What you need to know:
- The annual Mother’s Day, marked last Sunday, is a time to reflect on motherhood. The day originated in the United States of America by Anna Jarvis in 1905, when her own mother died.
- Her campaign to have the day recognised officially succeeded in 1914 when President Woodrow Wilson declared it a public holiday.
- In virtually all communities, children have a bond with their mothers.
The annual Mother’s Day, marked last Sunday, is a time to reflect on motherhood. The day originated in the United States of America by Anna Jarvis in 1905, when her own mother died. Her campaign to have the day recognised officially succeeded in 1914 when President Woodrow Wilson declared it a public holiday.
In virtually all communities, children have a bond with their mothers. This is captured in the Mandinka (Senegal) saying that “the panther does not fear the stains on its mother’s skin.”
The idea is that a woman’s public wickedness does not intimidate her own child. For the Acholi (Uganda), “Somebody else’s mother, however good she is to you, can never surpass your own.” Closely related is the Chewa (Malawi) saying: “Mother is the second God.”
The Tugen capture a mother’s permanent love in the proverb “Her breast milk may cease to flow, but her love is ceaseless.” This underlines that a mother will always forgive an irritating child.
The Luo say “a mother sweeps her child’s grave with fondness,” meaning that motherly love makes unpleasant duties bearable. The Kiswahili saying “Birth pangs are best known to the mother” reminds us that when the child is in trouble, the mother’s sympathy is automatic as she remembers the delivery.
During a vicious fight between siblings, the Tugen use the proverb “May his mother’s belt protect him.” This alludes to the traditional mother’s belt decorated with cowrie shells and regarded as a symbol of the womb, the protective vessel of life. A mother throws this belt between the siblings. Out of respect for her, they must stop fighting immediately, thus protecting themselves from further harm. This is now recognised as a potent traditional system of conflict management.
A child’s value to the mother is summarised in the Mbeere/Embu proverb “Child-bearing is not the same as defecating.” The two functions may resemble but for the product! The Mongo (Democratic Republic of Congo) encapsulate the mother’s resilience in the saying “A mother cannot die.” She is so important that if our wishes were to be fulfilled, she would be immortal.
The Yoruba (Nigeria) agree in “mother is gold; father is mirror.” While the mirror is fragile, gold is solid. That mother is the foundation is depicted in the Kiswahili saying, “He who is not taught by the mother is taught by the world.”
The Rundi (Burundi) echo this in “The child has eaten the partridge; his mother vomits feathers.” In other words, she pays for her child’s deviance. For the Buganda (Uganda), “A child acquires habits when still in the (mother’s) backside strap.”
Mothers’ protective character is expressed in the Southern African proverb “The child’s mother grabs the sharp end of the knife.” She will take any risk to protect her child. This is what the Baule (Cote D’Ivoire) mean by saying: “The mother claims that she is lying down, but her feet are outside,” to mean she is always preoccupied with the safety of her children.
The Bemba (Zambia) encode this in “A cow never runs away from her calves.”
Mothers as nurturers comes out in the Buganda proverb “if your mother is absent, your bowels ache when eating” and the Rundi aphorism “A mother suckles even on the road.” Thus, children are obliged to care for their mothers. That is why the Mbeere say that “a child does not cut itself when chopping something for the mother.” In simple terms, a child will go to any extent to support the mother. A child also has a duty to accept the mother regardless of her deformities, thus the Chewa say: “Your mother is still one though her legs be small.”
But what exactly is motherhood? Broadly speaking, there are two types – biological and social, the latter being a function by a guardian, caregiver or foster-parent. Bertolt Brecht’s play, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, portrays that the latter may at times be more important.
In the contest between Natella, the biological mother of Michael, and Grusha, the nurturer, the latter is granted custody of the child by the rustic judge, Azdak, after declining to “tear him to bits” when both are asked to hold the child’s hands on either side and pull him, with a rider that the successful one would be the blood mother. The play concludes that “children go to the motherly, that they prosper.” In other words, biology is not sufficient for motherhood.
The appreciation of mothers was immortalised in the sprightly Nigerian Pidgin song: Sweet Mother by Prince Nico Mbarga in 1974. We have no option but to repeat the refrain: “Sweet mother I no go forget you; for the suffer we you suffer for me yeah.”
The writer is an international gender and development consultant and scholar ([email protected]).