Unpacking significance of the kitchen

Joyce Jenje Makwenda Inside Out
When I was growing up I used to hear that women built their own kitchens.

I always wanted to see them building one as in the township I had never seen a woman building a house.

I used to visit my maternal grandparents in Gwatemba but unfortunately I did not have the chance to see any woman building a kitchen.

Even when my paternal grandparents decided to have a home in the rural areas later in life, I did not see any woman building a kitchen.

What I did not know is that women had been stripped of their power and there were no longer looked as powerful people.

Building a house is architecture and it is powerful. The kitchen itself was a powerful place.

Sometime in the 60s when I had visited my maternal grandparents in Gwatemba, an aunt gave birth in the kitchen.

I asked my grandmother how she could let her give birth in the kitchen.

With my urban way of thinking or looking at things, this was very backward and unhygienic.

My grandmother told me that life begins in the kitchen and ends in the kitchen. I did not understand what she meant. For some time I did not eat in the kitchen. It was rather snobbish on my part just to look at the hygiene part and not the cultural significance attached to human life beginning in the kitchen and ending in the kitchen.

It is also in the kitchen that someone was brought when they died.

When I started researching about the kitchen, I understood what my grandmother said and that women who were the custodians of our culture facilitated this journey from birth to death.

I came to understand how the traditional kitchen empowered women and how they asserted their authority and became the holding centre of the home.

The way the kitchen is structured in Southern Africa in particular and Africa in general might differ from tribe to tribe.

The way I understand is mostly influenced by my Shona (Zezuru) and Nguni (Ndebele) backgrounds.

There are similarities in the whole of main Africa (what is called Sub-Sahara) but because of people moving and settling in different places and wanting autonomy, they have come up with different ways of doing things, but the fundamentals are the same.

The kitchen in pasichigare/endulo (pre-colonial era) was the centre of the home and women were seen as powerful in that regard. The traditional kitchen influenced today’s women’s professions in a big way.

I am what I am today because of what was passed to me from the kitchen.

I used to say I do not belong in the kitchen because of my not wanting to cook, but I was wrong because it is not only the cooking which took place in the kitchen.

I am this modern storyteller that I am today because it was passed to me from the kitchen. It is in the kitchen that language was shaped, where children were told stories to shape their lives, where family history was passed on, where children were initiated into different phases of their lives, stories were told, music was taught, and food cooked.

Cooking was the mainstay of women in the kitchen. Language was shaped in the kitchen by talking to the baby who would answer with smiles or laughter.

From the day the child came into the world, they would be talked to.

Miriam Makeba’s song, the click song (BaxabaneOxamu) came from how children were taught how to do the Nguni clicks, the xa, qa, ca.

This is how one mastered the clicks and this started when you were young — in the kitchen. The click lesson went like this —(Baxabaneoxamubexabenengexoxo . . . ).Those who were taught Nguni (Ndebele) when they were growing up like me will know how important mastering the clicks is. Women were teachers and language specialists. Today they still continue to shape children’s language as we are still a matriarchal society socially and patriarchal politically.

Women, however, do not have the time that they had with children like they did in pasichigare/endulo as the shaping of our children’s language has been taken over by the maids, television, teachers e.t.c. Women also passed family history to young people and this gave them a sense of pride and belonging.

Family history translated to community history and community history to national history and women were the guardians of these records.

They documented family history and passed it on. This made them politicians, archivists, and librarians, among other things. This is what one today would call documentaries (film/television or radio), they were documentarists.

Stories of a dramatic nature were told in the kitchen depending on different age groups. This was a way of shaping children in order for them to be rounded people. The stories were to warn, entertain and educate. When women were telling stories, they would include music and dance to illustrate a point. They would create visuals and sound in someone’s head through storytelling, which today has been replaced by a crew (film crew) to fulfil what a single woman did in the kitchen.

These are today’s producers (television/film/radio), writers, actors, directors e.t.c. Today this could also be your comic books, children’s books, novels.

Music was also used to teach and it made the subject look easier, for instance counting was taught in the kitchen through music; Song – Motsiro

Motsiro-o, (one)

Dendere–e (two)

Wagara- (three)

Mashangwe (four)

Mbirimbidzwa (five)

Pamuromo (six)

Pegange (seven)

Ngangaidzwa (eight)

Chindori (nine)

Gumirawa (Gumi rakwana) (10)

This made learning enjoyable. A friend’s daughter told me that, “Auntie for me to understand what the teacher would be saying I have to turn the teacher into a musician otherwise if I don’t do that it would be boring.”

Cooking was the stronghold of women in the kitchen. It is the women who would decide what the family would eat and what time to eat. This made them very powerful. If they wanted to cook food which would make the man sleep all night long they would. If they wanted the man to work all night they would, depending on what they wanted. They would make it happen through food. They had recipes for the young to the oldest person in the village.

Because of cooking, there were fully in charge of the home.

Today, this is what is called Culinary Arts and I am happy that women today have taken back this art in the public space and they are benefiting from it financially. There was a lot that happened in the kitchen. Life happened in the kitchen from birth to death.

There was so much that was passed on to me from the kitchen, not only storytelling.

Sex education — how our grandmothers were so candid about this topic, I got my share. I can go on and on.

But did I fulfil my wish to see women building the kitchen. Yes I did.

One day I was visiting the National Gallery and I met Prof Saki Mafundikwa, who took me upstairs to show me something he thought would interest me.

We went on the first floor of the gallery and I saw women building a kitchen, all I could say was — Wow!! I greeted the women Mai Mhlolo and her assistant who is her sister — Mai Mukucha. I asked if I could also put my hand on the kitchen, they gave me a go ahead. They had reached the polishing stage and I did some polishing on the kitchen. I felt so good! The women came from Mhondoro in Chief Chivero’s area.

Prof Mafundikwa, who was the co-curator met the women when he had gone to buy a cow at Mhlolo’s homestead near were his farm is situated.

What caught Prof Mafundikwa’s eyes in Mai Mhlolo’s kitchen was the design when she invited him inside.

In the booklet “Zimbabwe Designs — The Traditional Kitchen”, he wrote, “ . . . After my eyes adjusted to glowing light, I looked around the room and my eyes fixated on the clay shelves at the back of the room. Her pots, pans, plates, dishes and utensils were neatly arranged on the shelves in some sort of “grid” system.

I had never seen anything like it and I exclaimed “WOW”.

Prof Mafundikwa, a leading design voice who is calling for Africa to “look within” Africa so that the continent can make her mark on the global scene, said that while in the kitchen he kept on thinking how designers in Africa and Zimbabwe in particular always bemoan the fact that we have nothing to reference locally for inspirations.

Here was Zimbabwean interior design hidden in the round kitchen.

Doreen Sibanda, the director of National Gallery of Zimbabwe and who was also the co-curator of the kitchens should be commended for opening spaces for women to showcase their work in a safe public space.

This was the first time a kitchen was built at the gallery and it worked.

The gallery has opened its doors to a number of women in different arts disciplines; this has helped create safe spaces for women to showcase their work.

On the first day of the exhibition, I thanked Mai Mhlolo for passing this heritage to us and I encouraged her to see herself as an architect. I had the privilege to share my research about the kitchen. What also fascinates me about the kitchen is its roundness that encourages inclusivity, which is very important in our African culture.

That roundness represents life — the kitchen is a powerful place it represents life.

Joyce Jenje Makwenda can be contacted on – [email protected]

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