The great Zimbabwe cook-off: Contest takes on gender roles

A cooking contest for men sounded crazy. Then they began to treat their wives better.

Jawanda Clemence teaches a recipe for mashed lablab to a group of women. Since he entered cooking contests, he has developed his own recipes. — Obert Payenda/Score Against Poverty Jawanda Clemence teaches a recipe for mashed lablab to a group of women. Since he entered cooking contests, he has developed his own recipes. — Obert Payenda/Score Against Poverty

All of Joseph Gudo’s hard work was summed up in one small plate of food. He’d labored for months in the field and countless hours in the kitchen, all in service to this dish — a neat pile of mashed cowpeas (black-eyed peas), buoyed by a bold pinch of cayenne pepper and dressed up with pops of colorful diced tomatoes and green peppers.

That simple meal won Gudo and his teammates the top prize in the first Men Can Cook competition. It cemented what he’d been learning all year: Cooking isn’t just for women.

The belief that cooking is exclusively a woman’s job is not unique to Gudo’s home, the Mwenezi district of southern Zimbabwe. For thousands of years, many cultures have placed the burden of all domestic skills on women.

But when staff at Score Against Poverty (SCORE), a Mennonite Central Committee partner, began a project to teach farming skills, they saw how this belief played out beyond the kitchen.

“We realized that there were gender power imbalances that were central to the food-security situation within our communities,” said Caroline Pugeni, SCORE program coordinator.

Since 2016, SCORE’s work has included securing plots of farmable land and teaching sustainable farming techniques to give families better access to food. But the rigid gender hierarchy caused disparities to surface.

“Crops were culturally defined between female crops and the male crops,” Pugeni said.

Men took charge of the larger cereal and grain crops. Women managed the smaller crops, including legumes, garden vegetables or cowpeas. This led to “male” crops taking up far more space.

“But, when it comes to how those plots were managed, the women would participate in the weeding, in the harvesting, in the processing of everything for the men’s crops,” she said. “But when it came to the legume plot, the women were supposed to manage all of that.”

SCORE staff saw the imbalances but knew that trying to address them would challenge generations of male-dominated culture.

Through MCC funding support, SCORE held community meetings on gender equality. Most men struggled to identify any problem with a husband having total authority.

But over a few sessions, staff started glimpsing success.

“It began with thoughts like, ‘Maybe there is need for me to assist my wife whenever my wife is not feeling well. It’s not right for me to make you cook if you’re sick,’ ” Pugeni said.

Instead of correcting problematic behavior, they could support positive change. Instead of emphasizing that it was bad not to help one’s wife, they focused on the idea that even though women usually cook, men can too.

The rules were simple. Contestants were grouped into teams and required to grow, prepare and cook every part of a meal. Suddenly, some of the men became more interested in growing tomatoes and legumes. But even that eagerness was quickly tempered by pride.

“It was easy for me to approach my wife for help with cooking, but what was difficult was for my wife to teach me during the day when everyone can see,” said participant Jawanda Clemence. “So I opted to learn at night. My wife would teach me when the kids had gone to bed. I was afraid of being shamed by other men in the village.”

In 2018, the first year, Clemence said most of the crowd came because the idea of men competing to cook was too bizarre to pass up.

“I wanted to laugh at my friends who were eager to participate,” he said. “In my family, no man cooks. You marry for your wife to cook for you. What SCORE was talking about was beyond my imagination.”

Women started to see changes they wouldn’t have thought possible, said Gaudencia Pugeni (no relation to Caroline Pugeni), a participant in SCORE’s agriculture program.

“Men started to share financial matters with their wives, and many husbands no longer beat their wives,” she said. “There is a love now that wasn’t there before.”

And these changes weren’t just showing up at home. In the fields, men shared the land more equitably, included the women more in planning and began planting legumes and other previously dismissed crops themselves.

“It has given farmers an opportunity to know and address underlying issues that affect food security here,” Caroline Pugeni said. “It has improved food and nutrition security at a household level.”

The first competition had eight men’s teams and six women’s teams, composed mostly of competitors’ wives. Men’s teams took the top three spots. Gudo’s team emerged victorious, his mashed cowpeas named the supreme dish.

Their prize? Aprons, pots, pans and cooking utensils to call their own. For placing third, Clemence was awarded a teapot he now displays at home.

Gudo and Clemence said connecting with their wives through the process changed their perspectives. Now they see themselves more as equal partners and not as masters.

Gudo started offering to cook, to help in the garden and walk his daughter to school. He wants to show his children what he learned.

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