Ozoz Sokoh, also known as Kitchen Butterfly, is modestly described in her bio as a Nigerian Food Explorer. That title functions like a good poem title — it gives you a hint about the world you are entering, but you don’t appreciate the full picture until you reach the end of the poem. At that point you are running back to the beginning to read with new eyes, realising that the title as much as the poem are gifts that will keep giving. Ozoz IS a gift that keeps giving. Although we had never met in person until October 2019, I had for a while been struck by the way she uses food to connect life in a way that transcends indulgence or necessity. I was drawn to what I can only describe as her authenticity, a woman in her own lane who was conscious of her power. I asked about her story. I wanted to learn how she stepped into womanhood.
“I think that I became a woman, conscious of my strengths, my wisdom, my uniqueness and my specificities, my longings and my desires about 10 years ago. I was living in the Netherlands, very confused about my direction as a person, not quite confident about the path I was on and not really knowing how to forge direction ahead. I went through this personal crisis. One thing I remember from that period is that there was a love for food and I combined that love for food with writing and photography. But I also had a friend who said to me that when she went through her own period of turmoil and crisis, someone asked her three questions:
Who are you, whose are you and what are you called for? And she felt that if she could answer those three questions, she would be set up for life. So I started thinking and meditating on those three things and I went from worrying to being more reflective and actually sitting and thinking about my life.
I started with ‘whose am I’, and I always consider myself to be God’s child. Then, ‘who am I’? I wasn’t just one person, there was a multiplicity of things. I wasn’t content being one person so there was mother, wife, sister, friend, poet writer, photographer, cook, eater, historian, scientist, advocate…there were all these parts, and for me I realised that those parts rotate their dominance. So at one time I’m intensely photographer and the other, behind the stovetop stirring a pot and the other still, sweat, blood and tears translated into words. I got a sense of what my essence was and what I was here for. I have always thought about my purpose and my mission to encourage men and women to live their dreams in spite and despite…, to trust themselves enough to venture out, to explore their desires in spite of what the world says.
Because I mean, look at me — geologist, scientist, now food lover, but I still apply my scientific reasoning and techniques and all of that and people will wonder if that’s enough and if that has value. For me it does. It’s of the utmost value. It has meaning. It gives me joy and fulfilment on a level that very little else can. So I found my niche. If I can inspire people to go for that dream, whatever it is, encourage them with wisdom, with understanding, with some financial sense, to make good of that desire, to change their world, then I’ve done my work”.
If I needed confirmation that the online persona matched the real life person, this answer was on point. I was struck not just by her introspection and humility given her achievements, but also by the fact that she finds purpose in lifting others — a trait common with many women who inspire me. We talk about sisterhood and Ozoz lights up. she describes it as,
“a mosaic. Colourful, cracked, almost like those church stained glass windows in church each piece joined to the other and kind of glued, which in a way reminds me of the Japanese philosophy of kintsugi — mending with gold. When I think about sisterhood, I think of kinship and fellowship and understanding on certain levels. There are generally accepted truths and there are personal truths, to find someone who understands your personal truths, who doesn’t judge you for it, who finds joy in your presence, in your thoughts, in your company, people who you just gel with, that’s sisterhood. It doesn’t exclude fights and quarrels and disagreements and different perspectives but at the core, at the essence of it is an honest, truthful love.”
Strength being another of the traits I admire in the women who inspire me, I wanted to know if any specific women came to mind when I mention strong women and more importantly, asked, who do you see as a strong woman?
“A strong woman weathers her own storms, makes sense of her life and all the things that get thrown her way. I don’t really think of a specific person. I think, maybe, maybe I think of me.”
At this point she chuckles in a self-assured, ‘yes I said it’ kind of way that makes me want to grab pompoms and cheerlead but I’m recording and I have limited time for intricate editing so I settle for a chuckle and wait for the rest of the answer. “I think of all the things that I’ve overcome in my own way, and for some people it may be small and inconsequential but we don’t fight the same battles. I’d say I was a strong woman but I’m also conflicted about strength.“I feel like society rewards strong women, and in that reward is something about how noble suffering is. So I don’t like the idea of strength as the reward and the outcome of suffering which sometimes I feel is unnecessary.
But I like to think of strength in terms of being open to my true self and being vulnerable when I need to be — so crying in front of my children for instance if I need to cry, as opposed to putting on this brave face of adulthood which sometimes, oftentimes, is a mask. My strength is in truth. How true am I to who I am, who I say I am, who I want to be.”
What assumptions or handed down wisdom have you had to unlearn about womanhood in order to live in truth?
“This idea that as women you should bear your suffering with a calm pretty face in spite of what you are going through. There is always a sense of keeping up appearances and I think that’s the biggest thing I’ve had to unlearn — not staying anywhere just because that’s what’s expected of me, whether it’s an unhappy marriage or unhappiness at work or a friendship that’s not working. I’m going to have to deal with it and so rather than pretending, I’d rather face the painful truth”.
Listening to this answer, I’m conscious of the fact that no definition of strength, self or anything exists in a vacuum. The fact that internationally, there are unspoken and obvious barriers for women, which are upheld by both men and women doesn’t escape our conversation. I am interested to know the particular boundaries faced by Nigerian women. Ozoz notes that some of those boundaries are “around who women can say no to and when they can say no. Their right to refusal. It’s also about who Nigerian women can be and who you are allowed to be as a woman…I think that women can do whatever they want and should be allowed to.”
We talk about gender roles and how it can all be so convoluted. A typical example being that Ozoz rejects the idea that a woman’s place is in the kitchen but she loves to be in the kitchen, a conundrum I completely identify with. The defining difference here of course is choice. On this, she says “there are boundaries around when women should say no. I shouldn’t have a man, or anyone, touch me in the market whether he is 12 or 68, whether he wants to offer me a service or not, and I have a right to not want that service. I have a right to refuse that service and not be insulted for it. I have a right to turn down any offers of business, friendship, whatever. But quite often, women are expected to just accept and just receive and be even thankful that they got asked. And I’m like please, kindly keep your ask and your support and your desire and whatever else until I request for it”.
If I had those pompoms, this would have been another cheerleading moment especially because in our conversation, Ozoz was very clear on some of the penalties of saying no, and why people may find it difficult. Earlier, I had noted the bucket list on her blog. One of the items listed was ‘to say no when you mean to say no. It was updated to reflect the strides she’d made on this front.
That open admission reminded me of the methodical way Ozoz does and presents her work: the strong recognition of process which comes out even in the discussion captured here is a pointer that no one becomes strong woman by wishing. When you see what you want, if you really want it, you work towards it. Or as per Ozoz “I try not to get stuck in my head when I face something that is overwhelming or something that seems grander than I would have imagined myself doing or being. I usually just get down to the task and I’m like okay, what am I delivering and what does this require, and brush up where I need to — read, practice…”
Ozoz practices out loud. It’s a quality I admire because she is sharing her skills, her process but also normalising the fact that people fail sometimes.
I’m curious about why she posts the ‘fails’ of her food experiments and I’m glad I ask because , another life lesson is gifted to me in the form of a story.
“In 2010, I really wanted to attend a conference in Paris. It was a women and networking conference. I had asked two sets of people to sponsor me and they refused. I was going to ask a third person but I was really afraid and my mentor said, ask. You already have two nos in the bank, one more can’t hurt. When you ask you go from a 0% chance of a yes to a 50% of a yes. I did ask and someone agreed to sponsor me. One of the many conversations that really struck me at the conference was the idea of how much more we could learn from failure than from success. People tend to fail and sweep it under the carpet. They don’t reflect on where they went wrong and how they might improve. But from that conference I came away committing to myself that whenever I failed I would sit down and review my failure in order to understand what went wrong and where it went wrong. In doing so what happened was that I became quite clear of what went wrong and it helped me stop myself from repeating it. Whether that is failure in relationships, work, executing things, I learnt to think broader and to reflect a lot more and therefore to improve my odds of successfully adulting”.
The benefits of being prepared, open and willing to experiment is borne out in Ozoz’s career which includes several television appearances, curating and featuring in exhibitions, literary meets culinary events, documentaries — a consummate polymath, another character trait I’m drawn to. Reminiscing on the leap from food as hobby to food as the centre of a career, Ozoz remarks, “the translation has been seeing where some of the work I have done and some of the thinking I have done at home can be translated into greater good and for public use. So for instance a desire to chronicle when fruit and veg is in season resulted in me creating a seasonal produce calendar which has gone on to be used by people who want to source products for export, people who want to create products from produce, people who want to write books. So for me its being able to connect personal desires with say where I can project them for greater good or greater knowledge”.
For reasons I can’t explain, I felt the urge to ask Ozoz for the meaning of her name. “The full name is Ozozoma which means everyone should give birth to children, everyone should birth things, everyone should be productive. I think I live up to my name”. I can’t agree more. I learn new things everytime I visit a Kitchen Butterfly platform, smiling to myself as I see the connections between the way Ozoz treats food and the way she speaks of life. One of the notes in her instagram highlights says “Remember the lessons. Don’t waste the pain”. She says something similar in our conversation. With food, she researches everything and wastes nothing. Liquid from one pot becomes the base for something else. With life too, she examines everything and filters it through the lenses of those questions that became the rudder for who she is now:who are you, whose are you and what are you called for?
In closing I ask if she ever thinks of legacy. “I think of legacy a lot and I’m clear on what legacy is. To my children, and to my family, it is a sense of living as you are meant to live, not fearlessly because I do have fears but finding my intended purpose and living it in spite of anything and everything else, so for me it is a legacy of strength, of direction, of clarity, of seeking , of questioning, of being”.
Ozoz Sokoh, aka Kitchen Butterfly is a woman who reminds me that there are no limits when you choose to live in purpose. A strong woman.
This was first published on Medium on 22 April 2020