i. Uncle’s wife
iii. Shock emojis.
My aunty-in-law (let’s call her Aunty Bisi) comes over to my parents’ house with her husband and kids for a visit one evening. I am spending the night. After the initial pleasantries, she leaves my parents and her husband in the sitting room to join me in the kitchen, where I am, proud to say, putting together some vegetable salad. I think she’s coming for gist, but no. She moves to the sink and starts washing plates.
Let me backtrack a little. These are not plates she and her husband ate from. These are my siblings’ plates from a previous meal and I was already planning to give them a talking to about such gross dereliction of duty.
So I move forward to stop her. ‘Aunty please, leave the plates. You don’t have to. I will wash it when I finish with what I am preparing,’ I tell her, making a mental note to increase the punishment for the children at the root of this wahala.
‘No o. Aunty, let me do it. I am nearly through,’ she says.
Biko, where is the aunty? Moi? This aunty is older than I am by at least seven years, and is a mother of two still clingy children. By my Yoruba calculations, she should not be calling me aunty.
What’s going on?
‘Aunty, please you can call me by name, and we can wash the plates together. At least, let me help
you rinse,’ I respond.
Next thing, Aunty Bisi positions her well endowed self to block every gap between me and both sinks, clearly offended at my latest proposition. ‘No, Aunty, let me do it. Even that food you are making, I should be the one helping you make it. This is my responsibility.’
Oh dear! How do I respond to this? As a Yoruba girl, going back and forth with my elders is rude. At the same time, I can’t stand and be making this salad when my senior is washing plates. My brain is doing a futile Google search through my mind for the right Yoruba protocol to follow. My appetite is gone. Stupid salad. Why did I come to this house sef? Those children are dead. So many things running through my head.
I try one more time.
‘Aunty, I can’t leave you to do this. It is not proper. You should be resting in the front, after such a long day. I’m sure Joshua (not his real name) wants to play with his mum up front.’
‘Aunty,’ she replies with a bossy voice. ‘Leave it for me. This is what I’m supposed to do as the Iyawo.”
With that taut tone, I am dismissed. I humbly return to the once appetising salad. I give up. As both of us continue doing our ‘duties,’ one of her children starts crying. You would think the other available parent would try to placate the child for a little while. No. Next thing we hear, ‘Iya Joshua! Come and attend to your child!’ and she runs off. Duty get level.
Fast forward to the end of the visit and I’m explaining this puzzling event to my mother who says it is
all normal. Mummy says tradition dictates that Aunty Bisi call me aunty because I am her husband’s
relative, and also, since she was in her in-laws’ house, she needed to do some chores in the house. I was gobsmacked. I had never observed my mother carry out this tradition, but she says ‘I don’t call your father’s siblings by name. I call the older ones brother, sister, aunty, and give the younger ones nicknames.’
I had been married for about a year when this happened. ‘But I don’t do this at my in-laws,’ I protested. ‘Is it peculiar to our ethnic group?’
‘No,’ she said. ‘You are just rude. It is the Yoruba way.’ She left. My mother was a woman of few words. I had gotten something new to ponder about.
I learned that in Yoruba families, a wife has to treat everyone who was born in her husband’s family before she joined like they are older than her, because she is, figuratively, a new born to the family, and as the last born, she should ‘make herself useful’ to the family pending when another ‘baby’ joins the family.
I guess I can understand the logic, if you ignore biology. But new borns don’t do chores. As you can probably tell, it still sounds silly to me. But a couple more years into this marriage business, and I realise that was an introduction. I used to think that the ultimate respect factor in Yorubaland was age. It just seems like unnecessary subjection to me and an excuse for cheap labour, but depending on the family you are ‘married into,’ it could determine whether this is a serious issue for you, or one of jest.
I could use this to segue into society’s expectations of wives, but I really don’t want to, and I think
we’ve heard enough. Let’s not get that deep today.
For anyone who is in this situation, I have found that the best scenario is to have a husband who is a buffer between you and your in-laws, other than reasonable in-laws, anyway. I see nothing wrong with helping out in the house, as an organic relationship is formed. Not something done because you are magically a new born. If your husband is more on Team In-Laws and Chores, though, and you are not, but you only found this out after dancing away from the altar, things may be a little more difficult. But wisdom is profitable to direct. There is nothing that some friendly but firm boundary setting, looking busy, prayer, and choosing your battles cannot fix. I hope. So far, we have seen different Yoruba rules of respect and duties clash. What do you think should be the hierarchy?
Does this tradition extend beyond Yorubaland? Please share your experiences and expectations.