As I was preparing myself to come to Washington for the Atlas Corps fellowship, a friend told me, “If you don’t know how to cook, you will not survive in America.”
On my second day at Channel Square apartments in southwest D.C., I’m learning how true those words are. I’ve been to Safeway to buy some food items like Potatoes, Eggs, beef, Tomatoes Rice and. Now, I’m trying to cook a “Smitten Kitchen” dish called Shakshuka in Arabic. Shashuka is a mixture of eggs, tomatoes and green peppers. My wife makes it beautifully at home, and I was looking forward to eating my recreation of what she does so well. But my attempt at making it ended in failure. I was heavy-handed with the salt and the meal was just awful.
I asked other fellows and friends to teach me how to cook. So in my first few days in Washington, I spent my mornings going to leadership training and my evenings learning to cook without ruining a meal.
So far, so good, and I think my new skills will help me to survive in America.
AFRICAN CULTURAL PERSPECTIVE ON COOKING
An Atlas Corps fellowship opens many opportunities for life. I believe leadership is not only about working on writing projects, but also about being able to cook. Back home in South Sudan — and I believe it’s the same in other African countries — cooking is a job for women only, and most of the time, men assume it’s a woman’s duty to cook for the entire family.
In my community Western Behr el Ghazal – Wau, young men are not even allowed to get close to the kitchen when women are cooking. If a young man has been seen cooking or just eating in cooking pot, tradition says he should not be given somebody’s daughter’s hand in marriage later on. Why? Because cooking and eating in a cooking pot, are thought to weaken mental strength and to impact the reproductive system. In other words, a man who eats in cooking pot or cooks will not produce a lot of children and is not desirable as a spouse.
Over here, that is obviously not the view. Some of the best chefs in America and the world – outside Africa – are men. Men have shown on television about cooking, and I’m sure they are not mentally deficient or childless.
With development and education, the viewpoint is changing in South Sudan, too. Part of a leader’s role is to help to change the perspective. Perhaps when people hear that I can cook shakshuka that’s as good as the one my wife makes, they will begin to understand that some of the tales about men who cook are not true. I certainly hope so as I hope my new-found cooking skills – which have improved, by the way – will not mean I am ostracized and my family ridiculed.