All these years I have resisted letting children in Uganda call me 'mama'. I couldn't bear a child to call me mama and then when the time came I would have to leave them, there was something distinctly un-mamalike about leaving the child that calls you mama. There was also a little bit of vanity coming in there too. 'Mama' made me think of cooking, child bearing and big hips. Not something I was ready to link myself to just yet. So, I contented myself with being Sister Jane or Teacher Jane to all the children who knew me.
Then something changed, a shift in my understanding of what being a mama means in Uganda.
I was in the market with my little 10 year old deaf friend. The market is a crowded, busy, frenetic place and my little friend was clinging to my hand for dear life. Every stall I passed the vendors would grab my hand and try to persuade me with words or force to buy from them. One man stopped me and instead of the usual 'trying to sell me something I didn't need' patter he began by asking me if I was the mother of the girl holding my hand. A strange question. She is black, I am white. It would be a miracle equal to the immaculate conception if I had managed to give birth to her. He didn't wait for my answer, just added 'Thank you for being her mother.'
This encounter made me realise that in Uganda to be called mama does not mean that you have given birth to a child. It simply means that you are someone who has mothered. I am still not too keen on being called Mama but I have a new found understanding for the way that Ugandans appreciate all mothers - biological or not.