By Eunice Aber
Growing up, my mother engraved in me the idea that the litmus test for being an Acholi woman is how “bright and shiny” your saucepans looked, after you washed them. She literally scared me into believing so.
I did not fall for it at first, but waking up to the same song every morning during holidays, ensured that it was engrained in my subconscious. Now when I walk into any Acholi woman’s house, the first thing I notice are the saucepans. If the saucepans do not sing out in brilliance or sharply reflect the sun into my eyes, I know they are a Musama* of the tribe.
Today, as I was washing my saucepans, I recalled those mornings I hated. When I wanted to wash only the dishes and leave the saucepans because I had tried and failed to get my saucepans to the level of cleanses of my mother and elder sisters. Sometimes my sisters laughed at me, and boy was it embarrassing when they mocked me in straight Acholi saying, “How will your saucepans look at your home?” “Your home”, here meaning, “your marital home.” It’s true, learning how to wash saucepans to the Acholi woman’s standard and finally getting it right taught me lessons, which though I now take for granted, have been instrumental in my progress throughout life. Fortunately, my mother was a gracious and patient teacher. Somehow, she believed I would get there despite several failed attempts. Allow me to share with you some of those invaluable lessons that the whole process taught me.
PATIENCE: I learnt how to be patient with things until I got them right. Getting those saucepans cleaned right was not a one-day thing, nor a one-week thing. It took me YEARS to learn the art and technique of washing a saucepan. To make it worse, the saucepans in my mother’s house came in all shapes, sizes and textures. You had to get the energy right. If you scrubbed too hard, nothing changed. It is as though the saucepan demanded a certain level of gentleness, and could not take any gross treatment from you. You had to get the water right too. If you used a small amount of water, it became as hard as a rock. If you used too much water, your fingers and scrubbing pad got “lost in the ocean.” It sounded easy to the listener, and looked quick to the passer-by; but to my 14 year old self, it was a daunting task. I took breaks, and sometimes just gave up altogether. But at the back of my mind, I knew I had to learn, or be disowned by my tribe.
RESOLVE: There were days when the girls would get lazy and the saucepans would go dull; or those days when only the struggling soldier [me] was around. Being the good mentor that she was, my mother would give us time to reform [or give me time to get it right]. However, when she saw that her kitchen was getting haywire and nothing was looking good, she would step up to the situation.
Somehow, I was always around on these days. My dear mother would call out, “Eunice, go to the shop and buy me steel wire (This is a scrubbing pad for those who don’t know) and soap” [we have special bar soaps for saucepans]. When I came back from the shop, she would say, “Bring out all the saucepans…” [That meant clean, dirty, never used. Everything]. She would sit down under the shade, on her special stool, and clean those saucepans as if they would never be used again. Sometimes she would take a full day.
When she was done, we would have a line-up of shiny, beautiful looking saucepans drying under the sun. That day, everyone wanted to cook. It was also from my mother that I learnt the secret of non-stick saucepans. Clean saucepans are always non-stick. That very simple act taught me a lot about resolve and determination. I admired my mother. I wanted to be like her. Whenever I saw her do that, I was more determined to get it right at the next try.
EVERY TRADE HAS A TECHNIQUE, AND TO EXCEL, YOU HAVE TO LEARN THAT TECHNIQUE: We all want to be something. Ultimately some of us want to be writers. Some of us want to be computer programmers or ethical hackers. Others want to head big organisations, such as the World Bank or the United Nations.
It is a huge mistake to look at the people who are where we want to be, and think that everything is easy and obvious. Frankly, I could have never believed, if someone had said to me that having clean and shiny saucepans, was as much an art as baking the best cake. The tilt of the saucepan, the movement of the hands, they both come with practice and technique. “You need to get the water right”, my sister said. And “you are using the wrong soap”, she added. It was only after hearing this that I realised there was more to cleaning a saucepan that just tilting it and moving your hands back and forth. The bottom line is that, every trade has a technique, which you must sometimes learn from a more experienced person. I am an auditor by profession, and this lesson has been very invaluable in getting it right in my line of work.
TAKE PRIDE IN YOUR OWN WORK: Despite the fact that the “brilliant saucepan” song always pointed to the marital home, a marital home was the last thing on my mind. I would like to think that the “marital home” was used to scare me into taking this seriously.
Then, and even now, whenever I line up one clean saucepan after another, a sense of satisfaction overwhelms me. At the risk of blowing this out of proportion, I would like to say it feels more or less like winning an award. It does not matter who is looking at the saucepans, but when they are shining brightly and reflecting the sun, with no speck of dirt, I feel a kind of pride and accomplishment close to a Nobel Prize winner. Cleaning those saucepans taught me that I never had to wait for anyone to appreciate my work. I can take pride in my work even if no one looked or cared about it. Because of that, I can comfortably do things no one notices, pour out my entire heart and life into it, and get the satisfaction of the finished products of my labour. I am therefore not waiting for praise and adulation to keep me going. Those are only an added advantage to being excellent. Beholding the beauty of my finished work is enough to keep me going. And when there is criticism, I know I can work harder, or try again.
LEAD BY EXAMPLE: Perhaps the one thing that kept me hooked to the goal of having clean shiny saucepans [frankly the shiny bit was the only thing on my mind], was seeing my mother. I cared about being a good Acholi woman, but I didn’t really care about what my husband thought my saucepans looked like [I was 14 for crying out loud].
However, something moved in me when I saw my mother step out of her comfort zone. She had five girls in the house, and every excuse to sit and do nothing. But on more than one occasion, she rolled up her sleeves and cleaned all the saucepans in the house. She did it so effortless, and with so much grace, love and determination.
When I saw her, I could not really help myself. It did not matter what I did to get there, my saucepans just had to look like my mother’s. She led by example and so hooked me right there. I had no excuse because the person who was telling me what to do was doing it, effortless.
I have kept this lesson to this day. Whenever I instruct anyone to do something, whether it is my younger siblings or my younger colleagues, I check myself first to make sure that I am also able to it. It is almost second nature. I never tell anyone to do something that I myself cannot do.
I could go on about these lessons. I could go on and bore you with unnecessary information. But if there is anyth8ng you should take away from here, is this.. . each community has beautiful practices handed down from generation to generation. These are not only meant to be preserved, but to be learnt from. Not forgetting that a mother, is the first friend and mentor for each every woman.
*Musama – Ugandan slang for Ugandans who live abroad, only to return to the country for holidays, like Christmas.