By Maru Gubena —
What follows is a brief excerpt from my forthcoming book (planned to be a little over 300 pages), “The Ethiopian Revolution and the Generation of the 1970s: Dreams, Memories and Harsh Realities.”The two main characters – Jembernesh and Kurat – were childhood lovers in the 1970s. After being apart for many decades, they unexpectedly met at a conference in May 2006. The Kitchen Story takes place while Kurate is visiting Jembernesh in Paris, where she lives.
It was a sticky, hot July, and we had spent a long and extremely tiring day visiting the Eiffel Tower and many other museums and sights of Paris. Immediately after arriving home, my Jember of the 1970s and I went upstairs to rest for a while. A little more than an hour later, we went downstairs to prepare and eat some food.
Jember held my right hand tightly and pulled me towards the kitchen. She said lovingly “Kurate Hode, wouldn’t you like to stay here with me in the kitchen while I warm up our dinner? We still need to eat, it’s pretty late. I think the children will probably stay ’til late evening or perhaps the whole night, enjoying themselves with their father at Disneyland. By the way, am I offending you by bringing you to the kitchen? I mean, traditionally speaking, many Ethiopian males don’t even enter the kitchen, and since you and I have grown apart over the last three decades, I really don’t know what you think about it. In many cases, even if a man wants to enter the kitchen, his wife and other female family members will not allow it. In Ethiopia the kitchen is strictly forbidden territory for most Ethiopian males, as I was taught in childhood.
“Isn’t this a very strange and a tragic pattern of our culture? Just imagine, Kurate Hode, if a man were starving to death and there were no women and no girls around, what then? What is he going to do? What will he eat? You know, I can vividly recall what my mother, and more particularly my maternal grandmother, used to tell all of the female family members.
“‘A real man, a real Ethiopian patriot,’ said my grandmother, talking to me and two of my younger sisters, ‘would never, never go into the kitchen. It is a room just for women, where they prepare and cook all the food for the family. The man is just supposed to enjoy the food prepared for him by his wife, mother, sisters or grandmothers, after a woman has brought the food to the dining room or wherever he is to eat. But certainly not in the kitchen’.
“When Kuku, my youngest sister was just eleven – she really enjoys provoking her family – asked grandmother a question that was a bit confrontational, grandma got somewhat emotional. Kukuye’s question was in fact simple and it was valid, at least in my eyes. It was enough, though, to annoy grandmother. In her usual bossy way, Kukuye loudly asked grandmother and all of us ‘Imagine now Eneye, grandma, that I am married to a very handsome, gentle and hardworking young man, who is very caring and loves me so dearly, what will happen if I take my husband into the kitchen to help me cook and talk with me? Why would this be wrong, Anchi Eneye?’
“My grandmother began to stare at me and my sisters, Kukuye and Kiduse. She began to shake her head in a way that clearly showed her surprise and her complete disapproval of Kukuye’s question. Grandma then spoke to my sister, saying ‘my love Kukuye, come here in front of me and listen! You are not going to do that. You are not supposed to take your husband into the kitchen, however deep his love for you may be. If you do that, then your husband will no longer be a man. He will be seen by the neighbourhood and by all the villagers as a man without his manliness. A man married to a lovely girl like you, like my grandchild, is supposed to be sensible. He must be responsible for the entire community, to help save lives, secure peace and restore hope for our entire people and beyond. But he must never be allowed to accompany my lovely girl into the forbidden “women’s territory” of the kitchen. If any of you do that, you will never see my face again,’ concluded Eneye angrily. As can be imagined, Kiduse and I were a bit scared by her frowning face. But not the bossy Kukuye! Instead she kept on irritating Eneye.
“‘What is that?’ asked Kukuye again, challenging the strong traditional beliefs of our grandmother. Grandmother looked more and more irritated, tired of the confrontational behaviour of her own granddaughter. ‘Listen my love, it simply means that if you allow your husband into the kitchen, he will not be a complete man. He will be seen by the whole community as half man, half woman, someone who is not capable of protecting his family and his country.’
“Kukuye wouldn’t stop, however. She kept challenging, asking more and more questions. These were interesting and relevant, though not in the eyes of our grandma. Kukuye said ‘but Anchi Eneye, that wouldn’t be true. How is it possible that my husband wouldn’t be a complete man? Who says so? What makes him incomplete? Of course not! Such things wouldn’t happen to my husband; unless people in our village did something crazy to him, my husband would remain exactly the same man as long as he still had all of his body parts. That is what I believe, even though I will have to wait and see for myself.’
“My grandmother had become increasingly angry. She seemed to have had enough of trying to advise and teach us. She reacted not just to Kukuye and her confrontational questions, but to all of us. ‘I don’t want any more talk with any of you. Woregna hulu! Please leave me alone! Leave this room immediately! Please go away. I don’t want any more of your talk and questions.’ Then we all ran outside to play hide and seek, which we always enjoyed.
“But you know, Kurate Hode, this is an important issue, and a difficult one for me. Let me tell you a little more about how I feel. I see myself as an agent, an engine, of change. I often go places, not just to inform people, women and men, young and old, but more importantly, to make them really understand the broad gaps that have always existed between women and men. They need to see how urgent it is to change the inequalities that have lasted so long. I honestly love doing everything I can to bridge these gaps. But unfortunately I have a real dilemma. Even though I completely disagree with the views of my grandmother and people like her, when it touches deep inside my own household or my personal life, I often find it extremely difficult to accept, not to mention enjoying it. Whenever I see Hailu, my husband, standing in an apron in the kitchen cutting up a whole chicken or trying to make Enjera, our traditional food in Ethiopia, I just can’t stand him; I can’t tolerate him being busy with women’s business. I actually don’t mind seeing him making some small things, like breakfast or salads. But not those big dishes, certainly not our traditional foods. I honestly really hate it. Yigermehal Ayimechegnim. Betam Yidebregnal! I always prefer to make our big dishes by myself; then I feel so happy, so satisfied when I see my husband and my children enjoying the food.
“Also, I remember how worried I was when I used to travel long distances and attend a conference for two or more days, leaving my children behind with my husband. Even though I am 100 percent certain that my husband loves his children just as much as I do, I nevertheless always felt that he might not take care of them in the same way as I do. I used to spend many unnecessarily sleepless nights.”
I found Jember’s story and her experiences fascinating, and listened attentively. Now it was my turn to say a few words – just a few words, especially since I could not disagree with Jembere’s story and her experiences: I am undisputedly part and parcel of Ethiopian culture and society, and often heard such stories being told to my own sisters. On the other hand, I was somewhat surprised by Jembere’s hazy memory when she said “I really don’t know what you think about being in the kitchen,” so I tenderly repeated what I had told her some time ago.
I looked directly at Jembere and said softly and adoringly “I thought I told you a few days after we met again, at the conference, that I love being in the kitchen – especially with you, with my Jember, my Mukete. In fact, cooking is something that I enjoy so much. Whenever I cook I always feel creative and joyful. I hope you don’t see this as an advertisement, but cooking, cleaning and ironing are among my favorite hobbies, especially after sitting in front of the computer for a long time. Those physical activities relax my mind and my entire body. I might even say that I become more energetic and enthusiastic, and I am able to produce great text for articles or academic papers.
But what I want to tell you most of all is that I am fascinated by the story from your childhood. It is a great example of something I see all the time. Ethiopian socio-cultural values and norms seem to have been constructed to discourage girls and women from enjoying their relationships with their husbands, lovers and friends to the fullest.”
“Oh yes!” responded Jembere enthusiastically. She looked a bit serious and went on: “that is part of the reason I am always running from place to place or from symposium to symposium. Those harmful traditional values and practices like keeping males out of the forbidden territory of the kitchen mean that men cannot share household responsibilities. But there are so many complex issues for African women, including their socio-economic position within African society. Then there are things like female genital mutilation (female circumcision), which permanently affect the health of women and girls in Africa. None of us should ever stop lobbying and campaigning against traditions like that.”
Readers who wish to contact the author can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org