A good woman knows how to cook well.
This is the expectation of a Ghanaian woman and especially one who isn’t Americanized (read: forgot where she came from). And in case you forgot that your “duty” was being a maestro in the kitchen, you had reminders everywhere, from your parents, aunties, and uncles, and other “aunties” and “uncles” (read: well meaning friends of parents who more or less act like surrogate family members and are just as nosy as your actual family).
This was almost a mantra not only repeated in my household, but within the culture at large. My home might’ve been thousands of miles away from Ghana, but it felt like I never left the kente cloak of the motherland. I grew up cooking at a young age not only because I wanted to, but because I had to. Growing up, it was an expectation for me as a woman in the house to take the reigns in the kitchen and work towards being a doctor/lawyer/nurse/engineer (or any hybrid of the aforementioned careers). I’ve never known my father to just have one job, and anyone from an immigrant family knows your parents don’t work multiple jobs and shifts just to save up for the million-dollar yacht they’ve been dying to sail out on the Caribbean for the last few years.
As a kid, I found that being in the kitchen was both therapeutic and a creative outlet. These feelings were eventually overshadowed by resentment, as my brother, barely two years younger, didn’t know how to cook and was not expected to learn, or help, either.
When I went to college and started swapping childhood stories with friends over late-night 7-11 runs and study breaks in the library, I found that many of my friends—male and female—had similar stories. And it wasn’t just an African thing, either. The same thread of traditional gender roles were woven along stories that my cultural hodgepodge of friends shared. Time and time again, the same overarching theme appeared: the worth of a woman was in her cooking prowess, and if one wanted to be a good [insert nationality here] woman, one had to know how to throw down in the kitchen like Steph Curry’s three-point shot percentage.
Besides, who wants to be judged for not being a “good” woman? Not I. Nope. I cooked and cooked until I got really good at it, and my well-meaning aunties and family and friends took note and showered me with praise. And while I took great pride in those compliments, a part of me felt like I was perpetuating the same kind of stereotypes and old school thinking my parents and some of my family members and friends had. I didn’t exactly want to be known as the girl who knew how to cook, but I didn’t shy away from it, either. I always felt a little ambivalent, and perhaps a little uneasy, about cooking. While it was something that I was great at and loved (and still do), I didn’t want it to become an expectation that I carried on my back for the rest of my life. I didn’t want to be a silent example to my future children and reinforce gender roles that were not beneficial to anyone. For me, that meant taking inventory of the roles that I filled in others’ lives that didn’t do much to benefit me and removing/redefining them, and finding a partner who felt the same way.
Despite all of this, I found myself utterly surprised when a friend of mine told me about her engagement to a Ghanaian man, without knowing so much how to boil a pot of rice! For me, my reaction taught me two things:
a). I had some assumptions on how I thought Ghanaian men (and most men in general) were and I really needed to reexamine the validity of those assumptions
b). Perhaps I wasn’t as progressive as I claimed to be. Here I am, surprised that she was marrying a man who didn’t care if she knew how to cook and he had no qualms about it!
So here I was, very happy but kind of…dumbfounded. This was damn near unheard of. I may have actually fainted, who knows. I almost asked if he had a brother, because I had some friends in mind who could use a man who was just as progressive. Was he part of a new wave of African men, unlike the ones that I grew up with and raised me? I’m sure my next question to her was “Is he okay with you not knowing how to cook?”, because in my head, I knew it was perfectly fine but it didn’t feel okay. This is despite me knowing and seeing better—my current partner was born in Uganda and raised under a number of African traditions and still doesn’t expect me to do anything but stay alive and try not to cut a finger off when I feel like cooking.
My call with my newly engaged friend morphed into an insightful, hour-long call on marriage, expectations, and communication. As we were talking, I thought about some of my friends who grew up in very similar households and took a stand with partners in their own lives. As friends started getting deeply involved with their partners and heading towards the altar, I heard their resistance to these traditions in action and in conversation. One friend with a long-term partner had a few difficult conversations about being expected to do additional work after coming home, despite having a demanding and lucrative career. As some of my friends became new mothers, our conversations started to evolve around how we planned on raising our children with a firm understanding and appreciation of their heritage, but without the narrow and unnecessary gender roles that limited us growing up. I want my daughter and son to know that the kitchen is big enough for all of us, whether or not they choose to learn to cook.
And while I’m at it, I think I’ll cut it out with the whole doctor/lawyer/engineer/nurse thing too. If my kiddos grow up to be Etsy crystal-selling, fire-breathing circus performers, I just may ask them to show an old lady how to do some new tricks and teach me how to use the new Internet, because I’m sure there’s going to be flying computers in the future and I won’t care enough to figure that sh*t out.