In this commentary, Ugandan anthropologist, social science researcher and mother Stella Nyanzi explores what “motherhood” means in LGBTI communities. Her remarks and follow-up comments on Facebook sprang from discussions at a regional LGBT meeting in South Africa.
I was surprised to learn that ‘Motherhood’ makes many queer people outside Uganda uncomfortable. I was surprised because many members in our local LGBTIQ communities in Uganda insist on referring to me as ‘Mama Stella’ or ‘Mammy’ or ‘Mummy’ or even ‘Mother’. I was also surprised because I know many lesbians who are also mothers. And so I am writing about motherhood…
“Why do you refer to yourself as Mama?” a leading author who has written about Afro-Surinamese women’s sexual culture asked me after my presentation.
“I use it because that is the title that many people have chosen for me,” I replied.
“I feel excluded from your talk when you use this,” she replied.
“You choose to exclude yourself,” I said. “But why don’t you like the word Mama?” I asked back.
“Because Mama requires deference to you. It means you cannot be corrected, you cannot be wrong,” she explained.
And so I proceeded to explain that I did not understand ‘Mama’ that way. I explained that it was usually relatively younger kuchus who referred to me as Mama. It was also commonly those from Buganda, those from a lower economic bracket and those who were experiencing alienation from their families. I also explained that Mama is not about biology because among the Baganda, Mama refers to all sisters and cousins of one’s mother. And so I have six people I address as Mama. Mama is also the title for the women from my mother’s clan – whether they are older or younger than me. And so I have people as young as five years old that I address as Mama.
Having explained all that, I added that there are many other kuchus in Uganda who do not address me as Mama. And this, too, is cool. About the deference, I disagreed with this professor because some kuchus who have been brave enough to call me out when I was wrong about something, are the very same ones who address me as Mama. Some of the kuchus who are happy to be themselves around me, also address me as Mama. And so, I was surprised that there were some people who were uncomfortable that I presented myself as Mama Stella.
“Does it mean that the only way you can relate to us homosexuals is as a mother? What if I do not want to be mothered by you? What if I hate my memories of being with my own mother? How do I relate with you if all you are is Mama Stella?” another queer person asked me.
Nyanzi commented further:
I am not proud about it, but I have been disrespectful to my mother a million times. I have joked and laughed with my mother a billion times. I have shown my deepest shame to my mother and she hugged me — warts, shame and all a few times too many! And so I am not sure about deference… I guess the bigger lesson for me was that there are people who are just uncomfortable when one presents as a mother!
I have been thinking through the demographics — particularly class, age-group, social status and background of who needs a Mama in the kuchu community today. It is very much about power and powerlessness. Those who do not need mothering are those who are secure and able to negotiate diverse terrains. Those who need mothering tend to be less this and less that. BUT then there is also mothering as an act of respectability, about older bodies being read and re-inscribed as Motherly…
Upbringing is important. This professor told me that some people at the conference were also addressing her as ‘Mama’ but she does not want that title because she does not want to be their mother. Maybe I am comfortable with the title because even outside the kuchu community, people who are not my relatives call me Mama. At office, on the streets, in public transport, in the shops – everyone is like Maama, maama, maama.
In the comments section below, please describe your own feelings and experiences. Does “motherhood” make you uncomfortable? Do you need mothering? Does calling someone “mother” imply respect and deference, and does that feel appropriate to you?
Stella Nyanzi is a postdoctoral research fellow at Makerere Institute of Social Research and senior researcher at the Law, Gender and Sexuality Research Project at Makerere University School Of Law.
The original version of this post incorrectly identified the gathering that Nyanzi attended in South Africa. The program was “Queer in Africa: Confronting the Crisis,” organized by the University of Cape Town’s Institute for Humanities in Africa, which brought together activists, academics and artists.