by Ber Anena
/ Nonfiction /
My mother’s son is on his knees. In front of him sits a large millstone—its center slightly curved to keep grains in place. The Acoli call it min kidi, like stones, can be mothers too. From a winnower, Brother scoops the grains with the akwaya gourd saucer and serves it to min kidi. His adolescent veins swell as he cradles a smaller stone. We call it nyar kidi, like stones, can be daughters too. It’s this little concave grinder that Brother will use to crush the millet.
When he starts the real work, his torso lurches forward and back, forward and back, and each time, he maintains a grip on the nyar kidi, dragging it back and forth, back and forth. A rhythm forms. Then sweat. The first akwaya of millet becomes flour pouring on a sisal sack tucked at the front of min kidi. He scoops another akwaya of millet, pours it onto the min kidi, and repeats. A rhythm forms. Then sweat. Fine flour. Repeat.
If he were not a man, Brother would be singing one of the ballads women hums while milling. Women sing about the sweetness of their husbands, the agony of their childlessness, the richness of their crop harvests, the cruelty of their in-laws or the poverty in their households. If a woman came into a relationship with a child from a previous marriage, she would capture the complaints of her new lover in song too:
Koko pa latin genga nino
Pingo do, Aluku, pingo pe ite bot wone?
* * *
The baby’s cry stops me from sleeping
Why, Aluku, why don’t you take her back to the father?
Sometimes, the song is about the woman who insists on sharing a portion of everything from her marital home with her parents. Her in-laws will ignore her once but never twice. Here, every property in the family belongs to the man. She will be accused of detoothing her husband and showing off with what isn’t hers:
Waka waka, dako lawake
Waka waka ye, dako lawake ba
In iwake nono ya, ityeko lim pa coo
Kong I om mogo ki tuu
* * *
Waka waka, this woman is a showoff
Waka waka, the woman is a braggart
You own nothing; you’ve depleted our son’s wealth
Go fetch some from your people
But Brother is a man squatting over the Acoli custom by engaging in this woman-only task of millet milling. He will not stretch his luck by pushing the button too hard on this radicalness. He will mill mother’s millet in silence, except for the steady hum of his breathing.
On the opposite side of the kitchen, burning wood crackles in the hearth. Water boils in a saucepan. Sister oversees this chore. She pours the freshly-ground millet flour into the pan, and with a wooden olutu kwon, mingles and kneads the mixture until kwon kal—the staple bread of every Acoli family—is ready.
The family gathers in two circles—father and his boys sit on stools around a table in the main hut; mother and the girls sit with folded legs on the papyrus mat in the kitchen. A shared tray of kwon kal and a bowl of pigeon peas mixed with peanut butter arrives. Hands move one at a time, pinching a ball of millet bread, dipping it into the bowl of sauce and onwards into hungry mouths.
Tomorrow, new chores will emerge—cooking, dishwashing, fetching water from the spring, splitting firewood, harvesting potatoes, sweeping the courtyard, keeping birds away from the rice garden. In mother’s house, it doesn’t matter who will do what. Every chore will be completed.
I’m still a long way away from being conceived, but the story of my brothers working the kitchen alongside the girls will find me in adulthood. I will be stunned because, here, custom says the kitchen is no place for a man.
By the mid-90s, I’m a quietly naughty child in primary school. We live in Layibi, a village on the outskirts of northern Uganda’s town of Gulu. This proximity to urban life should be sufficient to shield mother from criticism about the coup simmering in her kitchen. But even here, whispers still linger against male domesticity. Songs composed to dissuade men from getting their hands dirty with kitchen work, still play loudly on the radio. In one famous nanga song, a thumb pianist tells men to keep their wives happy, because their exit from the marital home would force husbands into the kitchen. The atrocity!
Omera ceng akweri lok kwe gwok dako ba
Awobi lok ma pol tye ikom in
Jal anongo twon coo tye ka rego bel i ot pa mine jal
Anongo twon coo tye ka rego bel, mane ingeye, duuu duuu
Gwok mani ki kidi, awobi
* * *
My brother, I once advised you to take good care of your wife
Now complaints trail you
My friend, I found the big man milling millet in his mother’s house
I saw the alpha male grinding millet, testicles tucked in the back, duuu, duuu
Man, protect your testicles from the milling stone
It’s the 90s and the penis is still (one of) the most prized parts of a man’s body. But unlike the ancient days when people strutted about with their dangling bits in the open, pants are now available. The fear of a manhood swaying onto a milling stone and getting crushed shouldn’t exist. But the anti-kitchen crusade for men continues because really, what everyone wants is loyalty to the demarcated roles of two genders.
When I start my own kitchen adventures by about age eight, missteps are endless in the early years. I wonder if mother worries about what kind of a woman I’ll become— perhaps not the one expected to rule the kitchen. There’s often too much salt in the sauce that one must gulp a gourd of water after every piece is swallowed; I pour an unneeded cup more of water in the sweet potatoes, turning the thing into a mashed meal. Many afternoons, I get lost in a game of seven stones until the smell of something burning gets women in the neighborhood sniffing the air and calling out; whose food is burning? I scurry into the kitchen to a food disaster and a pinch to my cheeks and ears.
By the time I stop announcing my presence in the kitchen with the sound of clanking pans and clay pots held clumsily crashing to the floor, mother’s three sons, now young men, have quit kitchen work. They settle into their expected tasks—slashing around the courtyard, digging, making bricks, thatching the house, and keeping a watch over us, the five girls, from relinquishing our dignity to admirers before we get properly married.
I will later wonder if mother let the boys in the kitchen out of necessity—the absence of older daughters. I will wonder if mother ever worried that her sons would get labelled women—the highest form of insult around here. I will wonder if mother knew she steered a little revolt against custom in her home.
* * *
It’s midnight in 2018, and mother’s adult son is crying. My mind runs to the people who’ve whispered that mother was raising her boys too soft by keeping them in the kitchen. Now one of them is weeping like a woman. I don’t think she would care about the hush-hush talk now.
Father is pacing the verandah. He stops and stares into the chilly November night then back to the small Nokia he’s holding so steadfastly; you’d think the harder he presses it, the faster the phone will spit a message from Brother saying, I want to live again. Nothing.
An hour ago, Brother called to deliver a message: I’m tired of life. I’m going to kill myself. The sobs wracking his body echoed in father’s phone. Then he hung up.
Mama leans on the door, pulling a scarf tightly around her body. She is crying without a sound. It’s the first time she lets us see her tears. I don’t want to know the color of her pain. Brother always says my mother is the most beautiful woman in the world. I know that if he were to see the death of beauty on his mother’s face—the red swollen eyes, a face painted shadowy, a forehead creased in uneven folds—he would still declare her the most beautiful woman in the world.
We, the girls, pick up our phones and call Brother. In between many attempts, we receive, 07799XXX90 is now available. We furiously scroll to Call Log and press his name and we hear a voice, the number you’re trying to call is not available, please try again later. We try again later and try again later. We call his wife, and she says, in between sobs, that her husband left home at 8 pm, heading towards Gulu Town, five kilometers away. At the time, tears had already started convening in his eyes, she adds. We don’t ask why she didn’t let us know immediately. It’s not the time to reprimand a woman weeping for her husband. We don’t scold her either when she reveals Brother has been sending her the same messages for a while now: I’m tired of life. I’m going to kill myself. Instead, we ask her where he could be; which friends we should call. We memorise names and phone numbers and places and start making calls. Nothing. Father pockets his Nokia, rushes into the house and emerges with his green-black bicycle.
“Let’s go look for him,” he tells Brother No.3.
I wonder where they’ll start from. I wonder which part of Gulu Town they’ll search. Shall they follow the lit-less streets and hope to run into Brother curled up by the roadside? I close my mouth that is instinctively open, itching to offer restraint to the two-man search team. I let father do what any reasonable father would do when their son is suicidal—look for him, do anything to make sure his son stops at just crying. We wait. Two hours. Five hours. Nothing.
We stir from the sleep that overpowered us at dawn. The sun is up early and bright, oblivious to the shadow cloaking our home. Mother is on the phone. “Come straight home, okay? Don’t do anything bad to yourself.” She pleads. Her voice has lost the heaviness it held last night, and we sigh cautiously at this good news. “He’s still crying,” mother says when we join her on the verandah. I tell myself, he’s alive. That’s what matters. He has called his most beautiful woman in the world and sliced off a piece of her worry. We sit and wait.
We uniformly rise when Brother walks into the compound at eight o’clock, his movement slow like his body turned into a sack of damp sand overnight. His signature smiling eyes are puffy and crimson. I see tears assemble in them when he slumps on the verandah with the women, ignoring the empty chair next to his father.
Mother doesn’t reprimand her son, doesn’t pick a stick to whip him, which is something she did all through our childhood. This is a different story; this is a man with his own children now, but I also know she loves Brother too much to punch a nail in his unusual wound. Unusual because here the sickness of the mind is not a thing; at best, we’ll blame spirits of a poorly buried ancestor, or juju from an envious somebody. Depending on how it manifests, a witch doctor could be consulted, a goat or chicken of specific color and gender will be slaughtered to expel the intrusive spirit. But this is 2018 and we’ll unlikely go that route. The White man long told us such rituals are barbaric and we’ve been listening and adapting to modern ways slowly slowly. Mother and father are also tight with Jehovah, who, the Bible says, doesn’t fancy such satanic rites.
If this were the olden days, Brother would be getting some tongue lashing from clan elders. And if he had gone ahead and killed himself, the clan would be whipping his dead body to stop the spirit of suicide from recurring in the family. They would bury him without touching his body because suicide, they believed, is contagious.
A smile lingers on mother’s face. Her eyes hold a glint that makes you forget they were scarlet and swollen only hours ago. Mother is the quiet one among her siblings, and today, I can tell she’s even less eager to spoil the moment with words. She gives Brother the time to tell her where it hurts. The silence is not swollen, the tension is not threatening to explode, so we wait.
* * *
It’s 2019 and mother’s son is bent over the stove in his kitchen, stirring peanut butter into green boo vegetables. I’m visiting. His wife breastfeeds their toddler on the veranda while the two older kids dance for me and say, auntie, take a video, auntie take a video pleaseee. I think about the Acoli proverb—welo ma dako peke—a woman is no guest. In the olden days, I would be the one in the kitchen doing the cooking. Or, Brother’s wife would be doing what her husband is doing, while I help rock the squirming baby. You don’t visit a family and sit, waiting to be given a treat. That luxury is meant for men. But it’s 2019 and Brother has held onto the kitchen skills he learnt from his most beautiful person on earth. The whispers are less pronounced but occasionally, in a village far away, a grandma still sits by the fireplace, surrounded by her grandchildren, and she tells them the folklore about Odure:
Once upon a time, there lived a young man called Odure. Every day, Odure hung about in his mother’s kitchen. He sat by the hearth and watched his mother prepare different meals. He must have even mastered an Acoli food recipe or two. But one day, Odure was crouched next to his mother when a spark of fire sprang from the hearth and landed on his penis, scalding it terribly.
News about the atrocity spread like wildfire. There was shock. There was ridicule. From then on, every man who lingered in the kitchen for whatever reason – checking how soon the meal would be ready, directing which part of the chicken should be served to the visiting in-laws, counting the pieces of beef before and after they were cooked – such men got christened Odure. Once a man has been confirmed kitchen-prone, an enthusiastic crowd would invade the questionable homestead and with song, taunt the man for being coo mak i yang – the type of men who want to hold the beef while it’s being sliced to pieces; the type who couldn’t trust their wives with delicacies like beef. Such men become fodder for song:
Odure, kati woko ki iwat keno
mac koni wango cuni ki iwat keno.
* * *
Odure, come out of the kitchen
fire from the hearth may scald your penis
It’s 2019, and there’s no crowd in the courtyard chanting ridicule at Brother. If they did, he would most likely stand with a hand on his waist, the other stroking his beards. He would probably gaze at them with his big smiling eyes and laugh the loud cackling laugh that makes him sound like our father.
He has been working on his mind, being softer with himself, confronting bits of life that tend to push one to the edge. Small things like cooking, strapping his new baby to his back like the women do, taking a walk despite the many eyes of the village on him, all that is not a big deal. If a singing crowd arrived at his homestead to mock him, Brother would most likely call the singers to silence and serve them a joke or two. Then laughter will replace song.