It is still frowned upon in many African communities to see a man with a basket buying groceries in the market. This is considered the duty of the woman, or so many argue.
This has been cemented by patriarchy, a social system where men hold primary power and predominate in roles of leadership, moral authority, social privilege, and control of property. Men decide who does what, when, and how.
Things may be changing, especially in urban centres, where some men can be seen helping their wives with their shopping.
But among members of Bajuni community in Lamu County, it is normal for men to go to the market while their wives or mothers stay at home. It is a tradition that has been passed on from generation to generation and Bajuni are not ready to drop it anytime soon.
Residents say going to the market is a man’s job. It is a man’s way of showing love to his wife and family. To Bajuni men, it is actually an honour for them to buy groceries for their wives. And they prefer using the kiondo – a traditional African basket for shopping.
As you walk around markets in Shela, Hindi, and Mokowe, you easily spot men busy negotiating prices of vegetables – kales, onions, tomatoes, carrots, and cabbages – with baskets on their heads or hanging on their shoulders. It is believed it is the duty of a man to go to the grocery shop.
Mohammed Said says he doesn’t mind going to the market. Mohammed, who is accompanied by his 10-year-old son to a nearby market on Lamu Island, says he has always bought groceries for his wife. Men, both old and young, can be seen rushing to and from the market with kiondos.
At the market, most buyers are men. You will find them busy picking fresh vegetables. Some are negotiating prices. They are usually unbothered by the occasional stares from visitors.
Mohamed Salim Kalfan, a resident of Kiu Island, says he was surprised that men going to the market to buy groceries is treated as shocking news in some quarters.
“This has been our culture for ages. Our ancestors used to carry baskets and shop for their wives. We have taken after them. We buy everything that is needed from the market and take them to our wives and mothers,” said the 80-year-old.
As a matter of fact, Salim says, women have no permission to go to the market, unless they are selling or the home does not have a man.
“I fetch water, collect firewood and buy food. Her work is to show gratitude for what I do for her. She sits at home and waits for me to bring everything so she can cook for the family. I help her in the kitchen at times,” says Salim.
However, Salim is concerned that men are slowly abandoning the kiondo for modern shopping bags. “This is western culture and we should not fall for it. We should keep the kiondo, that is what our forefathers left us with.”
Since men are also helping in cooking, what is the role of the woman?
“In our culture, men are the providers. This has been emphasised by our religion. It is alright for a man to cook. The woman is expected to stay at home and look pretty. She is supposed to be treated like a queen,” says Said Omar, a resident.
“Even when my wife works and earns more than me, I cannot ask for cash from her. I would not even ask how she spends her money,” he says.
Mahmud Salim says: “Going to the market is normal for men here. It is our culture and our religion too recognises that. I go to the market daily, weekly or monthly, depending on availability of cash and the need.”
“However, when a home does not have men, the women are allowed to go to the market. But the woman must dress decently, in a buibui (a piece of black cloth worn as a shawl by Muslim women), and cover herself in niqab and hijab,” says Mahmud, who condemns men who buy groceries and give the baskets to their house helps to carry, for that’s a man’s job.
When we met Mahmud, he was heading to the hospital to visit his sick wife. He said he had already gone to the market and bought everything the family needed.
He dismisses claims Bajuni men don’t allow their wives to go to the market to keep them away from other men because they are jealous.
“Markets have many people from different backgrounds. It is true no man wants to see his wife being approached by another man. However, for us, it is the duty of the man to shop because that is what our tradition and religion demand. Our religion forbids the woman from going to the market when there are men. This has nothing to do with jealousy,” says Salim.
He said their culture only allows women to engage men who are their family members. “Allowing them to go to the market will compromise this principle as they will be forced to negotiate prices with other men.”
He said while all her four sons would carry kiondo to the market, he fears the current generation is losing regard for the decades-long tradition.
“These days, a woman is married and the next time you see her, she is in the market buying stuff. Men are also getting involved in the finances of their wives and this is due to invasion of the western culture and tough economic times,” says Salim.
He adds: “A woman is not allowed to walk, even on the beach, alongside a man who is not her husband or family member. In the past, a woman would be punished for doing this. But we are also aware times are changing and we are going easy on some of these rules.”
Mustafa Hamau says their tradition is slowly being eroded as people embrace modernity. “Going to the market is part of a man’s duty to provide for his family. There should be no shame in carrying a basket. This is normal for Bajuni and Swahili communities,” says the father of eight.
Naim Lali says while he does not mind carrying a basket to the market, many young people of his age, are abandoning the practice.
“I always go to the market to buy groceries and anything else my mother and sisters may need and I don’t see anything wrong with that. This is what I was introduced to when I was young. Some of my friends prefer using polythene bags while others don’t go to the market at all. It’s a worrying trend,” says Lali.
Zainab Mohamed, from Mombasa, says it’s a man’s job to provide for the family and that includes going to the market.
“My husband has been doing it since we got married. And there is nothing wrong with that; he is simply fulfilling his role as a husband,” says Zainab.
However, William Okoth does not agree with this culture. “What will be my wife’s job if I am the one going to the market and cooking? Don’t forget that I am also working to provide for the family,” says Okoth, a sales manager.
He says the African society has allocated both men and women-specific roles. “I don’t think I would comfortably carry a kiondo around buying groceries. It’s a taboo.”
Okoth says a woman knows better what she should cook for the family hence better placed to go to the market.
“I am Luo and it is taboo for men to go to the market, let alone carry a basket. The roles of men and women were well defined since we were young,” says Okoth.
Mark Ombongi, a resident of Kisii town, said men who go to the market are considered weak and are despised by their fellow men. Sometimes, they are thought to be under a spell.
“In some African societies, it is taboo for a man to enter the kitchen. There some roles boys could not perform after circumcision as they were considered a woman’s,” says Ombongi.
Roger Ndambuki says it is fine for a man to help his wife around the house. “I wouldn’t mind helping her cook and shop, it is a show of love. By so doing, you are telling her she’s not a slave. But I would hesitate to carry a kiondo around.”