The kitchen is all too often a symbol of women's exclusion from public space, but Sharon Ajongakoh Asonganyi believes it can also be a source of strength and innovation for women.
Most of my childhood memories in the village converge on the “Letimoi”—a traditional cooking fireplace. We played games with friends and family and regaled in stories and riddles 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 adventures with my brothers in the forest or for a refreshing dip in nearby streams. Once, though, I got into an argument with my cousin who threatened to beat me. 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.
To many women, the kitchen connotes sisterhood, culture, life, and strength. But there are also negative attitudes that hold us down. As African women, we’ve so often been told that our natural and rightful place is in the kitchen. We are led to believe that our acquiescence keeps our family and community running. Our families are well-fed, healthy, and prosperous. Discord ebbs and harmony flourishes in the home. Africa’s women are often misperceived as weak-minded and unable to survive the complex fast-paced working world. Because of this myth, families 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 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. 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.
The kitchen may just be the right place to develop creative strategies that promote the African woman’s emancipation. We can take essential lessons from the African kitchen experience to spur innovation and globally sustainable programs.
Women have been found to be more likely than men to spend on nutrition, education, and to re-invest into the family through business ventures. The kitchen space could become a platform for idea exchange, personal support, and information transfer. We can build on Africa’s countless women’s development programs. Let’s expand on school feeding programs that ensure undisrupted education and nutritional meals for children.
Most underserved African females reside in rural areas and often face severe obstacles to obtain an education or start a business. When children are in the classrooms after the meals have been distributed, this makeshift kitchen space can be used to educate and empower. 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, and with ideas for new prosperity. Most importantly, she will have solidarity with her kitchen sisters.
Women’s empowerment is not a new concept. The feminist movement sparked great interest in unleashing the power of the feminine. There have been laudable recent initiatives such as the creation of UN Women and the launching of the African Woman’s Decade (2010-2020). What is needed now is innovation! Let’s gather the strength of the feminine in the kitchen so that we can begin to promote Africa’s women to positions of leadership.