To some people, the word ‘housewife’ may still connote that imagined long passed era when women stayed in the house doing nothing, earning nothing, just bearing children and looking after the husband and children, caring for the aged as well.
Apart from the fact that I am all for women working freely wherever they want to work – just like the men, I wonder if there was ever a time women did no work in our traditional setting.
I see myself somehow as that generation that is steeped in two cultures, not just for the fact that I grew up with many of my old relatives unlettered, but also because I grew up as some cultural practices were gradually running their course.
I grew up when many women in the villages were the so-called housewives. That term is correct as far as it means that they did not have to go to any paid work for their livelihood. But if it means that they were not financially employed, then it is false. All the women were into financial ventures, right inside their homesteads.
For starters, I can’t remember any woman who didn’t have a vegetable garden and some fruit trees. And, of course, there was the inevitable raising of livestock and selling them when they were mature enough.
I remember that by age five, I had my own goat. I was staying with my maternal grandmother. I would follow my cousins to shepherd my goat. I would pick and stack fallen iroko leaves for it. My grandmother’s trade was soap making. Her neighbour made the best ‘ogiri’ (locus bean paste) I ever knew.
We also made palm oil in the house. We wove baskets and tied brooms.
My paternal grandmother made snuff. A young man would come to the house to pound it for her. She made the right mixture of the tobacco and potash. We could sell it for her. People came to the house to buy them. Of course, some were big time merchants as well.
So, yes, the housewives saw that every child was gainfully employed. Learning life-skills as a matter of course. It strikes me that there is no word for ‘unemployment’ in Igbo language because each person grew up with multiple employment, thanks to the housewife who, moreover, observed what each child had more aptitude for.
These are now more difficult when there is no housewife. Unfortunately, some gifts, while being acknowledged as ‘gift’ was not seen as a venture. I think of gifts like storytelling, singing, playing different instruments, even cooking. They were commandeered as a matter of course for social gatherings for the enjoyment of all. It was unfortunate because some kids who were so gifted, and not so gifted at other more concrete things, were regarded as being lazy.
But these were lost when we moved to towns and cities. There was no space in common compounds for many of these employs. Many women simply followed their husbands to town and could not find a suitable niche for themselves, variously skilled as they were.
Schools emphasized literacy and numeracy. But luckily once again, we are making a full turn around. We are looking for those aptitudes. But we have so despised the word ‘housewife’ that we have coined another: ‘stay-at-home mum’. But now, we have entrusted a great chunk of these skills and aptitude discovery to schools, and pay heavily, hoping that they be discovered.
Luckily, we have now come to appreciate the entertainment industry as real industry. Just as life is taking us back to working from home.
But I personally prefer ‘housewife’ to stay-at-home mum. Housewife sounds like midwife to me. The one who assists essentially in birthing. The one who brings us out into the world. And the housewife births the household, and all in it. Sit-at-home mum sounds passive to me. Like a fine picture that could be removed and replaced…and nothing essentially changes.
If for any reason you work from home, or are considering it, please proudly do so. And introduce yourself as such. We so need you!