Health worker found African men going hungry in Australia because they didn't know how to cook
She started a cookery school for young African refugee men in Adelaide
Her story is told in a film shown at Film Africa festival in London
Ayen Kuol is a woman with a mission: to get men into the kitchen.
Kuol, a Sudanese woman, was working as a health worker in Australia, visiting newly-arrived refugees, when she came across single men going hungry because they had no idea how to prepare simple meals.
In response, she set up a cookery school for young Sudanese refugee men in Adelaide, Australia.
In the film, Kuol talked about a health assessment she did with newly arrived refugees.
“One day I came across these four boys,” she said. “They were just lying on mattresses and I said ‘guys, what’s wrong?’
“They said, ‘we’re hungry.’ There was plenty of food, but they didn’t know what to do with it. I opened the fridge and there was meat, vegetables, apples, grapes. I said ‘there’s plenty of food, why are you hungry?’”
Sudanese refugees began arriving in Australia around 2001, and more than 20,000 came in 10 years, according to the Australian government. Around 2,000 of those settled in Adelaide, South Australia.
“Adelaide was quite a monoculture and then suddenly there was a rush of Sudanese refugees,” said Sieh Mchawala, who directed the film about Kuol. Mchawala who grew up in Tanzania with a Tanzanian father and an Australian mother.
Many of the new arrivals were young single men who had lost their parents in Sudan’s civil war and had grown up in refugee camps, such as Kakuma Camp in northern Kenya.
“These boys are called the ‘Lost Boys of Sudan,’ said Kuol in the film. “They don’t know where their parents are, they grew up in refugee camps.
“They were lost boys in refugee camps, but they could be lost men here in terms of not knowing what to eat or how to cook or anything.”
Deeply entrenched labor divisions in the Dinka culture of South Sudan made Kuol’s task a tough one. Not only were the men reluctant to try what they considered to be women’s work, but the women refused to let men in their kitchens and made fun of any who tried.
Kuol’s own mother Koko Agot believed it was taboo for men to cook.
“She has been telling me what I’m doing is against the law and if we were in Sudan I would be charged for it,” Kuol said in the film.
Kuol initially struggled to persuade men to take part in her cookery classes. No one turned up to her first class, and only two to her second.
Alier Ateny, a youth worker who spent 14 years in refugee camps in East Africa, said before joining the class: “I’m quite confused about whether to go or not to go.
“If you go to a cooking class, you may end up not getting a woman to marry you in the community. If you cook you are a woman, you are weak.”
Ateny did end up going to the classes, along with around 10 others, aged between 13 and 30.
Mchawala heard about Kuol’s project after deciding he wanted to make a documentary about Sudanese refugees in Adelaide.
“I liked the idea of making a film that wasn’t a sob story about hardship. It was a great opportunity to make something that was more uplifting,” said Mchawala, 33.
He said he had come across men’s reluctance to cook in his own upbringing, but was surprised by how deeply held the views in the Dinka community were.
“After hearing Ayen’s story about finding a lot of men who were struggling to feed themselves, I thought there would be a lot of enthusiasm for the cooking school,” he said.
After around three months of classes, Kuol persuaded the men to hold a feast for the women in the community to prove their worth in the kitchen.
Mchawala said: “By the end, they weren’t going to be on Masterchef, but they gained a bit more confidence and were a bit more open to trying.”
“Ayen’s Cooking School for African Men,” released last year, was Mchawala’s first film and throughout the making he continued working in two jobs, as a laborer and a barman.
He has since made a film called “Barefoot in Ethiopia,” about an Australian brother and sister traveling to Ethiopia.