Pretty White Flesh, by Hannah Onoguwe

As Christmas approaches I’m reminded that chickens creep me out. During this season, in Nigeria, it’s common practice to gift families with live chickens that will be slain for the festivities. Don’t get me wrong — I’m not vegetarian. There’s just something menacing about a live chicken. The beady eyes on either side of its head, the sharp beak, the watchful stillness that comes over it, the way it raises one leg, wings slightly flared. As if daring you to make the first move and then—BAM. Common sense demands you give a chicken with her chicks a wide berth, but just to be safe, I give them all wide berths, as long as they look old enough to vote.

I know how a chicken is killed, basically. Outside. Preferably in the sand, where you’ve dug a small hole to catch the blood. With one foot you anchor the wings of the bird to the ground, the trussed legs with the other. Sharpened buck knives ready, you grab its neck in such a way that it knows who’s in charge. Then with a clean, unfaltering move you sever the neck from the body. If you’re lucky, it will only twitch a few times before giving up. If you’re not, the headless chicken, spewing blood everywhere, might take a quick walk around the area like something out of a ghost story before the legs give out. Most people will cut the neck halfway to let out the blood, not releasing the bird until its body loosens in defeat and falls to the ground without any further show of rebellion. But I haven’t killed one before.

One day I confess this to someone, laughing but somewhat embarrassed. Shooting me a look that says she isn’t amused, she asks: “So when you get married and your in-laws visit and there’s a chicken that needs to be killed, what will you do?”

My answer: “My husband—their son—will be there to kill it. Or some other family member—after all, no be them wan chop chicken?”1

She shakes her head at my apparent naivety and says that would only disgrace my husband. Meanwhile I can picture the ensuing uproar: For shame—his wife can’t kill a harmless chicken. Please send her back to her parents quickly. What has she been learning all these years in her march to womanhood, in her preparation to becoming a wife? Apparently being able to properly kill a chicken is ranked up there with knowing how to pound yam, keeping a house clean, looking after the children, being pleasant and hospitable to your in-laws even when they drop in without warning and stay for three weeks—all the while cooking wonderful, healthy meals and eschewing every hint of excuse when your husband wants sex. Like someone advised in an agony column: “If you have a headache, take Panadol” (and watch that headache disappear and magically put you in the mood for love!). After all, we wouldn’t want him to look outside, would we?

Being unapologetically African, I’m all for knowing how to do these things or, more importantly, wanting to—well, as much as lies in one’s power and interest. But I’m also for being realistic. I mean, in the larger scheme of things, how does knowing or not knowing how to kill a chicken make or break a marriage? Is it so very important to making the world a better place? Where is the man’s list, his set of rules, his code? Why is so much responsibility placed in the hands of a woman (and in some cases, her backside) to the extent that a Nigerian saying— likely concocted by a group of drunk, illiterate men pissing against someone’s wall—“Na woman dey hol marriage o”2 – has gained so much popularity? Because, of course, said men have nothing to do with the institution’s success or failure, although they won’t abdicate responsibility as readily in other matters. Or more likely because, as some men have confessed, they can often be ‘weak’. I wonder why? I’ll be the first to admit that no sweeping generalizations can be made, so could it be that some men are developmentally immature?

A friend of mine doesn’t know how to pound yam, and she’s very happily married. Let’s not even talk about my sister-in-law who detests cooking and years after getting married discussed seriously with her husband the need to hire a cook—probably to the horror of many (any?) Nigerians reading this. And no, he didn’t send her packing. I know how to pound yam but haven’t done so in years. I might even be in danger of losing that bit of knowledge. Blame it on the fact that I eventually married a man whose lack of enthusiasm for pounded yam seems to have rubbed off on me. After all, there are other, faster, alternatives out there—poundo yam, for instance. Even faster, we can just buy ready-made fufu from down the road.

The accepted view that a woman’s knowledge is important only as it relates to a man, either by showing him up or ‘disgracing’ him, has been perpetuated, it would appear, mostly by women. There’s another popular saying in Nigeria, that a woman’s education, no matter how many degrees she bags, will end in a man’s kitchen. Nothing wrong with being in a man’s kitchen— or yours, for that matter— but unless you’re making cooking a career, ‘ending’ there sounds ominous. Men love this line, repeating it with a certain condescension, a gleeful “let them study as much as they want, we know what to do.” Worse, I remember fellow undergraduate women touting the same line with a resigned air blended with some sort of ‘female’ pride. A woman’s twisted pride in her confidence that she would— sooner rather than later— get a man who would ‘keep’ her, a baffling pride that said she knew her place in a man’s heart, his home and life, and her intellectual contribution had little to do with it. I was always left wondering if that was the only kind of African man there is, even in our generation. To my great relief, I discovered it wasn’t.

However, the average Nigerian girl buys into this idea of plumping her homemaking CV so she doesn’t lose her chances. I remember painstakingly writing down recipes from other parts of the country, trying them out and, in some cases, perfecting them. Not only because I learned to love cooking for its own sake, but because one part of me wanted to wow my future husband—and his people— with my culinary repertoire. But as I matured I realized there should be a difference between cooking something new because you want to surprise someone or make them happy as opposed to doing it to further secure your place in your home. If we fall prey to the latter mindset there will be that ever-present, not often articulated, desire to keep upping our game, as if in competition with all those women out there who would move in for the kill if we’re found wanting.

The idea that a man’s happiness is solely dependent on his wife’s or partner’s abilities, in whatever department, should be re-addressed. Of course, if he doesn’t stray, or at least does so intelligently (respecting her enough not to bring his mistresses to their marital bed, according to the gurus in cheating), what a lucky woman she is! On the reverse side, what is a man taught to do to make his wife happy? Oh, just exist. And bring the minimum home to keep it running. In some instances, not even that. Young girls of today need to grow up with the right picture of things. Our dreams, skills, abilities, and desires are not to be sacrificed on the altar of men’s socialization.

Back to the chicken conversation. I mention the fact that supermarkets sell frozen chicken, a more convenient option, but my friend, she’s not impressed.

I further argue: “Let’s even say for health’s sake you wanted to buy a live chicken from the market, are you duty-bound to take it home in that state and prove you’re a good woman? Please, let the young men in the market relieve the bird of its life and hand the pretty, white flesh over to you. But if, even then, you don’t know what to do with it…well, Google can help with that.”

She’s disappointed, disgusted even, at the levity with which I’m accepting my shortcomings in this chicken matter. At this point I’m unable to confess even further my inability to wash snails with alum or limes in preparation for cooking. I figure if I really want to know, I’ll learn.

1 “No be them wan chop chicken” — Aren’t they the ones who want to eat chicken?

2 “Na woman dey hol marriage o” — It’s the woman who keeps a marriage going.

Read the rest of the Feminism Series here.

Hannah Onoguwe’s short stories have appeared in Adanna and BLACKBERRY: a magazine, as well as online in Litro, The Missing Slate, Cassava Republic, African Writer, The Kalahari Review and Lawino. When she’s not reading or writing—or being distracted by the Internet—she enjoys watching movies and experimenting with new recipes

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