I have never liked the chicken gizzard, so God sends me to Africa. In Uganda the gizzard is not only a delicacy but also a source of much cultural baggage.

I am told you have to clean a gizzard correctly and that all people don’t know how to do that. This information does little to convert me. The extra cleaning has to do with the function of the organ – it takes in and holds small rocks and sand swallowed by the chicken and used to grind up seeds and certain other hard foods that it eats. So the hard and muscular gizzard is the true stomach of the chicken and performs this grinding function.

There are many ideas about why the gizzard is so important in much of Africa, but I am unable to find definitive expert commentary. Its status seems to me to be one of superstition. All the observations in the following list of examples are traditional, meaning that in 2014 these practices are changing. They seems to be the residue from a strongly patriarchal society and thought by many to be methods by which women were kept in a subservient role. It’s tempting to adopt such a point of view because Uganda, and Africa in general, is doing much to challenge its anti-feminine traditions. But truthfully, superstition arises for many reasons, and it is hard for me make that call from my comfortably 2014 western point of view.

Here are some ways the gizzard is regarded in Uganda and much of Africa traditionally, though today perhaps in most areas only the elderly would adhere to them:

  •  It is taboo for women to eat chicken, period, and a list of other foods as well. These foods are considered the purview of the men.
  •  If a woman prepares chicken, she is expected to give the gizzard to a male of any age, usually someone close to her or well-respected by her – sort of an early version of a Valentine’s card, maybe?
  •  The gizzard supposedly symbolizes honor. Because of this, when chicken is served to a group of men, the gizzard is placed in the bowl of the elder, leader, or most respected member present.
  •  If a man purchases a chicken at the market and examines it upon receipt only to find that the gizzard is missing, he will throw down the chicken and walk away, declaring, “This chicken is not for me!” The same is true of a leader or elder being served chicken without the gizzard during a meal – he gets up from the table, declares, “This chicken is not for me!” and walks away.

These superstitions may not be entirely about keeping the women down. It is thought by some that the gizzard symbolized not the fertility of the women but the sexual prowess of the man, and therefore it would be appropriate that only the men would eat it. Another thought is that since the gizzard is one of the toughest tissues of the chicken and is capable of digesting even stones, it was given to the shaman or the eldest in the group to symbolize his power and position – his ability to crush evil and enemies. It certainly accomplishes that purpose in a group of men where only one man can receive the single gizzard – the one receiving it would be recognized and honored as the leader among all the others present, though it is reported that arguments and even violence have occasionally broken out over the proper handling of the gizzard.

It is also thought by some that the gizzard has traditionally held a strong place in the sacrifice rituals of ancestor worship throughout Africa. These rituals are exclusively carried out by men, and so perhaps the gizzard superstition even has some spiritual/religious heritage hidden in the darkness of the past.

As for being simply a tool of some patriarchal strategy, one scholarly comment I found in my research says this:

I also found out that the gizzard issue is linked to the “ntangri” ritual that is performed by the men [ancestor worship]. But it is not exclusively a patriarchal matter. Even in matriarchal societies, the gizzard is still eaten by men. It should also be noted that women who have reached their menopause can eat the gizzard in some Bamenda Grassfields societies [Cameroon]. (http://sheytatah.blogspot.com/2010/10/gizzards-symbolize-honour-in-cameroon.html – see comments)

So perhaps using the gizzard to repress women is an oversimplification. All this is very culturally complex, just as are many superstitions even in the west. In the meantime, I still don’t care much for gizzards, but in Africa if I find one in my bowl with the other chicken parts, I will bravely accept the compliment and eat mine with as much of a smile as I can muster. If there is no gizzard, of course, my other option would be to throw down my food and declare, “This chicken is not for me.” But then I would go hungry.