Jon chops onions, I take photos, and Margret is sensational in yellow.
We are in Margret’s kitchen, to the rear of the house she shares with Kenneth, her husband, and their son, Jonathan, in rural Malawi. It’s the end of a fascinating trip (more of which later).
Clean pots and pans wait as fires hot up, and chickens cluck as they come and go. It’s a lively but orderly scene.
Others are busy here too, including Josephine, dressed in a smart little jacket. She prepares various side dishes with her friends whilst tending to her child, multi-tasking with unfussy efficiency.
Jon takes another onion and hopes that he is not intruding by offering to cook this meal. Men don’t tend to step out to the kitchen to work alongside women here in rural Malawi. This is not their domain. Nor do the women eat with us in the house, preferring to take their meal out here once we and their menfolk have been served.
Margret and Josephine don’t seem to be submissive though, giggling as they pose for photos with us as their background. As they snap away, we find that we are a source of curiosity on both sides of the garden fence.
As dusk descends, Josephine puts down her phone and seizes one of the passing chickens. She sits down on a step and, without ceremony, despatches the bird and strips it of its feathers. A pan of water is brought to the boil.
Our food comes together as we gather in the falling night; flavours infuse and the meats begin to melt.
A feast for our last supper: Jon’s beef curry with warming ginger, chilli and garlic; Josephine’s chicken; nsima (maize porridge), rice and chips (thinly sliced and beautifully cooked, these are a triumph).
We are honoured by this abundance of food, which is by no means regular fare. Most Malawian families can afford meat only rarely – it is estimated that over 50% of the population live below the poverty line, and Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world.
As we eat in Margret and Kenneth’s front room (me the sole woman because I am a guest and/or foreign), I am mindful of Malawi’s patriarchal society, but I also imagine how much fun it might be to share a meal with the women ‘in the kitchen’, under the stars.
Inside the house we (Kenneth and his neighbours, Jon and our fellow visitors) take turns to give our formal thanks to each other as hosts and guests. One man talks about how a home is truly blessed if it is fortunate enough to receive a guest.
For this is the warmth of Malawian hospitality, generously given by both the men and the women. And the way Margret and Josephine operate is not so unfamiliar to me; at home, I take charge of the housework, and also occasionally hide away in the kitchen when friends come to stay, in order to catch up with jobs.
As for Jon querying his right to cook in Margret’s kitchen, a recent report by Elizabeth Mkandawire and Sheryl L Hendriks argues that gender relations in Malawi are evolving (including in the villages), and that men are increasingly involved with the household chores. And I think about tonight when – yes – Josephine did kill the chuck, but Kenneth was the one who served us supper.
I leave you with my favourite picture of Josephine.
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