That afternoon, Baba Onuh Ameh sat before the three-legged stone cooking hearth, legs astride like a woman, stirring the ground cassava powder inside the boiling, soot-covered steel pot into a dough. I stood beside him, offering him a small bowl of water which he intermittently added to cool the seething cassava paste., just as Mama used to do in making our staple food, in her case, a bowl of water in the right hand, the age-long lantern in my other hand, every night.
The cassava was fast becoming a well-made dough as his five wives made it almost every night, sometimes taking turns, sometimes as they chose. Baba was keen on the job, aiming to quench the afternoon hunger of our sprawling populace of about 12 to 15 salivating, restless kids at home in Otukpo, Benue State. It must have been a school holiday period. It was perhaps around 1985 or 86 and I was aged 11 or 12 at the time. It was just the children and Baba at home that fateful day and no senior female figure to handle the task.
As he steadily stirred the food, Baba had no inkling that his actions were effectively stirring the fiery wrath of Alekwu, the unpacifeable village diety.
Out of the blues, the voice of the oracle appeared. It was in the form of Auntie Mama, Baba’s cousin. Her high-pitched wailing pierced the thick famished afternoon air. That was when it dawned on us that what we were hailing as Baba’s first-time-displayed great culinary skill was indeed a sacrilege. Men must not cook. Such taboo verily angers the revered diety.
“This is sacrilege, this is sacrilege!” she continued to wail, tears streaming down her dark and broad face, her hands thrown on her head. “Ha, Onuh, my brother, these good-for-nothing women who call themselves your wives have effectively buried your head deep inside their thighs. This is a taboo and our family must hear of this!”
And with that she took over the cooking. We were at least relieved that the god’s boiling anger didn’t ultimately interrupt our lunch. They could as well direct their grouse at our mothers. We were mere kids, we had no part in the sins of our mothers. So lunch soon became ready courtesy of our aunt’s deft touch. Hurray!
Anyway, it wasn’t yet uhuru after all because obviously the god was greatly miffed as a day or two later, a large family meeting was held. Several of my uncles and aunts, most of whom lived in Ugbokolo township and maybe a few from our Orokam ancestral village, came to our family house at Otukpo. They were really angry at the wives for turning Baba, his father’s firstborn son aka okpura, into their “woman wrapper” by allowing him to cook. Which good wives would allow their respectable husbands to indulge in cooking, an exclusive preserve of women and girls?
In retrospect now, I believe it didn’t matter to them at all the fact that the wives were not on a safari but were sweating it out at the Otukpo main market so they could put food on the table for their son and his sprawling children and pay other bills following the recent crash of his transport business. None of the wives dare point out that obvious fact. Indeed, they begged frantically, profusely, kneeling down in the process.
Well, I think our angry relatives, eloquent spokespersons of the angry god, were pacified by the pleadings after all and left the next day. I guess that was also after a sumptuous meal of pounded yam and delicious olo or obobo soup, topped perhaps by fresh palm wine offered by the wives. I have no idea of the final resolution of that emergency meeting but I know for sure it didn’t include marrying a younger, stay-at-home sixth wife. I think we adolescent children grew rather fast to tackle those feminine tasks ourselves.
I can’t also recall now if they demanded goat as part of the appeasement ritual. I think not, but if they did, we would have been overjoyed at the prospect of eating delicious goat meat since we ate it mostly during Christmas time and as you well know, everyday is not Christmas. But thankfully, the diety stepped down his hammer of steamy wrath.
Ladies and gentlemen of Africa, that was definitely the last I ever saw Baba cook (And that was around 1985 or 1986, some 37 or 38 long years ago). And rarely did any male figure in my family for that matter have cooking or any related ‘women’s house chores’ on their socialisation menu. “Only cowardly males cook”, they would say. In that past era, our male siblings could ‘generously’ ‘help’ to pound yams, they could go to farm or go on their beloved hunting expeditions following after Baba’s leg as they say, but cooking with soot-covered pots, naked fire, smokes and all? No way! Who wan die from the fiery darts of the easily angered god? Well, at least not until they got to town especially Lagos and discovered that the village diety’s male-favoured constitutional powers didn’t stretch to the cities and that male adherents of such obsolete norms, especially bachellors, may die of starvation or become perennial patrons of ‘Mama Put’ or some overpriced restaurants. In the cities, males could cook, hurray!
Like many of our discriminatory cultures, norms and biased notions, cooking (and sometimes washing) being an exclusive preserve of women inclusive, have mostly lost their hold in the face of changing times and tunes. So also is the belief that a woman must keep siring babies until ‘all the children in her womb have been expelled’. The Alekwu diety at least in our Orokam mythology and in many parts of Idomaland, furiously frowns at the very idea of contraceptives and readily ‘strikes dead women who try it’. In those old days when my mother, Madam Esther Omoche Onuh, who, sadly, passed a year and a month ago, used to believe in that fallacy, I would jokingly ask her how come the diety which encourages furious fertility would always shy away from basic responsibilities such as handing down newly-minted ije (money) for ‘pampers’ and baby milk by the time the babies started tumbling out. My mum who sired nine of us (with seven surviving her), later, ultimately turned into a family planning advocate, asking her children and other young couples to peg the baby-making venture at three. Life shouldn’t be that hard; raising a single child is already an uphill task in the current socioeconomic reality. Besides, women, indeed parents, also have a right to pursue their individual dreams apart from annual baby nurturing sprees.
With education should naturally come illumination but sadly, many folks I know are still held by some of those conservative clutches. But I digress a bit.
On my dad’s cooking saga, I called Baba to wish him Happy Father’s Day this morning. I also used the opportunity to remind him of the incident and he quite remembers it, with a laugh. Infact, he screamed excitedly, “Ah-ah! So you still remember that?”
Now Baba, now in his late 80’s, can’t quite recall if a goat was eventually sacrificed to appease the offended god, which I still found sad that we missed such a major feast. But he agreed that cooking shouldn’t be restricted to females. “It was how the norm was handed down to us. Men, especially married men, were not expected to cook as they would be viewed as weaklings or greedy fellows. The men were to work and women do the cooking, but of course, a male cooking shouldn’t be deemed a crime or a sacrilege,” he said, chuckling. I actually forgot to inform him that there was a cooking marathon trend in the country and to ask what his views were of a male being among the cookees, sorry, cooks.
Happy Father’s Day to all great and sacrificial fathers out there! Let us all, male and female, embrace the notion of an equal world where gender-segregated roles and all forms of gender discrimination and gender-based violence become things of the past. Let’s accept the reality that the world is more progressive where retrogressive socialisations give way to a brand new, equal age. Fathers would take their traditional roles as heads of the family without necessarily subjecting
the women and girls in the home or in their lives to discriminatory roles or restrict their dreams in any way.
All must unite and thrive equally.
Once again, Happy Father’s Day to my dad and to all dads, either biological, adopted or symbolic, dead or alive.