to symbolise the sexuality of Yoruba women that also appears in countless other African cultures (also posits that in several African cultures the power does not rest in the penis but instead in the vagina).
I was (still am) excited that African authors are writing historical romances. We have writers like Naa Shalman and closer to home Kiru Taye writing love stories set in the past that feature passionate love scenes. I know there are those who will be surprised to see kissing and oral sex in a piece of Nigerian historical fiction and will label it ahistorical. At the same time I wonder, is it so impossible to imagine that sexual acts like oral sex was something that was done before the Europeans appeared to teach us everything? Widening this perspective why would we assume that “alternative sexualities” are a Western import. A friend of mine would vehemently argue that traditional practices such as massages and certain dances could have provided the prelude for women to explore sex with other women. In situations were women constantly came in contact with their peers and touched each other, she claimed, it is not too farfetched that some could have chosen to explore these avenues more.
Something that has always struck me when I read works by Nigerian scholars such as Ifi Amadiume and Oyeronke Oyewumi challenging the ways in which our ideas on gender have been affected by colonialism, is why there still seems to be so much unwillingness to do the same for sexuality. In her book Male Daughters Female Husbands, Amadiume provides an amazing insight into the gender ideology of the Nnobi. Through her book we are able to know that there was a time when gender in that part of Eastern Nigeria was not fixed as simply “male” and “female”. There was no gender binary as it was understood to be something more flexible, this was/is a society where women could marry other women and perform “male” gendered mannerisms, and daughters could become sons. Oyeronke Oyewumi’s controversial The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses looks at the Yoruba example and puts forth the argument that Yoruba also did not place as much importance on a gender binary prior to European contact.
What surprises me is how we can be open about examining gender in our pre-colonial pasts but cannot about sexuality. Both Oyewumi and Amadiume seem to be of the opinion that homosexuality did not exist in the societies they research on, that it is a foreign concept to Africa. I always agree that Western ideas on same-sex relationships should not be imposed on African cultures, but to me the possibilities are endless. While the research is scanty on this side of the pond, studies into women-loving-women in the African Diaspora have been quite revealing as to the African connection. Gloria Wekker in The Politics of Passion argues that mati, that is put simply women who have sex and form relationships with other women in Afro-Surinamese culture, is linked to West African cultural heritage. For women of African descent in Suriname who engage in the mati work sexual activity and fulfilment is more significant that the sex of one’s sexual counterpart. Rather than being an identity, the mati work is versatile and fluid even as it may recognise he presence of a masculine spirit for lack of a better term in women who love to lie down with other women.
Sexualities similar to the mati work have been recorded throughout the African Diaspora, yet they are so few when it comes to the continent. Could our biases be blinding us to the diversity of sexualities in our pre-colonial traditions? My proposal is that we rethink the way our foremothers viewed sexuality and sex. That we open our minds to the possible realities that may not fit into our impressions of how the past was.
Editor’s Note: Recently the rumor that the erstwhile Governor of the CBN now Emir of Kano – Sanusi Lamido Sanusi – made headlines across Cybersphere, with much argument about whether it is right for a fifty something years old man had the right to marry a 17year old girl … as his fourth wife.
Our opinion? Should this be up for discussion in 2014, should it be even conceivable? What about the girl? Her dreams, hopes and aspirations, isn’t she supposed to have any? Shouldn’t she be the one deciding who she wants to marry and not forced to marry for economic reasons? But … we held our peace because Nigerian cybersphere cannot be totally relied on.
The truth is that just last year, a sitting senator, Ahmed Yerima, who caused a furore when he married a 13year old girl a few years ago and got away with it! Divorced his 17 year old Egyptian bride in order to marry … a fifteen years old girl.
Maryanne Kooda is a friend of the house, one of the online warriors pushing feminism and equality as the one thing that would save our country, Nigeria from the brink of the abyss it seems determined to plunge itself into.
We got in touch with her and asked that she be one of our contributors, she graciously acceded to our request only for us to discover that she had barely escaped being a child bride and ended up becoming a ‘baby carrying baby’.
In the mail accompanying her article she said something that was touching and revealing, “I wrote this yesterday in two hours, it practically wrote its self. As I read it today I burst into tears in the part where I wrote about giving up my dreams to be a lawyer … My sister told me not to share it one FB, but it’s my story and I am not ashamed of it…i am at peace with sharing the story on your blog, I feel compelled to tell this story, child marriages need to be talked about! Somebody has got to do the talking.”
Read MaryAnne’s story of how she triumphed against all odds to become an independent, thinking woman, with two children she’s so proud of.
So recently, my fifteen year old son and my nine year son where talking about my possible marriage to the man I had been dating for three years now.
“There are many fishes in the sea mama, you don’t have to marry him” the fifteen year old said.
Then his brother replied, “Why will a fish want to marry her?”
Gosh! That sent me reeling with laughter because it made so much more sense that it made me wonder who came up with that idiom.
You see, I grew up in the middle belt of Nigeria, where girls where raised to be wives and mothers. This is of course a generalization. There must be many women from the Middle-Belt who have successful careers and financial independence. But the reality I grew up with was that I was only as good as the man who offered to marry me. The richer he was the better.
As soon as I reached adolescence, it became a prerequisite that I am prepared to be married to the most affluent of suitors. Though now as an educated woman I cringe at the very idea of trying to marry off a child. Yet that is the reality of many children in the North and Middle-Belt of Nigeria.
This preparation for child marriage, particularly the way it is carried out in the Middle-Belt, involves some revolting and barbaric practices that I would rather not go through at the moment! I can’t bear to relive those experiences. Needless to say, by the time I was eighteen, I eventually met and married a man who has able to look after me, support my education and of course, my immediate and extended family.
The ironic thing about the marriage was that, it had nothing to do with parental or extended family pressure. By seventeen as soon as I was done with secondary school, I was sick to my stomach with the way I was pressurized to marry and support my family so I ran away from home. I found a job at a video club where I worked for a few months till another job offer came to work as a sales girl in a major super market in Abuja. I had these grand delusions of going to the University of Abuja, so I took my surprisingly good WEAC and JAMB results to the university to gain admittance but was just tossed around. I will never forget bursting into tears at the Gwagwalada bus stop as I got on the bus and headed back to my spot behind the large glass showcase of designer products that I was supposed to market.
It was there, behind that glass showcase that I met my husband. It was early in 1999, when I was disillusioned with life but still had some kind of vague hope that I would go to the university and study law. My dream was to be the “voice of the voiceless”, to stand up for the disadvantaged. There was no way of achieving my goals as my polygamous family was mired in petty jealousies and plain old wickedness. The saddest part of all is that my father was not even remotely poor, though he had other wives and children and my mother was not only fairly literate but a government worker. I had uncles and aunties living in the US. Yet not a single person cared to give me any sort of support or guidance.
Back then I was squatting in a boys-quarters in Asokoro and working at Legend of Abuja in Area 11. I was not there for very long when this man came up to me and asked me, “Can you tell me what pair of glasses would suit my face?” I looked up into his face, and his eyes caught me by surprise. There was an innocence that came through those eyes which I had not seen in most of the men that lecherously hounded me. His eyes told me, “My intentions are noble!”
Though I am usually a very poor judge of character, this one time I was right. I made the bold decision to marry at 18 for the simple fact that for the first time I felt safe with someone. For once I wasn’t a commodity to be traded to the highest bidder or a nubile belle to be seduced with lustful intentions. I was a person that was loved and respected. I must admit, it felt pretty darn good! The fact that he was rich actually did not occur to me at that time.
Well we should have lived happily ever after right! The damsel has finally been rescued by the knight in shining armor. I should be so lucky!
Two years into the marriage I became frustrated and unhappy. I felt trapped! I loved him because he provided for and protected me, and I hated him because he provided for and protected me. Don’t bother trying to understand it, I don’t myself. All I know is I felt like I was in a gilded cage. I pursued a degree part time in Public Administration in the Open University of Abuja. My dreams of becoming a Lawyer went out the window with the arrival of my first son when I was nineteen.
“Baby having baby,” that’s what other pregnant women called me when I went to antenatal care. I felt so ashamed, like I had done something wrong to be pregnant at that age, but it didn’t make any sense, I was raised for this, to marry and make babies there was nothing else that I knew. After the baby was born, just a year after we had been married I got restless. I wanted more out of life, the degree I was pursuing kept me busy and I had every conceivable comfort. I should have been happy, but I was miserable.
The crux of my problems lay in the fact that I did not feel any physical attraction to this wonderful man who had taken me into his arms and made me his wife. I was grateful! My God I was so grateful, but that is all there was. A deep sense of gratitude and even affection but there was absolutely no spark. For the first time in my short life I had the luxury to kick back and relax, to just enjoy being a wife and a mother but I was hounded by discontent.
So soon after I had my second child five years later, I started working for a newspaper, the pay was crap, but then it wasn’t about money but just giving myself a sense of achievement. The job was the beginning of the end of my marriage. As I researched, wrote articles and interviewed people, my discontent increased and I wanted more than anything to be with someone I had chemistry with. Someone with whom we could hold hands and look lovingly into each other eyes, someone with whom I would be with and never wish I was anywhere or with anyone else.
So I left the marriage. In 2008, I simply backed my bags and walked out on my marriage. With two small boys and a little savings I moved to Sri Lanka, my soon to be ex’s home country. Once again, I had even grander delusions of making it on my own. In a foreign country, with no friends or family ties, with no lucrative marketable skills or qualifications. All I knew is I wanted to be happy, I deserved to be happy. I had some vague ideas of teaching English, the research I did showed there was a demand for English teachers.
I should be delighted now right? I had walked out of an unhappy marriage and followed my heart to a beautiful remote Island country. I should be so lucky!
I was flooded with loneliness and the nightmarish reality that teachers simply don’t make enough money to have a decent quality of life. Unless they are supported by family or husbands, most female teachers in Sri Lanka can’t afford proper meals after covering rent and utilities.
So I am back to square one!
I will not bore you with all my efforts and sacrifices to make ends meet. Ok maybe I will, but in another article. For now all I can tell you is that I met another wonderful man, who held my hands in a very dark moment of my life, when I was battered by the stigma of divorce and the emotional and financial hardships of single parenting, or co-parenting as it is called these days,
He told me, “don’t ever let anyone look down on you and treat you badly”, I looked into his eyes and saw the same look, the innocence that spoke volumes, the light that shined through the window of his eyes that said, “my intentions are honorable”.
My loneliness was soothed; we had the incredible chemistry that I always desired. We had stimulating conversations, we travelled, we had dreams of a life time together. At last I should be happy, I have found my “one true love”, sparks are flying and the stars never seemed so bright! Everything should be wonderful now right? Wrong!
You see, after eight years of marriage to a man who met my every material need, and looked out for me almost like a father would after a child. I had to make some serious adjustments to my mindset in order to survive. Not every man suffers from rescue hero-complex.
Now, I had to be the independent woman I always dreamed to be, only I didn’t realize how darn hard it was to begin at 28yrs and with two children to build a life beyond poverty. Career options are limited here in Sri Lanka, if you are not a doctor, lawyer, engineer or accountant you had better have some family support or its curtains for you.
My present love interest is a complete opposite of my ex in every way conceivable, he is the man that my teenage son is rather reluctant I marry because he feels he is not as supportive as his own father is to his present wife, (and how supportive he once was to me).
Friends and family don’t help matters; I get reprimanded for being in love with a man who cannot support me financially. What’s worse is that now, it’s not just me, but I have two children too. Their father has never stopped being a superb provider, even after we divorced and he remarried, he never faltered even once in meeting the needs of our children. He hated me for leaving him, and still doesn’t speak to me, but he never alienated his children.
For that I am forever grateful, as I don’t have to be cornered into choosing a partner based on his willingness and ability to support me and my kids financially and emotionally. Though that is debatable!
Which is the whole point of this piece of writing; this feminism thing, e no easy oh! Not if you are living on minimum wage and have no family support. The poor woman’s version of feminism looks very different from women in more affluent positions. For us, love sometimes feels like a luxury we cannot afford. I can’t count the number of times when I am unable to meet my children’s need and then I find myself self-loathing because I walked out on a really good marriage on some whimsical pursuit of “true love” and financial independence.
Feminism for me has always being about independence and standing up for the rights of vulnerable women. Yet how to be independent on minimum wage and two children? How to speak for the vulnerable when I am part of the statistics?
Then to make things worse, I discovered that my nature is such that I crave a healthy relationship with a man who will make me his wife, not just date, or co-habitate, but take the tradition route of making me his life partner. Not because he wants to rescue me from hardship but because he needs me in his life as much as I need him.
My most naïve ideals was the belief that I could easily earn more than than minimum wage considering my qualifications and skill set, and that I would meet and marry a man who would meet my every emotional and even some financial needs.
The former is still achievable, I haven’t given up, and that’s why I launched my own company www.writestartinternational.com. The latter however, is quite clear will never happen. Reality has set in, and my hope is that by the time I am 38. 20 years from the time I ran into the arms of a knight in shining armor, I would become my own rescue hero. I would have reached a level of self love and self reliance that is just healthy enough to keep me open to the possibilities of a “happily ever after”, regardless of my status; married or single.