The first time my informant head this metaphor was in the first few months of his residency in Congo. He had just started his missionary work, his reason for moving from the United States, and when he’d be walking from place to place, he would hear groups of men laughing together and they would often recite this folk metaphor.
My informant explained that the women in Congo were not respected, and this metaphor speaks to that sentiment. He said the proverb means that a woman has no rights, and that any man can claim a woman, for marriage or sex (mostly), as long as they desire to do so.
In areas of Congo, maize is grown by farmers and is common in their diets. To eat maize, one must simply make use of their teeth. As accessible maize is to one’s diet, a woman is just as available to satisfy a male’s desires. It is upon this comparison that the metaphor is established.
As my informant continued his work in Africa, he tried to quell this popular opinion towards women. However, while he was able to share the benefits of valuing women and giving them rights, only a few actually put these ideas into practice. Other than these individuals, this folk metaphor remains popular to the majority of males in the country and women continue to be shown little to no esteem.
Annotation: The African proverb can also be found in Ferdinand Oyono’s Houseboy, Heinemann; Reissue edition, 1991