Everlyn, mistress of the house, invited me into the kitchen on the very first night.
“Would you like to come see us cook?” she’d asked. It seemed rude to say no, so I followed her, even though I was exhausted after the long bus-and-bike journey from Nairobi. I’d expected my host family’s home to have concrete walls and floors at least, like the photos I’d seen online when applying to volunteer with the grassroots NGO in Kenya. Instead I was here in a shockingly rudimentary mud house, trapped by nightfall.
The kitchen turned out be one half of the shed. A shed where the cows and goats stood fenced, placid, behind a makeshift stove of three rocks and not-quite-dry twigs. I realized at once that there was no chimney to redeem the noxious smoke, no light but for the spitting fire, no handles on the bruised metal pot that Everlyn and her helper-neighbor were holding as they stirred vigorously. I stumbled out for a moment, gasping for fresh air as I felt my eyes stinging, my courage collapsing.
“We’re making ugali. This is our staple food and must be present at every meal,” Everlyn explained when I returned. “You have to wait till the water is boiling and then add the maize flour, and stir very hard until it is so thick.” She heaved the large aluminium pot off the fire with her bare hands.
“Isn’t the pot hot? Doesn’t the smoke hurt your eyes?”
“I’m used to it,” she laughed as she rested the large wooden spoon, sticky with ugali, on the fence behind her. “I think a woman belongs in the kitchen. All women should know how to cook.”
“And you’re happy? You like this?”
Behind her, a cow licked the wooden spoon clean.
Everlyn and I were the same age, twenty-eight, but our lives could not be more different. I was a typical first-world city girl with a university degree, working and traveling freely as a ‘digital nomad’ with nary a commitment. She was an exception in rural Kenya with her high school education, working as a teacher at the nearby primary school and only just giving birth to her first child – a lovely baby boy named Emmanuel – with her husband Moses.
I’d never had to live without electricity and running water, while Everlyn spent her days on maternity leave cooking, ironing with coals, washing clothes and dishes by hand, fetching water, and chopping firewood. Although I knew I should help, I kept made excuses not to. I simply couldn’t stand the dirtiness around me, on me.
It wasn’t that I looked down on my hosts and the conditions in which they lived; I simply hadn’t realized how accustomed to cleanliness I’d been (and still am). I couldn’t come to terms with not washing my hair daily so I wouldn’t drain the family’s precious store of rainwater. Or cooking mushy rice in rusty pots. Or sweeping crumbs onto the floor of the house for the chickens, free-range as they were, when I knew that each night I shared my room with cockroaches that lurked behind the large box of feed in the corner. They were my greatest fear, and I heard them scrabbling every night while I cowered underneath my mosquito net.
Since I didn’t even know how to help care for Emmanuel, I tasked myself with washing all the dishes after each meal. If Everlyn couldn’t accept my reluctance to help her as much as she thought a fellow woman should, she didn’t resent me for it. Despite her docile manner and her words that first night, she carried herself with a grace that felt confident. Defiant, almost.
One afternoon on my second week living here, I trudged back early from the volunteer office just so I could bask in the heat of the sun while bathing – as everyone did – with cold rainwater. I found Everlyn plastering a new room that was being added to the house. Another volunteer would be joining us soon, I was told, as she mixed and tenderly smoothed grey-brown paste over the mud walls with a trowel.”What’s it made of?” I grazed a finger over the half-dry stucco finish. It looked good enough to belong in some chic loft apartment in New York City.
“It’s a mix of cow dung and river mud. The cow dung repels insects, but more mud makes the walls stronger.”
“Is there anything you can’t do, Everlyn?” She laughed in that dainty, high-pitched giggle of hers, amused yet flattered by my compliment of something that was only common knowledge to her. But what I really wanted to say was: is there anything you won’t do? A woman’s work is never done.
One evening, as the dusk gathered and a drizzle dampened the air, I found myself huddled in the living room with Everlyn, her 11-year-old adopted niece Lucy, and my fellow volunteer Caitie, who’d joined a week ago. The males of the family were out at a church event and there was no rush to cook dinner. We peeled potatoes and chopped cabbage with the languor of ladies at a high tea, working from the little coffee table and our laps. Somehow the conversation turned to marriage and we compared our cultures: American, Singaporean, Kenyan.
“Us women are just as capable as men. Why should we have to get married by a certain age?” Caitie huffed as she tossed her potatoes into a plastic basin.
“But the problem with us women is we are always disagreeing and taking things personally. Men get things done despite their differences, because they see the big picture. Many of my friends are men – it’s easier to talk and share ideas – but you have to treat them like the enemy, and believe that we women can also succeed, even if we have to work harder.”
I hadn’t expected this from Everlyn, who had stopped dicing the tomato in her hand. She continued, a fire kindled.
“Both my parents died when I was in high school. So many men offered to pay for me to finish, but the condition was that I had to marry them. I refused and worked for my relatives instead. Many bright young women in Kenya are just settling, but we need to rely on our own power even if we are married. Even a thousand shillings in the hands of a woman running a family is so much more powerful than in the hands of a man.”
It dawned on me then: Everlyn didn’t talk about women’s empowerment because she lived it. She used what power she had to educate and support her female friends and neighbors and students, even as she accepted the gender roles and social norms placed upon her. Instead of rebelling, she made the best of what she had; she made a home filled with love.
“I am lucky. I remember my high school teacher telling me to believe in myself, to just be myself. Now I have a beautiful son, I have a good husband. I want other young women to get this encouragement too.”
I made it to the end of my volunteer stint. My heart was nearly bursting with relief that last Sunday as, working on a kerosene stove, I served up Japanese-style fluffy pancakes with a flourish. I’d finally managed to cook something beautifully before I left. I’d proven I was, in fact, competent in the kitchen.
That last afternoon was spent taking photos of Everlyn and her family. I’d learned one day, after a riotous Kenyan church wedding, that she and Moses never held a proper wedding because they hadn’t been able to afford it. Through the viewfinder, uncircumstanced by the world around them, was a typical young family in love.
Although I’d learned and grown so much in the past month, the culture shock and physical environment had been an ordeal. I was drained and unabashedly glad to be leaving, and I was sure my hosts were equally relieved by my departure. We all seemed more cheerful and approachable that day, the tension of living with a foreign stranger almost over.
In the midst of packing, I sighed and looked up to find Everlyn at the doorway of the room, my everyday trail shoes in her hands. She’d scraped off the past month’s accumulation of mud from them – even gouged out the grime from the whorled and studded soles.
“Oh, Everlyn,” I fussed. “They’re just shoes.”
“It’s okay. I don’t mind. But can I ask you something?”
“Can you give me the recipe? For your pancakes? I want to make them for Moses for his birthday.” Her face glowed with the anticipation of pleasing her husband.
I wished, in that moment, I could take this beautiful woman away with me to Singapore. This woman who had accompanied me to the pit latrine in the middle of the night to scare off the cockroaches. This woman who froze up, then giggled in pleasure, the first time I gave her a back massage. This woman who taught young schoolgirls to be independent but still believed in superstitions that would protect her son. You deserve a life like mine. More than I do.
“Of course. And Everlyn?
“Asante sana. For everything.”