January 30, 2018 maHp News 0 Comments

Mwangaza Mama: meaning and moments

When my colleague Elsa and I first started our arts-based research group in Johannesburg it didn’t have a name. We simply referred to it as “The Mother’s group” – based on the fact that we had started the group as a way of exploring – through participant research and arts-based methods – the everyday experiences and challenges of migrant mothers in Johannesburg. However, not all the women were mothers and motherhood for those who had dependants was so much more than what the term often conjures up. As my previous blog (The burden of care) discusses motherhood is often a space of turmoil, of the struggle to provide, of frustration and desperation and, of a burden. Therefore the name needed to be something that would not only mark the group, state it’s claim as something to which the women belonged but that also reflected what the group was about, how it was experienced by the women.

So after a discussion the women chose “Mwangaza Mama”. “Mwangaza”, a Swahili word that translates literally as “light”. However, the women also described it as meaning “joy”, “love” and “caring”. “Mama is a term of respect used for all women – with or without children” they told us.

The name also seemed to encapsulate all that has taken place in the group – the light (“Mwangaza”) – of the friendships created, the support given and the times of understanding and fun and the contrasting dark times and spaces. And there have been many very difficult, darker times. I have previously written about the struggles Elsa and I have experienced in dealing with the levels of trauma in the group, in knowing how or what we can do, or even if we should be doing it (Poking the wound – research, stories and process – thinking through the complexities). There are also many experiences I haven’t yet written about in depth like when Mercy received a call to say her brother had died which then triggered an outpouring of grief from all the group members. This was early on in the year and the stories of deaths and violence that surfaced were beyond comprehension. Later in the year Precious arrived one week bent double with pain. The story that unfolded was that she had suffered a partial miscarriage and been treated horribly at a government clinic. After they forced her to wait in a toilet cubicle (as they wanted a urine sample) she miscarried. She had not known she was pregnant and so was in shock and pain. When the nurse found her she told her “good…now throw it in the bin and open a file”. She was then operated on at a government hospital and discharged without antibiotics because the nurse told her “you’ve already had an operation -medicines are only for South Africans”. There was also the time when we realised one of our group members, Mercy who had gone away for a while leaving her three children behind wasn’t coming back. These were tough times and there will be more of them. Recognising the sheer level of desperation that the women battle on a daily basis has often left us in despair –  it has also challenged us, shaped our work and questioned us at every step.

But the dark moments have been central to the group in shaping the ties that have emerged and in generating some of the lighter moments too. And there have been some wonderful moments of light. Getting to know each of the women over the twelve months has been really important and especially seeing how they have formed friendships together. Recently for example, Precious told us a story about helping Mercy, another group member who had moved to the same area as Precious but kept getting lost. The first time this happened Precious had randomly bumped into Mercy who had left her new place to buy bread but couldn’t find her way home. Precious had then walked round and round the streets with Mercy trying to help her find her building. Precious was worried about Mercy being alone in an area she was not familiar with, and even though Precious had two small children at home and many of her own worries she still spent time helping Mercy get home. These two women ten months earlier had not known one another and yet now walking the streets of Joburg in force, keeping each other safe – in a mutual recognition of the risks of the city and their own vulnerability as women, as non-nationals and moving in spaces shaped by crime.

…For the rest of this post visit Becky’s blog: Mothering in the City. Drawing by Rachel Walker.

About Becky Walker

Becky Walker is a research associate with the African Centre for Migration & Society (ACMS).

With a background in Social Anthropology and Development Becky’s work has largely explored women’s experiences of everyday violence in both South Asia and Southern Africa. Becky holds an Msc and PhD in Social Anthropology from the University of Edinburgh where her research focused on the conflict in Sri Lanka and women’s strategies for negotiating everyday violence.

In 2010 Becky moved to South Africa to take up a Postdoctoral fellowship with the Centre of Indian Studies in Africa (CISA) at Wits University and also taught Gender and Development as a sessional lecturer in Social Anthropology. In 2013 she then was awarded a Wotro-funded postdoctoral project through ACMS that explored the multiple vulnerabilities faced by migrant sex workers in Johannesburg.

The project considered the impact of migration legislation, trafficking discourses and transnational networks on feelings of belonging amongst migrant sex workers in Johannesburg and Amsterdam. It also drew from an innovative arts based participatory project that Becky and a colleague ran in a women’s shelter in inner-city Johannesburg, and on-going research at ACMS into sex work, migration and trafficking. Becky’s current work builds on the Wotro project to explore the vulnerabilities faced by migrant mothers who sell sex in South Africa with a particular focus on the intersections of mothering, being migrants and selling sex and also, challenges encountered such as access to healthcare, stigmatisation and discrimination.

Becky has published widely from her research including a articles and chapters on everyday violence, sex work, trafficking and migration and sex work and motherhood.