COLUMN // WHAT I LEARNED WHILE PEELING THE VEGETABLES

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The patriarchy is resilient where I come from. But they don’t call it that back home, they call it culture.

The morning after my first night’s sleep in the quiet village of Tyeni near the banks of the Eastern Cape’s Mbhashe River, I woke up to the sounds of a group of young men chanting around ikrwala, an initiate who had ritually transitioned to manhood. They were ceremonially walking him to his parents’ home for the first time as a man. I was moved as I took in the sounds of the powerful octaves while I stood on my grandmother’s verandah leaning against a dewy wall. When the sun was up, I accompanied my uncle and grandmother to the mgidi in which the entire village would be celebrating the young man’s “achievement” with gifts, money, livestock, alcohol and advice. I was advised to take an apron.

When we arrived, I was introduced to my unmarried peers and immediately given a knife and a chair, a grater and a very large enamel bowl full of carrots. The room was cool and dim. I wore my orange-stained hands with pride next to the other women whose hands were red from beetroot juice and green from spinach. I was no longer a child and enjoyed this belonging because it was new to me. The midday heat was a curse on the married women cooking over open fires. I watched their large bodies bent over, stirring pots of freshly slaughtered beef, mutton and chicken. Their heads and arms were covered as a sign of respect to their husbands and in-laws. Their long, layered skirts swept the yellow earth. They would periodically leave their cooking stations, dishcloths and spoons in hand, to perform the other women’s task of ululating and welcoming guests with song.

Their husbands, uncles, sons and fathers were sitting under a large tent, emitting a low, humming sound with their deep voices, eating and drinking and drinking and eating, served by the women and girls.

While peeling the vegetables, I learned that it is the mothers of the initiates who build the temporary homes or bomas while they are in isolation. During this period, which can last up to eight weeks, mothers are not allowed to see their sons. Women in general are not permitted to engage in any of the rituals. By modern customary law in these parts, the mothers are also not allowed to yala or advise the young man on manhood but they are not exempt from showering him with gifts. In fact, it is the women’s house that usually produces the most gifts and money to help the young man start on his new path. I saw gifts of beds, sheep, goats, appliances, money, clothing and countless cases of liquor.

Dishing up is an epic operation, fastidiously managed by the older women, who have to feed an unknown number of people because literally everyone in the village is invited. I’ve grown up around the words “qala ngooTata” (start with the men) and was not surprised to hear the women fussing about the men’s plates, which were bigger and went out first. Everyone else could only eat once the tent was eating.

When the children had eaten at the end of the afternoon, after the girls had collected the dishes, the women in the kitchen triumphantly stood over their pots and piles of dirty dishes and finally prepared to dish for themselves. But instead, they broke into a boisterous song about sex. “You asked me to sit like this and I lay like that, you asked me to move like this and I jumped like that – this is how we made this child,” went the lyrics. Mesmerised, I joined in the clapping and singing, watching these women demonstrating the moves to the song and squealing with joy.

It became clear in those celebratory moments, that that gaurdians of this men-on-top ideology are the very people it oppresses. Later, I asked a male relative how he feels about the fairness of this so called cultural division of labour. His response was quick. “For years I’ve been asking my wife to take off the headgear when we are home alone because I miss seeing her beautiful hair and to wear whatever she wants, but she becomes angry and thinks I want to take away her womanhood because she truly believes that the woman’s role is to serve her man.” The following day we attended another mgidi in another village called eMhlanganisweni. As we entered the house, a group of very drunk young men were singing a song that made my sister and I stop eating to listen carefully to its simple words: “A man’s job is to sit and drink and smoke. A woman’s job is to wash and clean and open up and accept the man’s gifts.”

Milisuthando Bongela

This column first appeared in City Press on Sunday 3 January 

// Comments (16)
  • Inua says:

    Forgot how beautiful a writer you are. This is great and mirrors a conversation I had at a book festival in Ogun State, Nigeria, last year.

  • Zizikazi says:

    ” …became clear in those celebratory moments, that that gaurdians of this men-on-top ideology are the very people it oppresses”

    But is it really oppression if these women don’t feel oppressed? What if this is the role they chose for themselves.My cousins and I once tried to give my aunts a break by offering to cook Christmas lunch in my grandmother’s home back in the rurals, they wouldn’t hear any of it. Oomakoti basekhaya, my aunts made it clear that we were stepping on their toes. They play their role proudly, so don’t you think it’s belittling to call them oppressed?

    ps I love your writing.

  • Thandokazi Maseti says:

    So beautifully written…. for a moment there i felt like you were writing my story. How i relate to this!

  • Milli Bongela says:

    Hi Zizi, thanks for your response, I love it when readers take it step further. I think the thing that I’m trying to highlight with this story is how normal the oppression is, how standard it is, how people think this is truly the way things are supposed to be. When you are indoctrinated, you don’t know you are indoctrinated and that’s the point I’m trying to make – people don’t know it any other way. That said, if a woman is conscious of how patriarchy works and still chooses to engage with it in this way, then it’s not oppression, it’s a personal choice. So when I was sitting there peeling veggies, I didn’t feel oppressed, I was participating in making this mgidi happen but I can step out of it if I like. What about those women who can’t step out of this and the men who expect them to do this because they don’t know another way? It’s the lack of awareness about this disparity in gender that I’m trying to highlight and not to belittle women who like doing this. I spoke to my mom and her friends about it and while they are in two minds, they would appreciate not being forced into these roles just because they fell in love with our fathers.

  • Milli Bongela says:

    Thank you my friend 🙂

  • PRECIOUS says:

    Wow beautiful writing. ………you put my feelings in writing.

  • Zuko says:

    Ja…neh. Race, Class& gender

  • CeeBoo says:

    We still got a long way to go but eventually we will get there.

  • Cwenga Pakade says:

    Wow! Well thought and written young lady.Its mind blowing an observation.

  • sloki Pakade says:

    Wow! ! Don’t forget that the food might not even reach the cook’s mouth, in spite of all the efforts to ensure the success of the occasion. I was shocked at first, of the inconsiderate ways. Again, women never complain. They’re just content, as long as all went well for the day. Yho! I, at first, thought this was an oppression at its best, but when the custodians of the very cooking, don’t complain; then I thought inwardly, who am I to do it. However, I have my reservation about it. As a consequence , I always make sure that I bring myself something to eat, even if I stash it away in the car.

  • Sqhamo Mlomzale says:

    I found your writtig/story interesting until I bumped to your ‘patriarchal obsession)and it actually left a bitter taste to a point of being an ugly story.”When you’re indoctrinated”…
    So what about a brainwashed child like you’re.
    Hear out,am in no way condoning atrocities like “ukuthwalwa” however,to call it “oppression”I think its somehow mean and narrowly viewed by your “civilized” thinking…
    So in a scenario where all women(makotis,aunts,etc)would feel “oppressed” on excecuting those errands and decide to stop,then who would do the job? …or you reckon your way of thinking is the way?
    Your ideas I equate them to the idea of leaving your child and rush work leaving your child to bond more with your nanny or teachers at the preparatory schools,which is a DIRECT result of failure amongst “mothers” of your generation.
    You guys are more concerned about destructive Western behavior.

  • NomandlaB says:

    Beautiful piece of writing Milli, I attended umgidi eTinarha ( Uitenhage Eastern Cape) this past December. When I came back home to Pretoria, it dawned on me how it is important to preserve our cultures but at the same time important to educate fellow women in the “rural” areas that you don’t have to be oppressed to embrace your culture. That feeding “oTata” part always infuriates me, feed the damn kids first.

  • Singa says:

    As usual, I salivated at each word I read, eager to read the next. Thank you for the beautiful writing and captivating stories sissy. As a modern independent thinker and young, new age makoti, who has experienced a fair share of the open fire cooking, dishing up, and serving the village. The day I put on my makoti gear for the first time, it was a huge sence of pride, you are now someone’s wife, and everyone could identify you as the new bride and welcome you in the home. But as time went on, I realized that cooking and serving would be my primary role in the homestead, I would look at my mother in law who has been married into the family for over 30 years do the same thing she did on her first day as a makoti, and the realization dawned on me that this would be forever. Cooking, serving and cleaning are the order of the day for wives. First to rise and last to sleep, when everyone is fed and the kitchen is clean. While men eat, drink and be merry.I love my family and in laws, but this is to some degree is slavery and oppression, the system is not fair and we have been indoctrinated into it. Change is needed.

  • Tsoanelo says:

    This is incredibly written and echoes all of my thoughts and feelings about systematic oppression.

    A stunning piece.

  • Mahlako wa Nape says:

    I enjoyed readin this and each word resonates deeply. Thank you

  • Matheko says:

    Thank you for this story…it’s beautifully written. I was laughing as I tried to recall what my role in my family is….funny because only one elder in my entire family can drive and it’s my big uncle. As the only other person in the family who can drive and has a degree, my status has be elavated to driver, mediator and advisor and I’m privalaged to certain cuts in the meat that is reserved for men. I’m not sure if I’d enjoy this status had I not been nosy, educated and cheeky. In conversations with makotis in my family it has always been clear that they do this to impress the family. When will we demand to be treated equally?

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