Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
The UBuntu of Mother City Mama

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Twenty super-sized gingerbread men, sixty macadamia-nut cookies, and another sixty sugar-and-spice: all gifts; all wrapped and labeled. Two birthday cakes for my December-born twins, the great (if leaning) pyramid of Giza, and a fearsome shark in multi-color frosting. A school Christmas party, a year-end party, a friend's birthday party and a class trip to the beach. And when the gifts are all made and the parties over, my three very sweet, extremely loud, and relentlessly curious boys will begin their month-long Christmas vacation. At home. All day.
Hectic. I love the nuances of the word, both conventional and slang. A hectic couple of weeks, to us forty-something moms, is a frantic time. Out on the street, so I hear, hectic can be outrageous fun, an unreasonable amount of work, a setback or even a letdown. Kind of sums up the pre-holiday rush.

But here's one more slang definition of hectic: far exceeding expectations. And since the holidays are not just for gifts and parties, but also for reflection, I'd like to say that this past year with Literary Mama, my eleven months (so far) as Mother City Mama, has been hectic! Writing a column every four weeks, amidst parenting and numerous other writing and editing projects, is busy, at times frantic. But the women I've met both at Literary Mama and here in Cape Town have made the experience extraordinary, an experience far exceeding my expectations.

There is a philosophy of southern African origin called uBuntu. Local intellectuals have long explored its diverse elements and applications. At its most fundamental, uBuntu describes an essential human quality: that we are social beings, connected to one another in infinite ways. But uBbuntu does not simply acknowledge such links. It says our connections to others define who we are as people. The philosophy is often summed as, "I am what I am because of who we all are."

Ubuntu describes our humanness, and prescribes our actions. If we are connected, what I do affects everyone, and therefore I should act with compassion, generosity and gratitude. The concept might be likened to the Golden Rule -- treat others as you would like to be treated -- but uBuntu reaches beyond the individual and beyond reciprocity.

Perhaps motherhood entails an innate form of uBuntu. Mothers often struggle with "me" versus "us." With childbirth, the sense of "me" as an individual becomes irrevocably altered. I am now, in part, because of who we are. I'll stop short of claiming that mothers are defined by their children, but I do think motherhood expands our notions of self, and therefore our definition of well-being. Ubuntu, as I understand it, extends even further, from kin to community, from self to selflessness.

Compassion, generosity, gratitude -- these are basic principles of uBuntu and, one might argue, of the holiday season. Scan the headlines of any newspaper, read of violence, corruption and greed (South Africa is certainly no exception) and it's easy to be cynical, easy to believe an ethic like uBuntu can never stretch beyond kin, and too often doesn't stretch that far. The women who have helped to create Mother City Mama have shown me otherwise.

Literary Mama, the magazine, is written, edited and published by volunteers, a diverse group of mother-writers across the US and around the world. With every email exchange (and there are a lot; I have never met my colleagues in person), I'm impressed by their dedication, their support, and their respect for each other, for the craft of writing, and for this crazy-wonderful lifework we call motherhood.

Here in Cape Town, I've met women who have, quite literally, changed the way I see the world. Wendy, whom I wrote about last May, recently organized over 200 Christmas packages for local orphans. Each package contained items we take for granted, toothbrushes and underwear, as well as toys or clothes these kids might covet but only dream of owning: Nike shoes, a real soccer ball. No one asks or pays Wendy to do this; she takes it upon herself and has organized the program seven years in a row. I met Nobomi only once, but was awed by her optimism and her willingness to share her story to help other women and their babies. Kate, the indomitable mama from my Women's Day column, the woman who fought twenty years for decent housing, now teaches traditional beading to the youth of her community. She hopes to preserve this art for subsequent generations, and provide youth-at-risk with a viable trade and much-needed diversion.

And Lizzie, our housekeeper whom I wrote about in March, has endured hardship and discrimination I cannot fathom. Her name is not even Lizzie; she was given that name because the office worker who registered her birth during apartheid could not speak Xhosa and refused to register a Xhosa name. Among her family and friends, Lizzie is Nonzima (her birth name) or Nolusapho (her traditional name). Despite this and countless other indignities, she expresses no bitterness. On the contrary, Lizzie dedicates an inordinate amount of time to caring for others. Since I wrote, she has taken in a two-year-old boy and has become legal guardian to a pregnant eleven-year-old girl (in addition to the ten children she cares for already). Lizzie calls these kids her "heart-children." They are not her biological children, but they are nonetheless part of her. I could write pages describing all Lizzie has done to help others, but will simply say that to me, she embodies compassion, generosity, and gratitude, the spirit of uBuntu and of the holiday season.

To all of these women, and equally to everyone who has taken time to read my column, thank you. I wish you all a hectic 2012, in the very best sense of the word.


Katherine J. Barrett is a former senior editor for Literary Mama and  current editor-in-chief for Understorey Magazine. A mother to three young boys, Katherine recently returned to Canada after four years in South Africa. She is the author of the Literary Mama columns Mother City Mama and Of This Fantastic Peach. Katherine holds a PhD in Botany and Ethics and has previously taught at the University of British Columbia.

Katherine lives in Nova Scotia with her family.


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A wonderful 2012 to you, too, Katherine. I am so grateful for your column.
Your article came just at the right time Katherine. Feeling so sad today as the news is just out - little Tariq the two year old from Mitchells Plain who went missing on Thursday - it turns out his Mom murdered him. It's at times like these that we salute the Lizzie's of South Africa who take care of our little ones. Happy new year to you and the family.
After Wendy's comments I am almost speechless. So many little martyrs in our world. Keep up the good work, Katherine, love the column.
Thank you, Katherine. What a fitting way to begin the new year...inspired by your column. May the spirit of eBuntu dwell in us all.
Another good read Katherine. Best wishes for a good year, and pass on my wishes to Lizzie too! Kathy
So loving this, Katherine. Thank you!
Katherine, I was delighted to read your article. I am a South African expat who is now a United States Citizen. I live in New York. I have written a lot about my South African/American roots. I have a book of poems coming out in September, many of which are on this subject. I would love to be in touch with you. Regards, Gillian
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