Cooking is social. Eating is a private joy. Our lives are evenly spaced around mealtimes. However different the eating traditions, food is important in any culture.

In Africa, I expected everything to be very communal, especially meals.

An illustration for an international foods cookbook

An illustration for an international foods cookbook

I have enjoyed sharing many meals with African friends, spiced with lots of talk and camaraderie. One of my best Ghanaian friends is deaf, and it was only a little difficult to eat with our hands and talk with them at the same time.

However, more often meals were like this:

Woman Eating, Oil on Calabash

Woman Eating, Oil on Calabash

At public eating places, you could eat on a bench facing the wall to avoid any interruption. In traditional Ghanaian homes, family members often eat separately. The father is served in his room or on a veranda. If an important guest is visiting, they may eat with the father, or be served separately. The children eat together by the kitchen. And the mothers eat in the kitchen after serving everyone else, or earlier, while they prepare the food.

Someone once told me that he had never seen the women in his family eat. They ate where and when they could (which isn’t so different from some mothers in America). Mothers are caregivers, and they constantly adapt to the needs of their children and families. I painted this portrait of a friend eating to illustrate the woman eating in the room on her own.

This is one in a series of paintings on gourds showing Ghanaian women in their traditional roles as caregivers. I used gourds because they were inexpensive and easily available in Ghana, and because they were often used as a versatile kitchen tool, for washing rice or storing salt or shaping banku. The pattern around the outside is taken from the designs on the black and white cloth that women wore for celebrations, for weddings, baby-naming ceremonies, funerals, and also for women’s groups. The themes I illustrated were representative of life as I experienced it in my small town in Northern Ghana. My point of view is that of an outsider, and the paintings are by no means representative of all African women. But there is something in the idea that I believe speaks to women in general, from any part of the world, and especially mothers. Women are the caregivers, the sacrificers.

In the room on our own, we relaxed. We changed out of our nicer clothes and wore whatever was coolest and most comfortable.

There was something nice about eating alone. My needs and responsibilities shrank down into just what fit into that bowl of soup and rice in my lap.