Encounters Between Cultures – Oyibo in Africa III

Not morsel of food goes to waste in a Igbo-Nigerian village kitchen. Not one grain of rice. I used to think it absurd the way women spent valuable time chasing after the last grain of rice or the last piece of crayfish in the washing bowl to add to the pot.  If it found its way to the soot covered floor it would be picked up, washed with great care and put in the pot. I wondered how much of a difference that really made. Conservation wasn’t a fad, it was a way of life.  I was less careful during food preparation, I was used to wasting food, I grew up in prosperous overfed America. Surely, it didn’t matter if a few grains of rice or crayfish fed the ants, the flies and the cockroaches, there was lots of food to go round and they were God creatures too!

I certainly didn’t think throwing out the entrails of a chicken mattered, no not the heart gizzard and liver, the intestines. But it did, and I got into trouble for it. A considerate woman calls the local urchins and gives it to them in exchange for help with some household chore like washing the pestle and mortar or fetching firewood and saw dust for the burner. They would carefully wash and clean them, roll them on sticks and roast them in the fire with salt and pepper. Anyone familiar with Nigerian cuisine knows every part of the cow is eaten too. A Igbo-Nigerian delicacy I don’t see made any more involved catching the blood of a slaughtered goat in a bowl of salt water, letting it congeal slightly, pouring it into the clean stomach sac, boiling and slicing it up into the pepper soup.

I was usually in too much of a hurry to finish cooking and do important things, like listen to music, write poems, read books and day dream, to obsess over a few grains of rice or chicken entrails. My aunts and my mother in law were not impressed, I was not considered good wife material. I was also reluctant to use fish and meat in the same pot of soup much less snails and bush meat too.  I was assured that this was very very bad for the long term success of my marriage. The way to a Nigerian man’s heart was definitely through his stomach I was told. Pot bellies were not only a sign of affluence they were also a sign of a loving attentive wife.

Long after I learned to make the kind of soup that single urban Nigerian women now use to woo potential suitors, my husband, a finicky picky eater, stayed resolutely skinny.  No amount of assurances or tearful denials on my part could convince anyone that I wasn’t deliberately starving him or that I wasn’t a bad wife. You had to be a bad wife if your husband did not gain weight after marrying you, even worse was if he lost weight after marrying you then you weren’t just a bad wife you were an amusu or a witch that sucked his blood. His mother and sisters felt obligated to torment you for trying to kill their son and brother, just in case you were.


Encounters Between Cultures – Oyibo in Africa II

I was treated with less privilege at the boarding school where I was eventually sent to acquire some much needed survival skills. It was a struggle for first second and third place in the food line and so on till the last place.  I always found myself last. It wasn’t polite to push and shove now was it?  At least that was what I had been taught so I hung back and was pushed and shoved right into starvation.  If you are last in line you get the meanest part of the food, the charred scrapings off the bottom of the pot. Your growth is stunted and you could become a moron from the lack of nutrients and iodine to your brain. I never forgave my father for sending me there and denying me an additional 3 inches and 10 IQ points.

This unseemly rush for food was absurdly followed with lessons on the proper use of cutlery. We stood round long tables (all the chairs were broken or stolen) and I learnt to press my charred rice grains onto the back of a fork with a table knife from the nuns that ran the school. Sometimes they tried to bring order into the food line with long supple canes. This was for me an invaluable lesson; Americans just shovel food into their mouth with fork, spoon and even knife. Still, the school was more like a Victorian orphanage from a Charles Dickens novel than a Swiss finishing school; primitive facilities, brutal adults, rigid discipline, mean unruly students, forced prayers and false piety.

My education in African food etiquette continued when I got married. I married early to escape my fathers’ tyranny, only to discover that all Igbo-Nigerian men are tyrants especially when they are in the role of husband. And I did not have just one husband. According to the Igbo rules all my husbands’ relatives, male and female were considered my husbands. While it had nothing to do with sex it did mean that I was expected to treat them subserviently like I was expected to treat my husband and that included feeding them. The most entitled of the lot were my husbands’ sisters, before long I was thinking of them as the Three Witches and myself as poor Cinderella. (I had a melodramatic victim mentality back then.)

Anyway before I learnt my lesson many a household fight had ensued over the fact that I failed to distribute some dish I cooked to all my numerous ‘husbands’. Mind you I did not begrudge any one food, it just didn’t occur to me to cook for ten or twenty every single time I made a snack especially when there was already enough food in the kitchen to feed a football team. But it was the ‘principle’ of the thing. I wasn’t ‘sharing’. The Three Witches took sharing very seriously, so seriously in fact that they frequently helped themselves to their share of whatever it was they felt entitled to including my clothes, the car, money and of course the food, leaving the rest of us to eat without meat.

Food worth fighting over (From Google Images)
Food is definitely worth fighting over (From Google Images)


Encounters Between Cultures – Oyibo in Africa I

It never occurred to me that something as basic and simple as food and eating it could provide so much insight into culture, sociology, history, psychology, and any other -ology social scientists have made up recently till I came to Nigeria.

Until The Great Homecoming my eating experience with The Parents was each of us with individual plates round the table once a day at dinner except on Sundays when we had two meals together (they were working students).  If visitors arrived during a meal they waited till we finished eating.  Invitations to eat were issued only out of courtesy (a quintessentially oyibo virtue) if at all and not accepted by equally courteous guests unless they had been invited at least a week before to share that particular meal in which case Step-Mother brought out the good china. Bad manners were accepting an invitation to a meal to which you had not been previously invited.

It was therefore a surprise when during one of my first meals in my fathers’ village in south east Nigeria after the Great Homecoming an aunt unleashed a scathing attack on me for being a terribly bad mannered child for not inviting her to come and eat. Ground open and let me fall in. The last thing on my mind was to offend. Please eat it all! But that was not the point. In Igbo-Nigeria food is shared, sharing is caring. Even if it is a spoonful of rice it is obligatory to share it with whoever is present. Children will share a spoonful of rice one grain at a time! Meat is shredded and shared strand by strand. That is good manners in Igbo-Nigeria.

I frequently forget even 30 odd years later to issue the obligatory invitation to share my food though its no longer a the faux pas it used to be. Just like I sometimes forget that seniors are expected to leave food on the plate for the juniors that will wash them. Step-Mother taught me to take only as much as I could eat and eat everything that I took. Left overs got scrapped into the trash, considered a hideous waste of food so there could be no left overs. In the village all leftover food on is eaten and therefore it is good manners not to mess the food around on the plate. I was once denounced for eating like a dog once because I picked at my food, making any left overs unappealing.

Children usually ate from one plate. Eating from one plate was an important part of socialization and family bonding.  Only the Father of the House had the privilege of getting his food served separately. However, someone noticed that I didn’t keep up with half dozen hands scrambling in one plate and had exempted me. I ate slowly, unused to competing with others. Here the fast and furious ate the most. The slow and weak starved i guess. Bullies ate the most meat. But it was also customary for the youngest to get the last morsel and the pleasure of licking the plate clean after which they had to wash it. Washing plates was a great privilege.

From Google Images
From Google Images

Black Bread and the Motherland

I know I love black bread even though I have not had any in 30 years. My 8 year old self assures me of this with a memory of me sitting in front of the toaster demolishing a whole loaf with lavish amounts of butter. It is a cherished memory, a happy memory from the time before The Great Upheaval. One of the memories I keep like a secret treasure in a box and pull out when the darkness threatens, to reassure myself I once had a normal life. And in that assurance find a promise that it can be normal again.  Memories I never share least a careless word and the harsh reality of a merciless life in the village tarnish them, diminish them make them seem less real or less relevant, bright points of solace in a frightening strange world that I bring out with all the care and secrecy of a miser gloating over his gold.

And so at my first meal in Russia more than 30 years later when I reach for the black bread it is with some fear. Will it taste the same? Will it live up to that cherished memory? I cling to memories desperately; I cling to my past self resolutely despite the deliberate and merciless efforts to obliterate it, to make me finally and unequivocally an Igbo girl, a Nigerian. I put a piece on my plate and stare at it, it’s like a test. A test of whether what I remember is real or just my imagination because I really don’t remember all the people that surround me at the table. But I remember black bread.  I stare at it, afraid to test the memory against the reality before me. Afraid I will be disappointed and the precious memory will lose its lustre and shine.

Bread to the Motherland - Old Soviet Era Poster
Bread to the Motherland – Old Soviet Era Poster

Bread isn’t just bread in Russia, bread is life – “Bread Is a Head to Everything” Russians say. They believe that people who share bread will be friends forever. Russians welcome guests with a presentation of bread and salt.  An old Russian saying warns that when you die, all the bread you’ve ever wasted will be weighed and if it weighs more than your body you will go to Hell. “The quality of bread is the quality of our life! …The culture and civility of a people is defined by its relationship to bread… Bread will always live and be animated by our memory and consciousness, this bitter and sweet bread of our whole life and history… To be with bread is constantly to feel the warmth of life.”

I take the first bite without butter, I taste the rich, nutty, slightly sour flavour, it is dense, moist and chewy, and it fills my mouth and my mind. For a moment I panic, then I cover the slice with butter and take another bite and everything is alright. My old aunt dislikes black bread, when it’s mentioned or put on the table she squeezes her face in a way that makes me wonder what memories it conjures for her. During Russia’s numerous wars black bread was sometimes the only thing that kept people from starving. Some consider it coarse bread for serfs, peasants and the lower classes. At tea my aunt wonders how I could possibly prefer it to sweet pastries.

I’m learning to identify the different types of black bread and learning about the one in my youthful memory called borodinsky the only one I eat now, but most of all I’m learning to cherish my box of memories without a fear of sharing them.

Russian Black Bread
Russian Black Bread

If I Read About One More African Woman Valiantly Resisting Pressure to Marry

Groan! Another African woman talking about the pressure she is under to get married. Okay we get it. Marriage is considered a woman’s top priority in Africa and you are not going to succumb to the manipulations of misguided friends and relatives.  You intend to pursue your career until you find Mr. Right, who will let you live your life just the way you want to without expecting you to cook, clean and have babies. Can we talk about something else now?

I speak with all the privilege of someone that got married and had three children all before the ripe old age of 20. No I don’t think, marriage is the most important role a woman has in life, I was not under pressure by anyone to get married or have children either (except maybe my husband). I got married because I wanted to get out of my father’s house as quickly as was decently possible and I had children because I wanted to fill the gaping hole in my soul with some love.

There are a lot of reasons people get married (and have babies) and not all of them have to do with social pressure or family expectation. Some people get married for financial reasons, some get married for love, others get married because they want a house of their own, or a companion to build a life with. Some get married just to have children. No one reason is better than another. Its not a contest and there are no guarantees against heartbreak and divorce no matter how carefully you chose.

All these women grousing that they will not marry simply because they are expected to still insist they are waiting for The One.  So your grouse is not with marriage but with the fact that some misguided albeit well intentioned people are telling you to stop being picky and get on with it already before your biological clock winds down. If you are looking for Mr. Perfect who will tick all your boxes you ARE just being picky. There is no such thing as Mr. Right or The Perfect partner. All relationships are inherently flawed and require a whole lot of work.

I imagine in 10 or 20 years time reading from these same writers today how they regret not having children or regret having children late or the difficulty they are having getting pregnant. You all really need to figure out what it is you really want and stop with the self righteous pseudo feminist bull shit. Either you want to get married and have children (and that’s alright) or you don’t (that’s also alright). African feminism doesn’t need another defensive exposition on why YOU are still single.

From the Elysium Chronicles – The Evolution of My Feminism

I’ve spent my entire adult life trying to change my corner of the world.  I’ve only seen it change for the worse.  I cannot change the world. I can only change myself. And I cannot change the world with other people’s money either. Unless I want to change it in their image and likeness and right now I don’t like their image and likeness.  Still that’s exactly what I’ve been trying to do. Change the world with other people’s money.

I am a libertarian and a laissez faire capitalist. I believe in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I am also an empathetic and compassionate person. More than anything else in the world I love people, I love being with people, hearing their stories and sharing their lives. I believe all men and women were born equal and have the right to be free of coercion, slavery and repression.

I believe that our freedom and happiness are also personal responsibilities. I do not believe in welfare government or a paternalistic government that takes care of people from cradle to grave. I believe all people, male and female can be what they want to be and who they want to be and must be self-sufficient. I also believe that this right ends where that of the other person begins. I believe communities have the right to self-determination.

I believe that justice is the highest good and injustice the highest evil. I believe hypocrisy to be the only sin and honesty the only virtue. When injustice and hypocrisy are condoned by society we have an evil kingdom. Where the community condones and abets injustice and hypocrisy we have an evil community.  The few with power have appropriated our rights and told us it is a social contract.

My ancestors lived on their land for centuries, then one day the Federal Government of Nigeria wrote a piece of literature and said all land and everything on it and underneath it belongs to them.  They also had the fire power to make it so. My ancestors, the people whose blood flows through my veins knew no one owns the land. The land owns the people. The people are tied to the land; the land is not tied to the people. Does the federal government now own us too? Are we now slaves that must buy back our freedom?

Do not tell me what to do, tell me what you will do. Do not tell me who to be, tell me who you are and I will tell you my story too. Perhaps we will recognize ourselves, perhaps not. I will not and do not want to tell you what to do. All I ask is that you respect my declared boundaries. I will respect yours. If you breach my boundaries I will let you know, let me know yours.  Quietly, respectfully, there really is no need to shout. I can hear you. I will listen to you if you listen to me. Respect my right to self-determination.

In the kingdom of my African ancestors where I come from all people male and female were born equally vulnerable and dependent on those that were here before them. You thanked your mother for not killing you when you were born, for not dropping you on your head, for nurturing you instead of wringing your neck because really you were at her mercy and she was here before you. As you grew your drive, talents, skills, intelligence and your audacity determined your rank in the pecking order. Even women and girls. It was a meritocracy albeit a brutal meritocracy.

If you were strong you were hailed, if you were weak you were jeered, whether male or female. Strength and weakness had peculiar attributes, peculiar to a forest dwelling people.  Strength was the power, will and mind to compete as ruthlessly as necessary to come first. There was no empathy for the weak and those that came last. It was said that was their chi, their fate, their destiny, their personal God.  I learnt love from my Mother.

What does love then mean to me? It’s not that wave of emotion I feel when I look at something or someone, that’s endorphins or dopamine.  It will pass.  It’s not even what I feel for my children, I adore my kids. Most of us do. Literally setting them up as little idols and demi-gods we either worship or brutalize into submission. That’s an emotion. Love like my friend always says is a verb.

Love is what you do and it acts honestly and justly. Honestly, I should have made my adult children move out long ago, instead I subsidized them for  as long as I could. I hope they haven’t become lazy and complacent as a result.  After all I was younger than them now when I moved out on my own, the economy was just as bad then to hear my father say it. There would be no injustice, they are adults and supposed to be self-reliant whatever the environmental conditions.

My adoration of them said “Oh no, the big bad world is too dangerous, come let me protect you”. Lolo Ahunwa would slap me upside the head.  The male ancestors would say disdainfully “Leave her she’s a woman” to explain my sentimentality.  I’m glad I did it eventually without much of the conflict I sometimes witness in other families. I know they’ll be al-right just like I was. I instilled them with all my values.

The Universe and Nature act love, the oneness of the Universe is love, the interdependence and interaction of each speck in the Universe is love, a dance of love. When there is an imbalance in the Universe love sets it right. For instance I laugh at the arrogance of the climatologists, climate change will not destroy the Earth, it will destroy mankind, the threat to Earth. The Earth will heal in a couple million years, a day in the long history of the Universe.

I don’t believe in any of the Gods you worship because surely ‘God’ is greater than anyone of them and all of them combined.  If there is a God but you know what? It doesn’t matter to me really if there is or isn’t.  It wouldn’t really change who I am and if God is love I have learnt much from my mothers.

This is my feminism.  It is individual and it serves the communal, it is independent and recognizes our interdependence, it is a tough love and it can be cozily sentimental too.  Most of all it is objective, honest, self-reliant and just.

July 21, 2012

The Chronicles of Alice – Day Dreams & Nightmares (II)

Charlie doesn’t propose. He just starts calling Chidimma his wife every time he sees her. Soon everyone is calling her his wife too and she almost starts to believe them. He is a handsome and popular student at the only high school in the village. It is for boys only so Chidimma can’t attend and father can’t afford to send her to a boarding school. The way Charlie looks at her and smiles makes her squirm but he doesn’t pinch her breasts or try to kiss her when no one is looking like the old men in the village.

Charlie has 3 brothers that live in the village. Every day they wait for Chidimma on the way to the stream and accompany her and her sisters the rest of the way and back. Afterwards they come and visit her older brothers who are Charlie’s friends. Chidimma’s brothers send her to buy cigarettes and beer and then make her sit with them. Her brother Anayo a bus conductor tells wild stories of life and people in the towns he has been to. Sometimes Chidimma wishes she could be a bus conductor too.

Sometimes Charlie sits next to Chidimma and holds her hand. One day her father chases him away with a machete. He threatens to kill her brothers too but they all escape through the window. Chidimma doesn’t run and Father beats her. She falls sick and can’t go to the stream or to the market for a very long time. Her mother died when Chidimma was born so there is no one to cook for her and her brothers when she is sick. Father’s new wife doesn’t like them very much and won’t cook for them.

Early one morning Father gets very angry. Someone stole his money. He shouts a lot and threatens to call the police. Chidimma saw Marcel one of her brothers counting money behind the house yesterday. He hid it when he saw her watching him. When no one is home he brings out his penis and makes her sit on it. He says he will tell father she stole the money if she doesn’t. She cries and begs but he doesn’t listen. He doesn’t put it inside her just rubs her bare ass against it till he shudders and she feels a warm wetness.

One day father’s half-sister Ahuekwe comes from Aba and takes Chidimma away with her. Ahuekwe promises Father she will send Chidimma to school and look after her like her own daughter. Aba is a big town with wide roads and electric lights. There are many houses finer than Sunrise Hotel. Ahuekwe rents two rooms and a bucket toilet in a big old building where she lives with her teenage son and daughter and runs a beer parlor. It is lit with red and blue light bulbs like Sunrise Hotel. At night her customers come with beautiful painted women that smell good and wear short dresses and Chidimma serves them beer and pepper soup.

drum 4

Have You Heard? Every Woman Has A Right To Virginity!

A proposal in a South Sumatra district of Indonesia to make virginity tests mandatory on all girls entering high school has been rejected by the education minister and members of Indonesia’s civil society. The chief education officer justified the proposal saying ‘every woman has a right to virginity’. Read more about it here.

Did they reject the proposal too quickly? I like the sound  it  – ‘every woman has a right to virginity’. We could do things with that. Think about it, think about the implications of making virginity every woman’s right. Would that be like the right to life? Would it mean that you’re not allowed to take it from a woman or that you are somehow expected to provide the conditions for her to protect and exercise that right?

So women wouldn’t have to get married and have children ever again and no one can make them or if someone did they would be violating their right to virginity? Good bye to consensual sex forever? After all euphanesia and suicide are still murder right?  So if its a human right you can’t marry off your daughter, niece or house girl or ask them to marry. If a woman is raped it won’t only be a crime but a violation of her human right to her virginity and she should be entitled to compensation.

If female virginity is a right  who can we sue for loss of virginity? fathers? husbands? schools? Because if they check a woman’s virginity before she enrolls they must check it before she graduates too and be held responsible for its loss while a student. They can’t be allowed to return damaged goods can they now and if they do they will be held accountable and made to pay.

Thinking of female virginity as a right is both empowering and demoralizing. if you had thought of it as a right before you lost it wouldn’t you have protested on the streets before letting some one take it from you?  I see it now, millions of women across the globe marching in solidarity proclaiming their right to their virginity while men stand by and wonder when if ever they are going to get some sex again.

Why do I find this image more ‘feminist’ than the slut walks and the naked exhibitionism of liberated pop stars? Perhaps because it just strikes me as so much more you know anti-man. My dated internal picture of feminism still thinks of it as a revolutionary street movement against the patriarchy, what we once called ‘women’s lib’ (I am after all a child of the 70’s)

The first case will definitely be interesting, which body will have jurisdiction? National courts? Regional courts? Special tribunals? Of course it will take many years maybe even decades before a treaty can be drafted, signed and domesticated (progress on CEDAW is an example) but it will keep women busy and help them build essential advocacy, administrative and leadership skills in the mean time. Win win.

Two Years Later

WordPress just informed me its my two years anniversary with them. Isn’t that awesome? I’ve been blogging for two years. For fickle me that’s a real milestone. I went over my past posts. I been all over the place writing about my work as a women’s lawyer, some of my cases, my matter with Oxfam GB, my opinion about various matters of political interest in Nigeria, my struggles with my health, a few pieces of fiction, even some fashion. Most of my writing has been very ‘woman focused’ if not out right feminist and my more recent posts are increasingly feminist focused. Going over my blog is like a summary of my evolution these past two years.

When I first started writing this blog my primary objective was to just be consistent. Content theme or purpose were a lot less important to me. Its not the first blog I started. I started ‘The Elysium Chronicles‘ in 2009 to post my poetry  and prose but never really got into it.  I enjoyed posting on Yahoo360 while it lasted and kinda regret I didn’t archive all my posts there, they were rather interesting in an off beat irreverent way but it that was more a way to twiddle my virtual thumbs than any real sort of blogging or writing. (If anyone knows how to retrieve yahoo360 archives let me know.)

Reading through my posts now I was just writing some sort of personal journal, picking and choosing what to write about based on nothing more than whim and fancy or the flavor of the moment. Its the vata dosha in me; airy, mobile, dry, cold, brittle, creative, superficial, transient, narcissistic. When things get too serious or too structured I am instantly repelled.  And my nomadic life style since the day I was born has aggravated and reinforced this quality in me. So two years and some 200 posts later I feel quite accomplished.

Thank you for sticking with me. I hope I have provided some entertainment and some useful information. I hope I can make it worth your while to stick around for another two years.

The Chronicles of Alice – Day Dreams & Nightmares(I)

There is a hotel in the village on the way to the stream; at least it calls itself a hotel. It’s a small concrete bungalow with a tin roof and a paved courtyard.  An old oil drum sits at the corner of the building to catch rain water. Dingy curtains cover the open windows and doors. Outside a big signboard says ‘Sunrise Hotel’ above badly painted pictures of green beer bottles and a goat head. At night red and blue light bulbs glow surreally in the surrounding darkness like Christmas lights,

Chidimma passes the hotel on her way to the stream every day. It looks modern and inviting in a village of mud huts and colonial buildings.  She wants to go in and maybe stay in one of their rooms. The hotel rooms she sees in Drum magazine have nice beds with head boards, closets and bedside lamps, not like the iron bed she sleeps on in a stuffy room with clothes hanging on pegs in the wall lit only by a dim kerosene lamp.

She asks her half sister Eunice if they can stay there ‘only prostitutes stay there’ Eunice answers disdainfully. Chidimma read about prostitutes in the Bible, they are bad women that make men do bad things and go to hell.  She doesn’t understand what they do but she understands that they are paid to do it and they do it with lots of different men and that was really really bad. Good women only do it with one man, they marry him and they never get paid for it.

drum 3

Chidimma doesn’t want to get married. Married women always look unhappy. They talk different when their husband is around and they behave different too.  They look wary, like children trying to behave well in front of adults. And when they don’t behave well they get beaten or punished just like children too. Chidimma can’t wait to grow up, she doesn’t want to be a child and she doesn’t want to be a wife.  She doesn’t want to be a good woman.

Good women get up before sunrise to fetch water or strain cassava meal at the stream, sweep the compound, feed the men and children, weed the yam farms or go to the market to buy and sell with babies strapped to their backs or sucking their naked breasts. At sunset they come back to feed the men and children again and put everyone to bed. Sometimes there is a wedding or a burial to attend to break the tedium.

Chidimma feels a familiar wave of darkness threaten her as she thinks of a lifetime of soul crushing monotony and thankless drudgery.  The darkness comes more frequently now.  She day dreams of life as a prostitute in Sunrise Hotel instead, of wearing nice clothes, of men who will love her, of sleeping in a proper bed, of having electricity every night, of watching television and having a drum full of water in front of the house.  She’s just 11.