I celebrated Mother’s Day last Sunday with my host mother and my three host sisters. A house full of women, we cooked traditional bread on the fire and talked about motherhood. My sisters (all under 21-years old) and I all agreed that we were nowhere near ready to be mothers
They squirmed and scrunched their faces when we talked about childbirth, all of them terrified at the thought of it. My meme laughed at them. “Soon you will be ready,” she said in Oshindonga.
They asked me about my mother and I told them that she, like my meme here in Ondangwa and my other host mother in Omaruru and so many mothers around the world, had raised my brothers and me more or less on her own. My meme clicked her tongue at hearing this and shook her head. “Shame,” she said.
It’s that innate strength within Namibian women that continually impresses me. How, despite their own suffering, they recognize the significance of the struggles of others. My Namibian host mothers have faced unimaginable tragedies. War, illness, violence, death—these are all realities in the lives of these women. Yet, whenever I’ve talked about the challenges I’ve faced in my life, I have never once felt like my struggles were viewed as lesser than or more bearable than the challenges they themselves have faced. Suffering to any degree is what unites humanity; in itself, it breeds empathy. It’s what allows people from different cultures, from different worlds, to find some commonality. I don’t talk much about my father here, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched a learner or a friend grieve the loss of a parent and thought: I remember that feeling. Though my losses may be slight compared to the losses of my Namibian friends and family, they are nevertheless recognized and appreciated by Namibians who know me. And it’s within that acknowledgment that a silent understanding exists between us all whenever tragedy occurs. Recognizing without judgment the suffering of people worldwide can only make for a better world community. I think that must be one of the most important things I’ve learned from Namibian women.
It’s what my meme did, when I told her about my father’s death. She didn’t say, “Yeah, you think that’s bad? I grew up on the front lines of a war, parent-less in a refugee camp. My absent husband is working in a diamond mine more than 2000km away and I’m left here with a house full of children, half of whom (including you, oshilumbu) aren’t mine, and all of whom require complete parental support from me alone. You think you’ve got problems?” She didn’t even give me a suggestive look to insinuate she was thinking such a thing. Instead she broke a piece of bread in half, gave half to me and half to my sisters, shook her head sadly and simply said, “I know your mother is a strong woman.” And she couldn’t be more right.
On Mother’s Day, I felt thankful for all the wonderful mothers I’ve known in my life, but most importantly for my own mother, who led by example and taught me about true strength during truly hopeless times. Who I know gave up a lot to give my brothers and me whatever we needed. And who, despite her own personal reservations, agreed to let her daughter move to the other side of the world and go on a crazy soul-searching mission for three years. Her sacrifices and allowances and unwavering support have made me a better person.
And I’m thankful for the mothers in Namibia who have set an extra place at their tables for me and have treated me as one of their own. Those women who have taught me about true empathy, true compassion, true humility—things I may not have been able to learn anywhere else in the world at any other time in history.
Ultimately, I’m thankful (and unbelievably lucky) to have been surrounded by strong women— grandmothers and aunts and cousins and friends and mothers of friends— throughout my life. Their examples have made a lasting impression on me. I hope I can grow up to be as strong as them 🙂
This feature ran in The Namibian Newspaper this past Friday. I read it and thought a lot about it for a few days afterwards, so I thought I would post it here. Though it’s nice to have a day set aside especially for mothers, it’s even nicer to remember and acknowledge all of their sacrifices year round.
So thanks, mom.
Excerpt from The Namibian Friday, May 9 2008
…Against this background and on the eve of Mother’s Day, celebrated in Namibia on the second Sunday of May, the question has to be asked: what does being a mother in modern Namibia mean? Answering this question requires taking a look at the average Namibian mother.
The average Namibian mother is a young woman somewhere between 18 and 30 years of age with two or three children. She is caught in the vicious cycle of poverty and deprivation with a deficient education and little hope of clawing her way out from under her circumstances. She probably lives in a shack or some similar dilapidated structure.
Compounding this misery is the possibility that if she isn’t yet, chances are great that she will be infected with HIV by a partner. Add to this that the father or fathers of her children probably do not pay maintenance, diminishing her chances of creating or maintaining a decent quality of life for her children even more.
And then there’s the rampant alcoholism and domestic violence. A disproportionate number of Namibian women suffer intimate partner violence, with many losing their lives at the hands of husbands and lovers. Consider also the growing tendency of sexually exploitative relationships out of which many children are born and the burgeoning numbers of children given to streetism.
On the whole, not a very healthy picture of the state of motherhood 18 years into our fledgling society.
It has now been acknowledged as a fact that relationships between men and women in Namibia are decidedly bad, fueled by raging unfaithfulness and distrust between partners, and that the country is fast approaching an orphan explosion. Furthermore, a dwindling number of grandmothers have now become mothers and primary care-givers.
And yet, every society, Namibia included, is carried on the calloused hands and backs of mothers. Even with her limited resources, the young marginalized mother tries to give each of her children the best she can. Even though at some point she is probably overtaken by despondency and bitterness, now she still has hope.
At times like these, celebratory days like Mother’s Day serve to not only celebrate, but also highlight the burdens of motherhood. Mothers all over are carrying disproportionately heavy loads. And for many, this day underscores the fact that being a mother, the right of every women, is still a beautiful thing.
And for many children, who easily forget the hands and backs that hardened with the carrying of them, Mother’s Day should serve to remind.
And this reminder serves to stir societal conscience that the young mother in the lopsided shack at the dusty edge of the informal settlement also needs to feel appreciation. In all this it should not be forgotten that motherhood comes everyday and everywhere and there is a celebration there.