Africa

South Africa - where the husband is king

Pumza Fihlani
Image caption Xhosa culture requires me to cover my head when I am around my in-laws

For many South Africans, women are still expected to serve their husbands. The BBC's Pumza Fihlani writes about her internal conflict as she prepares to get married.

The oil was sizzling in the pan, the house was filled with different aromas, but in a few minutes the sound of the food cooking would be replaced by chatter. I bustled around the stove in a panic - everything had to be perfect.

My soon-to be in-laws were in town and I had agreed to host a family dinner, this was the first time they had come to my house and I wanted to make a good impression.

Kitted-out in a carefully-chosen dress and headscarf - customary in Xhosa culture when around your in-laws - I took to the kitchen determined to make a meal which would assure them that their son was in capable hands.

One of the "lessons" a young a wife has drummed into her head in my culture is that "a good wife cooks for her husband".

I quickly learned that this weekend was no exception.

Loose woman

"You must make sure there is always food in the house, makoti (daughter-in-law)," said my mother-in-law, biting into a forkful of tender rump steak.

"Our son mustn't eat take-away food, makoti. He grew up eating pap [a traditional South African maize porridge] and tripe - you must cook them for him on occasion," her sister interjected.

It was the first time that I'd heard my fiance's mother refer to me as makoti.

The name carries a great deal of responsibility, it is her way of reminding me that I am a woman who has come to "serve" the family.

My mother-in-law and her sister are from an era foreign to me, both of them are close to 70 and I am only 25.

Most of the time I do not understand their traditional ways, at other times I don't agree with them. But I feel under great pressure to not let them down, to please them, to win their approval.

That is why I'm wearing a dress today - in their world women do not wear trousers.

A woman who does is seen as a loose woman - certainly not something I would like to be regarded as.

The house was filled with talk and laughter as 15 or so people exchanged stories about my fiance's childhood, some of which made his face turn red.

He sat quietly on the couch, pretending to be watching a game of cricket. I know he was pretending because he could not tell me the score when I asked.

Would she bow?

I put his food - an especially large serving of meat, vegetables, and pap - on a tray and carefully walked over to him.

I could feel the eyes in the room follow me to the green couch he had retreated to.

I knew what they all wanted to see, and I wasn't going to disappoint them, so I bowed as I offered him his food.

This bow is a token of respect in my culture - a sign that a woman recognises that the man is the head of the home and therefore she treats him like a king.

Hours later, everyone had been fed, all the dishes put away, the leftovers packed into containers for the guests to take home. I knew I had earned my place in the family after each guest left, congratulating me on a great evening.

"Wenze kakuhle makoti wam (well done, my dear daughter-in-law)," said my mother-in-law, kissing me on the cheek.

My time with them offered a glimpse into the life that awaits me - a life of servitude and submission, putting my husband's interests before mine and honouring ancient traditions.

It was an eye-opener for me - a modern, strong-willed and independent young woman - no doubt this will not be easy, but I am up to the challenge of reconciling these two different parts of me.

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