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Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Hoosier Mama

In Kenya, a lot of things are somewhat old fashioned, including the phenomenon of socially deemed respect for certain people. Teachers, administrators, other professionals, surely clergy, and old people, are definitely treated with a certain level of respect by the general population. It is funny and often jarring  to me because I regularly forget HOW  OLD I AM now and am taken aback when I am offered a special seat (probably the only one available) or given the opportunity to go first when taking a meal together,  or am treated deferentially in any number of other situations. Sometimes, it is difficult to tell if this is happening because I am older, because I am white, or because I am a woman. I feel compelled to figure this out. If it’s because I am older that is ok as with me, as I am also old fashioned that way, but if it is one of the other two, it would make me uncomfortable. Isn’t that curious? I doubt that it is because I am a woman because Kenyan women do all sorts of discomfiting things here, like carrying large burdens alone or managing large families alone or sitting on the ground in awkward positions (no one offers them a chair!). So, it could be the combination, that I am an older, white, woman.
I am often called “mama” which I guess is a term of respect because mothers are respected, or old mothers are respected, or perhaps it’s white old mothers who are respected, but  I am not certain of the reasoning at this point.  Being called “mama’ by the general population takes some getting used to. It does happen more when I am with Liam and I believe it’s an identifier of sorts which comes from Swahili, as I am “mama Liam.” Of course that is not too different than my identifier at home with folks whom I don’t know. “Liam’s mom” is not so different than “mama Liam” I guess.  
I have also been referred to as “my new mama” by a young woman who wants to befriend me I think, but now I’m sort of confused. Actually she is not that much younger than I am so I am wondering if it’s just because I’m a woman, or an older woman, or a white woman ? I need clarification!!  I’d rather be her “sister” if given the choice!  Trying to create a bond with Kenyan women is one of my goals but I have to be sure of “my place” first I guess (like whose “mama” am I?).
One reason all of this makes me slightly uncomfortable thus far is that “mama”, for me, implies a person to whom one goes for care or nurturing.  So, if its’ a small child saying it, that’s ok, I enjoy  taking care of small children ( Note: I have yet to have a small child call me “mama” I think because it’s hard to imagine me as their mother!), and feel capable of providing the sort of comfort a small child might need, or even a bigger child, for that matter.  However  if it is a grown man,  I am not sure I am a good candidate for your  “mama.”
This could be a perennial question for me, but I have to say I am relieved when I hear people refer to Michael as “dad” or “mzee” ( pronounced “mzai”  meaning, “old man”) as it puts us on the same plane somehow AND it makes ME feel less old!   


  1. i'm pretty sure the correct term is "Opa Mike."

  2. Hi! Good to read you again, Mama!!!

    I think you'd best contact Miriam about this issue.

    Also, it's interesting that African-Americans use the term Mama in various ways, certainly not just to identify a nurturing female. "Whoooo! She sure is a hot mama," "come over here, mama," etc. African roots?

  3. P.S. This little game of reading the two blurry words in order to comment is bogus! What is the point?!

  4. I love your writing, mama or not!

  5. Hi, Lizzie, we had the same problem with ambiguity when Tim and I lived in Guatemala. Our neighbors to our rented house were its caretakers. They were campesinos, rustic types. The one we spent the most time with was the matriarch, Chenta, who brought us tortillas and fresh masa most days.
    She and her husband always referred to me as "Dona Any" but Tim as just "Tim" actually "Ting." When I asked them why they didn't call him "Don Tim," they laughed uproariously, as tho it was the best joke they'd heard in years. Then, when I further pressed them, saying "but he's my husband" they slapped my back, doubled over, and went nuts. Tears running down their faces, flopping down in their chairs in exhaustion at the hilarity. No answer to each question.
    Tim and I would try to de-brief at home. Probably they had never seen an interracial couple, at least not an American one. But if they didn't believe we were married, what did they think his function was if it didn't deserve a "Don?" Cabana boy? Gardener? Sex slave?
    Never solved it.