Every morning, I walk by the grade R classroom and the kids either say, “buh byeeee Ms. Mathebula” (because it’s all they know how to say in English). One of my wittle friends, Zinhle, always says, “Hi mama!”
Mama is how one refers to an older woman in Zulu culture. But as we know, I’m not old, and I look like I’m 18. South Africans usually call me intombazane (girl), so it always cracks me up when Zinhle calls me mama. Learners have also asked me many times if I have a baby. Am I really old enough (23, soon to be 24), to be called mama and have a baby? Maybe in this culture, but in my own culture? Uh… I sure hope not.
Although I’m in a drastically different place from last year, I keep experiencing things here that remind me of my City Year service. One of which has come to mind quite often this school term: students seeing me as a motherly figure.
Liz Warden, as a motherly figure? The girl who has vowed countless times that she will not have kids because she can’t deal with them? The girl who often has a scowl on her face – without even knowing it? Yup. I guess there’s just something so warming about that infamous scowl.
Last year, I had a couple of students who called me “mom” and clung to me. Their mothers had either passed away or they were absent from their lives. I never really understood it because I was far too young to be considered a mom in America.
After almost two years of this stuff, I am starting to understand the mama role a little more. Because I show a lot of interest in my student’s lives and try to get to know them personally, they open up to me. They see that I care and trust me, so they begin to see me as a motherly figure. To have a young, energetic woman, pushing them to do their best in their life is different than what they normally get.
In my journaling efforts with my grade 5 class, one of my students wrote all about her mom. She told me everything. That her mom lives all the way in Johannesburg and rarely sees or talks to her, she forgot about her birthday, and she even said, “My mom doesn’t care about me.” Then she wrote, “Miss, tell me about your mom. What is your mom like?”
Alright. To my readers who don’t personally know me or my life story, I guess it’s a time to get a little mushy because I can only truly explain this impact of my service by digging deeper into my past. I don’t have a relationship with my mom, and cut off all communication with her last year for various reasons. I haven’t had a — let’s say — present mother since I graduated high school and my parents split. Blah blah blah blah life story blah blah blah.
I’m sure my student thought I would write about how perfect my mom was, how much I miss her, how beautiful she is, and all that. As someone from America, of course everything has to be perfect, right?
I could have simply described what my mother looked like, her name, where she lived, and all that boring stuff. But I had a gut instinct to be honest, probably because I had tears filling up my eyes. I told her I don’t talk to my mom also, we don’t agree about many things and it can be very hard without a mom, especially at her age. I told her that she’ll look back to when she was 10-years-old when she’s my age and realize how strong she is because of all of her mama drama. I knew by writing this, she would trust me more and hopefully not get so down on herself. I understand both of us have very different mama drama, but mama drama in general is always bond-worthy because somehow it always relates to an absent mother.
I know you’re probably thinking how can one of my grade 5 learners comprehend any of this, as I have said plenty of times before that some of them can barely write a sentence in English. This little girl, however, is an anomaly. Her aunts spoke English to her growing up, so she speaks very fluent English for a fifth grader. She’s really mature, too. I enjoy talking to her sometimes more than talking to adults at my school. After telling her about my mom, I can tell she feels more comfortable with me. Sometimes she’ll just come into the library because, “They’re being too noisy in class.”
With little of a language barrier, I can be a mama figure for this learner and push her to succeed in school and life – something her gogo, who she loves very, very much, can’t do because she’s too old. Two years of being my little buddy will be something unforgettable for the both of us.
Staff told us in Peace Corps training, our “self-identities” would change drastically during our service. Well, so far mine has changed from “Liz Warden” and “friend and daughter” to “Miss Mathebula” and “friend, daughter, sister and mother”. Call it mentorship, call it whatever, but honestly, sometimes I really do feel like a mother and care for some of these kids as if I was related to them. Maybe because of my past, maybe because I feel guilty about my family, maybe because I’m old enough to be considered a mother here, or maybe that’s just how this service game plays out. Who knows, except I do know that I’m happy, excited, and have found just another one of those kids that makes my service worth it.