Sunday, 8 September 2013

Lessons learned on mother’s back

When I lived and worked in Zambia, I often used to say that the people had music, not blood running through their veins. Ask any African if he or she has ever heard of an African who does not like music and the answer is always ‘No’. Ask an African if it is possible to make music and to remain absolutely still and again, the answer is ‘no’, because to make music and to dance are inseparable.

There is a third question. Ask the majority of Africans where they learned to dance, and the answers are also similar. ‘I learned to dance on my mother’s back’.

That is because, throughout the vast Continent, when a baby is born, it travels on its mother’s back through good times and bad, regardless of the heat, the work and the discomfort. The baby and the mother share every encounter, every experience. So, when a mother dances, so does her baby. From the time an unborn baby is first able to hear, at about the age of 16 weeks, an African baby listens to the beating of the drums. Its inborn sense of rhythm is only heightened by the mother’s movements when she dances.

Take that one step further. Ask an African where he or she first learned to believe in God and the answer is also, ‘On my mother’s back’.

The beauty about Africa is that it can be taken for granted that people believe in God.

Cardinal Alexandre José Maria dos Santos, O.F.M. is now the Archbishop emeritus of Maputo, but during a chance conversation almost 30 years ago, he remarked “To be an African is to believe in God.”

In an African context, it makes no difference whether people are Catholic, Anglican, Pentecostal, Jehovah’s Witness, Muslim or Traditional Believers, they can all speak about God (often at great length). Yet each and every one of them, if pressed, could give the same answer to the question, “Where did you first learn to believe in God?” They could all reply, “On my mother’s back”.

Whenever a mother prays, it does not matter if she is alone, or within the family, village or church, her baby is with her, seeing her and hearing her. A baby grows up in the midst of a praying community.

Just think for one moment. How many of you hauled yourself out of bed at about 4 o’clock this morning in order to prepare your family’s breakfast? If you were so committed, was it a one-off occasion or is it something that you do day in and day out, year in and year out? I suspect that you don’t. In this country we tend to think that a woman who wakes up so early just to prepare breakfast must be either extraordinarily committed or else slightly mad. We don’t need to do that sort of thing.

Yet across Africa, before dawn, whilst her family sleeps, a woman will wake up and, whilst it is still dark, she will go outdoors and, facing east in the direction of the sunrise, she will pray. She will praise God and ask his blessing on the coming day, not only for herself, but for her whole family.

In the early morning, a whole village resounds with the regular thumping of the wooden pestle and mortar as women pound the grain for breakfast. Yet this is not the only task that a mother has whilst the rest of her family sleeps. They will need hot water. With any luck, she and her children will have firewood left over from the previous day’s collection. Hopefully, they will have enough water for washing and for breakfast, but if the family supplies are short even at that early hour of the morning, the woman will take upon herself the responsibility of finding a few dry branches for the fire and will fill a container with water, perhaps from a well, or perhaps from a nearby river, lake or tap. When they are awake, her children will help her, but she remains at the heart of her family. That is why a Nigerian proverb says, ‘A mother is gold; a father is a mirror.’ The father is the role model, guardian and provider, but the mother is the icon of commitment and loyalty.

Within African society, a woman holds a unique position because of her ability to become a mother, bringing new life into the world.  It is this respect for new life that gives an honoured place to the village midwife in many traditional African societies. In many ways, she acts as a mother to other mothers.

For me, some of my most precious memories of my time in Africa are related to women and babies. They are also uniquely important steps to my own greater understanding. For instance, as I tried explaining to a Nigerian woman why Catholics hold Mary in such high regard, the woman, a complete stranger, dismissed my theology with practical commonsense. “Of course Mary shows the way to Jesus. She is his mother. A mother’s duty is to show her children to the world.”

As with all women, regardless of their racial origins, the life of an African woman is not easy. There are moments of joy and moments of sorrow. However, a Tanzanian friend once said to me that in the West, we ask the wrong question. When things go wrong, we ask why God let such-and-such a thing happen. “We Africans”, he said, “do not believe that God creates disasters. We believe that God is with us in the disaster, helping us to survive it.” We have seen this same effect in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti. Whereas some people have asked where God was in the midst of such a tragedy, many Haitians have told the world, “He was here with us, in the middle of the earthquake.”

That is the lesson that these people also learned on their mother’s back. Whatever is happening, God is there!

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